The New York Times (sometimes flippant, often chic) “T Magazine” published a short video this past week in which Massimo Bottura makes and eats some lasagna. This is performance art or experiment, not a cooking show. Here’s why:
- Bottura is the headline chef at Osteria Francescana, recently the first Italian restaurant to top the annual World’s Best list.
- The “lasagna” comprises a small mound of meaty ragu topped with a puff of artfully piped dairy (some kind of fluffed ricotta cheese?) topped with “pasta crackers” made by pureeing cooked pasta, re-rolling the resulting dough into rectangles, deep-frying and then blow-torching the rectangles. The result does not look like lasagna, and Bottura eats it by picking up and dipping the cracker like a nacho.
- Bottura and his two assistants prepare one serving of this lasagna in a heavily mic-ed studio. We listen.
- Bottura feeds the dish to a humanoid robotic head with visible audio pick-ups in the ears by eating a bite next to the head, which hears him. It’s crunchy stuff.
As performance art, I think this is fantastic because it provokes questions about what food is, what we appreciate experiencing about food, and who can experience it:
- How much of the enjoyment of eating has to do with the flavor of what you put in your mouth? How much has to do with how it looks, or how it sounds? How much has to do with the reactions of the people around you? How much of the experience of food happens as you listen and watch and smell during cooking?
- Is the robot head hearing or listening? In other words, do those microphones just sit there while Bottura chews, or are the microphones the audience, or is the head “eating?” In the first case, X is acting on his own as an individual and presumably for his own sake (or at someone else’s command). In the second, X is performing, which changes his own experience. In the third, we’re now thinking about eating as something involving multiple senses and multiple people, which means that eating is always a communal activity, which means that sound is part of the experience of eating, which means that you eating changes your environment.
- What do we pay attention to when we pay attention to food? What happens when you design a dish meant to be listened to?
We could design experiments to ask these kinds of questions about wine, too. We know that part of enjoying sparkling wine is the sound of popping the cork, and there’s plenty to be said in favor of the tenor of good glassware. But I wonder about creating an experiment that asks how enjoying wine could be tied to the richness of the experience of making the wine (maybe even thinking about the experience of the yeast?), and about how enjoying wine can be about someone else enjoying wine.
Here’s the hang-up: to me, the T Magazine piece is a successful, intriguing, worthwhile experiment. To some other people to whom I’ve shown it, it’s not. It’s absurd, it’s wasteful, it’s silly that all of this effort goes into making something that doesn’t look as good as a plate of good old saucy traditional lasagna. It just doesn’t work for them.
Huge swaths of contemporary cuisine are about blending performance art and fine dining to ask these sorts of questions about food and eating. Some folks think that’s brilliant; some call it balderdash.
How would we design an experiment to ask these kinds of questions about experiencing wine? I’ll be thinking about this for the rest of the weekend. Do you have any suggestions?
**The Times carries a companion piece to the video about Jeff Gordinier’s experience eating at Osteria Francescana. The best parts of the article talk about Bottura’s vision for his food as a tool for changing how people think through some kind of edible embodiment of seminal moments in his own experience. I wrote this post after watching the video and before reading the article, so now I can add that the video works for me, too, because it doesn’t depend at all on how I feel about Bottura and his restaurant (that’s a different matter), but uses a short film platform to great effect to ask a different set of questions.