Food as Art: A Craftsman's Quest for Culinary Greatness

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Holly A. Heyser


I've been restless lately. Unsatisfied. In one of my moods. I grew up with this funny notion that, if I put my mind and effort to it, I could indeed be the best at something, really anything. That if I worked hard enough, I could approach something akin to perfection. Funny, isn't it? Intellectually I know this is foolish, even emotionally dangerous. Yet the belief is so deeply ingrained within me that when I fail to meet my own expectations, I find myself wandering around for days, feeling wounded.

So it is with food. It is a general belief among serious cooks that only an exalted few can truly call themselves artists; the rest of us are merely craftsmen, and imperfect ones at that. Cooking as art, at least to me, reaches beyond taste and nutritional satisfaction—it should affect both the cook and the eater on some higher level.

A great dish needs to have lots of different textures, a cohesive color scheme, a striking aroma or series of aromas, varying temperatures, varying flavors.

I want that. I want to make food that people remember for years, like the lines from a classic film or a picture in a gallery. It is a genetic urge, as I come from a family of artists: I am the son of a surgeon and a concert organist. One sister is a professional artist, another designs books. One of my brothers writes books for a living. Art is in our blood.

Even though I cook almost every day, and all day several days a week, every now and again I cloister myself in the kitchen to walk the high wire. I've convinced myself that only by walking this tightrope again and again and again—falling every time—will I reach the other side and create a dish that reaches the higher level I've been seeking for so long.

This is why you see a crazy-looking croquette in the picture above. It is one of four dishes I made on the high wire last week, all involving doves. It's dove season, and Holly and I have shot plenty of birds for me to work with. I know I already have plenty of dove recipes that work, and some are downright fantastic. But to me, none even remotely qualify as "art."

These dishes had to be better, somehow. I am a nose-to-tail eater, as I believe all great cooks must be—you cannot ignore anything edible if your canvas is food. To do so would be like a painter refusing to use the color yellow. So most every bit of the dove would go into these dishes: hearts, skin, bones, legs, and wings, no matter how small.

A great dish needs to have lots of different textures, a cohesive color scheme, a striking aroma or series of aromas, varying temperatures, varying flavors. Everything on the plate needs to be there for a reason, and restraint is our highest virtue.

But a great dish also needs a reason for being, a story to tell. Otherwise it will lack focus. For these dishes, the story is a dove's life. I like to pair wild game both with foods the animal ate in life and with other plants or animals it would have known. In the case of doves, that means grain, seeds, and quail. Doves and quail live alongside one another.

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Holly A. Heyser

I got two of the three in this dish. It is Mexican-inspired, and I really made it because my brown and black Tepary beans were ready to harvest. I decided to make a two-bean Mexican salad, with queso seco, green onions, etc. and sauce it with a cilantro-green chile sauce. The fried quail egg is gratuitous, but I love fried quail eggs.

The breakthrough is the dove. I boned out a dove breast to get the supremes—each only about the size of a half-dollar—and dipped them in beaten egg and then in ground sunflower seeds. Doves, if you did not know, really, really love sunflower seeds. I suspected they'd taste good together, and I was right. Doves are lean (usually), so the rich sunflower seeds added needed fat. (Here is the recipe.)

I like this dish, although I failed to cook the Tepary beans enough; they require a long time to soften, apparently. Was it a great dish? Maybe not. But I got the sunflower crust out of it, and that counts as a victory.

I made the croquette with all the dove legs and wings I'd collected from some dove breast recipes I'd done earlier in the week. These are teeny, teeny little appendages, only a couple inches long. If I were to make this a fine dining dish—and I was in that frame of mind at the time—then I'd need to strip the meat from the bones. To me that meant confit, which is what I did.

Where the Mexican dish focused on seeds and the quail, this one would focus on a mainstay in a dove's diet: wheat. I mixed the confited dove meat with farro flour and an egg, then rolled it in panko bread crumbs. To complete the trope I made an aioli using wheat grass. The dish needed some acidity, so I added preserved lemon.

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Holly A. Heyser

I love the look of this plate. Problem is, it is prettier than it tastes. I should have made the croquettes smaller and used less farro. The whole dish needed a bright note, too. The preserved lemons, while beautiful, added more salt than acid—and I needed acid.

The dish has promise, but no recipe for you yet. When I nail this, I'll post it.

NEXT: Two more recipes, including one that comes close to the level of art

Back to sunflowers. After the fried dove experiment, I wanted to combine dove and sunflower again, this time using the seeds as a texture. I also had the dilemma of what to do with the dove hearts, skin and the itty-bitty tenders that came off the back of each dove breast. An odd salad is what I came up with.

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Holly A. Heyser

Yeah, it's in a tomato. I blanched it and peeled the skin, then hollowed out the center to make a sort of boat. The salad itself is a simple play on texture and color: Peas simmered in butter for color and softness, seared dove bits and roasted sunflower seeds, brought together in a basil vinaigrette.

It was good. A perfectly fine dish. Nothing earth-shaking, though. I liked the meaty-starchy-sweet-salty thing going on, fer sher. But something about this dish just seemed, well, not right. Can't place it yet.

But I do like the concept of the tomato boat a lot. I know, it's not terribly original, but it works and can be played with later.

The last dish I came up with was the one I think came closest to what I was looking for, but even here there is a caveat...

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Holly A. Heyser

These, my friends, are dove roulades wrapped in blanched cabbage leaves, served with a saffron-corn sauce and garnished with some teeny popcorn I just happened to have in the house. And in case you haven't grokked the theme yet, yes, doves eat corn.

I love this dish. It is beautiful, flavorful, and, most importantly, simple. There are not 500 things going on with this plate. It is corn, a green thing, and doves, plain and simple. You have vivid color, and the texture contrast between the popcorn and the roulades is everything I could have asked for.

The saffron was originally included because my corn was white, and I wanted a yellow sauce, but the end result added a hayfield-like aroma to the plate that mimics the fields we've been hunting doves on lately.

But does this dish rise to the level of art? If it does, then the author is not me, but Thomas Keller. As good as this plate of food was, it is a riff off Keller's duck roulades with creamed corn in his French Laundry Cookbook.

So there it is, laid out before me. My best dish was wholly derivative of a master's work. At best I've become a competent technician.

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Holly A. Heyser

Yet there's something to be said for that. Albrecht Durer is still remembered 500 years later because of his exquisite technical skill, and, as many artists know, Jackson Pollock was a master technician before he became famous for his action painting—the canvasses of splattered paint we all remember.

It's Pollock who keeps me striving. Few people know I was an art major in college, before I changed and studied the history and political science that would become my career for nearly two decades. I loved art, and still do. And I will never forget what one of my teachers told me about greatness: Every great artist—no matter how abstract—was also at the very least a competent technician. It is the prerequisite for making real, true art.

So I will keep pushing, failing often and marking down my little victories. Maybe someday, I'll stand back, exhale, and be satisfied. But I don't think that day will ever happen. There is just too much to learn, and life is short.

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Hank Shaw runs the website Hunter Angler Gardener Cook, nominated for Best Food Blog by the James Beard Foundation in 2009 and 2010. He is the author of the recently released Hunt, Gather, Cook: Finding the Forgotten Feast. More

A former line cook, veteran political reporter, and fisherman, Hank Shaw is a freelance food writer who runs the website Hunter Angler Gardener Cook, which chronicles Shaw's search for what he calls the Forgotten Feast: The seasonal foods--mostly wild--we once delighted in, but are now curiosities at best. Game, wild mushrooms, seafood, and wild plants all have a place in modern cooking, and Shaw spends his days exploring their possibilities on the plate.

Hunter Angler Gardener Cook was nominated for Best Food Blog by the James Beard Foundation in both 2009 and 2010 and by the International Association of Culinary Professionals in 2010. He is the author of the recently released Hunt, Gather, Cook: Finding the Forgotten Feast. His work has appeared in magazines such as The Art of Eating, Field & Stream, and Gastronomica. He hunts, fishes, forages, and gardens in Northern California with his girlfriend--and photographer--Holly A. Heyser.
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