Dan Barber: What makes a great chef?

Dan Barber: So it seems to me what makes a great chef – the ones that I respect the most – are when all of the vectors when you sit down to a meal aren’t pointing at the chef. They’re pointing something else. Now that might be in the realm of sustainability; but it also might be in the realm of history or some type of culture. You know Mario Batali is very good at that, and he’s one of the greats at that. All of the chefs who, you know . . . who don’t scream, “Me, me, me!” on the plate, I think that says to me there’s something going on that’s larger than just food, which makes the food taste better. It’s not just focused on the ego and on . . . and on the . . . the manipulation of the ingredients, but of something larger. It’s about something. I think those are the chefs that end up making a real mark. And then, you know, there’ s a second part to this too, which is like the editing of a dish, you know which is . . . which is to me like the most critical. Like those chefs that like . . . those chefs who put way too much ingredients, and we’ve all had that. And then there are other chefs on the other end who are minimalists for the sake of being minimal, and it’s very sort of a feat and kind of off-putting. Precious, right? But to strike that balance, it’s like any art. And that sends . . . I hate relating cooking to art because I think that’s pretentious, too. But this is the one place where I would give up to and make the analogy to art, whether it’s writing or painting. You know there are very few like real artists and people at the top of their profession who can . . . who can take out from what they are creating to get to the essence. And they don’t . . . They don’t have, you know, a steel . . . You know in the great chef’s restaurant, there is no great dish – the one dish you have to have. There is . . . You know it’s much . . . The experience is much bigger than that. It reminds me of this Nabokov thing that someone once told me – that Nabokov, when he was writing “Three Sisters”, there was this great scene where one guy says to the other guy, “Tell me about your wife.” And the guy stands up and he does this big speech. “My wife, my wife, let me tell you about my wife. My wife in the morning is dah, dah, dah, dah, dah. My wife by noontime is dah, dah, dah, dah, dah. And by the afternoon my wife starts talking about dah, dah, dah, dah, dah.” He goes on and on, and everyone in the rehearsal for this thing is ...their firstborn. They love this speech so much at the end of the week right before they’re about to do the performance, someone says to Nabokov, you know that scene might make . . . might go down in history as one of the greatest scenes in the history of playwriting. That night Nabokov sends a telegram to the director and says, “I want you to rewrite the scene where the guys asks how is his wife. When he asks how is his wife, he should answer, ‘A wife? A wife is a wife.’ Period.” So he takes out this incredible scene, and to me it was like . . . I remember hearing that story, and it was like that . . . that is true art, because what Nabokov . . . You know what he was saying . . . And Nabokov . . . I got it wrong. It was Chekhov . “Three Sisters.” So anyway Chekhov when he was saying that, he was really, you know . . . He was . . . He was saying that the play is bigger than that scene. And if people walk away from that play just thinking about that scene, or that scene steals the show it isn’t great art. And that’s the same when you sit down to dinner. If there’s one or two things in your meal that stand out, you’ve lost the greatness of the experience. So that sounds a little highfaluting, but I feel like it’s generally true. Recorded on: 2/11/08

A great playwright knows the play is greater than the scene.

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