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The Difference Between Great Chefs and Great Winemakers

2011 September 16
by Mike

Ferran Adrià, René Redzepi, Michel Bras, and some other acclaimed chefs gathered in Lima, Peru last weekend for a food conference billed as the “G9” summit. Held under the auspices of something called the International Advisory Council of the Basque Culinary Center, the meeting produced a manifesto that was modestly titled Lima Declaration—Open Letter to the Chefs of Tomorrow. In it, these gastronomic pooh-bahs proclaimed that “cooking is a powerful, transformative tool…we dream of a future in which the chef is socially engaged, conscious and responsible for his contribution to a fair and sustainable society…through our cooking, our ethics, and our aesthetics, we can contribute to the culture and identity of a people, a region, a country. We can also serve as an important bridge with other cultures.”

Snark time! Actually, British restaurant critic Jay Rayner did the honors, dishing out a smackdown that included a generous helping of ridicule. “The night they all sat around the fast-emptying bottle of Fernet Branca hugging each other, staring intently into each other’s eyes and saying solemn things like ‘I am a bridge to other cultures’ must have been a complete doozy,” he wrote. Rayner pointed out that while the “G9” chefs were undoubtedly well-intentioned, there was something rather incongruous about these men who spend their days preparing highly stylized food for very rich people acting as if what they do is a “prescription for world peace.” Rayner was appropriately harsh: “Somewhere along the line they have got it into their heads that what they are doing matters on a global scale. In short they have made the terrible mistake of thinking anybody really gives a damn what they think.”

In addition to giving me a good laugh, Rayner’s broadside made me very grateful that the wine beat is generally free of this kind of gooey, self-aggrandizing piffle. Sure, the viticultural sphere has its share of pretentiousness and vanity, and I suppose there is a degree of moral preening with people like Nicolas Joly and some of the natural wine crowd. But I don’t see too many vintners running around claiming that cabernet can Change the World. Certainly, it would be hard to imagine a group of comparably eminent wine folk—say, Aubert de Villaine, Jean-Louis Chave, Christian Moueix, Manfred Prum, Roberto Conterno, and Paul Draper—coming up with something as pompous and presumptuous as the Lima Declaration. And I think that’s because there is an essential difference between how top chefs and top winemakers perceive themselves. The former tend to see themselves as creators, artists, even visionaries, and they are usually not short on ego.

The greatest winemakers, by contrast, view themselves simply as farmers, as mere custodians of the land (an attitude that goes a long way to explaining their greatness). For them, winemaking is not a form of self-expression; quite the opposite.  Their aim is to make wines that reflect the character of a vineyard and that mask to the fullest extent possible the human intervention required to do that. A few years ago, I asked de Villaine what vintage he was proudest of. He immediately rejected the use of the word proud; to speak of any vintage as a personal accomplishment, he told me, would be to claim credit that wasn’t properly his. He said that as a winemaker, you can feel satisfied if “if you are capable enough at your craft to enable the terroir to express itself through your wines.”

Winemakers such as de Villaine and Draper bring remarkable humility to their work. Though they are just as eco-conscious, socially aware, and culturally significant as any of these chefs—and are subject to just as much veneration—I suspect they’d laugh you out of the cellar if you tried to get them to sign something like the Lima Declaration. They regard winemaking as an agricultural endeavor, and as a means of providing pleasure and of perpetuating tradition; I very much doubt they see it as a “powerful, transformative tool” that can elevate humanity to a higher plane. Unlike the chefs who met in Peru, they seem to have no confusion about where they stand in the grand scheme of things.

My advice to the winemakers of tomorrow (the Steinberger Declaration, you might say): in your work and your attitude, always follow the example of men like de Villaine and Draper, and never, ever engage in the kind of wankerism that was on display last weekend in Lima.

29 Responses leave one →
  1. January 7, 2016

    Peru has nice food though. Sorry for your experience there.

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  5. September 22, 2011

    Jeremy,
    I perfectly agree with you. In Italy, Slow Food and local governments are promoting the so called “Km O” restaurants, where all their products come from farmers and producers not further than 50Km (together with promoting the use of eco-friendly practises). And that can also contribute to mitigate the energy crisis…

  6. Jeremy Seysses permalink
    September 22, 2011

    Mike,

    That, like many activist artists, they have their heads up their rear ends when it comes to communication, I cannot deny. There is no fear of contradictions or simplistic arguments and all too often, it is do as I say rather than anything better. But while the form is wrong, some of the content is right.

    When it comes to influence on the environment, many chefs and culinary trends have had negative influences, so I do not see why the reverse would not be true. Negative influences would include the popularizing of many a seafood, be it tuna, monkfish, chilean seabass, etc. If they were to promote and make fashionable any number of sustainable alternatives, that would be positive. They could get behind the people trying to develop oyster farming in the Chesapeake for instance and condone the harvesting of wild oysters.

    In the past, they (and here a special mention should go to Alice Waters) have successfully promoted a number of small farms and producers, helping them build a name. A walk across the San Francisco Ferry building is a good case in point.

    Perhaps they will find new and improved ways to have Spirulina and kelp on our plates every day? However, I wouldn’t expect them to solve the energy crisis any time soon.

  7. Bill Klapp permalink
    September 22, 2011

    Amen, Javier! In the case of dudes like Parker and Suckling, more arrogant than chefs and winemakers put together (yes, even with Michel Chapoutier included among the winemakers!). And in today’s world, with ready Internet and other access to so many other and much more reliable sources of wine information, increasingly useless and irrelevant. Which, I suppose, is why I am fighting the good fight for the chefs’ efforts on this thread. Most wine critics are arrogant without being well-intentioned…

  8. September 22, 2011

    Sometimes critics are even more arrogant than chefs and winemakers!

  9. September 22, 2011

    Jeremy, thanks for stopping by. You make some indisputable points, and the comparison with the Nouvelle Cuisine manifesto is a very fair one, I think. However, I am just naturally skeptical of these kinds of grand gestures and loud pronouncements. By all means be eco-conscious, socially engaged, etc. But did these guys really need to fly to Peru and hold a “summit” in order to declare themselves eco-conscious, socially engaged, etc., and to urge the next generation of chefs to do likewise? I think there was an element of posturing and moral preening here. And while it is certainly true that someone like Adria can have a profound influence on culinary trends, I don’t know that his influence can readily extend to other areas, such as the environment.

    I wish you hadn’t mentioned the salmon in sorrel sauce–it made me very hungry! I had it a couple of years ago Chez Troisgros, and it was all I could do not to eat the plate. And, yes, that wasn’t just the defining creation of the Nouvelle Cuisine era; it has become one of the canonical dishes of French cuisine.

  10. Bill Klapp permalink
    September 21, 2011

    Well said, Jeremy…

  11. Jeremy Seysses permalink
    September 21, 2011

    Mike,

    I fully agree with much of what your write and namely that people like Aubert de Villaine, Paul Draper, Jean-Louis Chave , Roberto Conterno et al. show a humility in their approach to wine and its origin that is inspiring. Chefs frequently are more ego driven, but a professional kitchen seems to require that sort of assertiveness and confidence to attain excellence.

    Clearly, these chefs see themselves as artists (a regularly debated topic which I will leave to others) and are taking the stance that as artists, they have messages they wish to put to the world, putting their fame and influence at the service of mankind. This undoubtedly sounds pompous and silly, but one should not ignore the good intention. I hope they lead by example. The trickle down effect of leaders, be they in art, fashion or cooking cannot be ignored. How many people have felt the influence of Ferran Adria without ever getting close to El Bulli? The manifesto is somewhat reminiscent of the Nouvelle Cuisine manifesto (by Gault & Millau, critics rather than chefs) looking for more creativity and less butter in French cooking. Subsequently, Troisgros’ Saumon à l’Oseille made it into every French plate at some point or another.

    So, yes, I do hope these chefs and others will begin leading the charge. That they hold back on the wankerism, yes, by all means!

  12. Bill Klapp permalink
    September 21, 2011

    Or “pimps” or “hos”? (No disrespect intended to those who import wine worth drinking, of course!)

  13. September 19, 2011

    Would you categorize wine importers as ‘chefs’ or ‘winemakers’?

  14. September 19, 2011

    Interesting comments and article, as a winemaker I agree with the farming comment. I have found the experience itself to be humbling. This creating a new sensibilty about my self and more of a humble character.

    I am not a chef but consider myself a cook as the food and wine are so symbiotic and the relationship is what drives the experience.

    Cheers

  15. September 19, 2011

    Right you are Bill, a universal panacea indeed. I’ve even noticed that a thin film of it in my own newsletter helps wine slide out the door! And now that we’ve slathered this thread up with liberal off-topical applications, maybe Mike will refocus us with something new sooner.

  16. September 19, 2011

    “is there ANYTHING that a little Vaseline won’t help?”

    A hangover?

  17. Julian Marshall permalink
    September 19, 2011

    Mike: I’m glad I discovered your blog last week, it certainly makes good reading, this is another interesting article. Personally I’m sick of vain cooks preening themselves on television. We live in a world where to be successful is to be a footballer (any type you like) a cook, a model or a winner of a “talent” contest. I suppose the ultimate aim must be to do all four at the same time and then become a politician. The “manifesto” is certain to find its way to the Hall of Fame of Private Eye’s “Pseuds Corner”.

    Bill: I’m with you 100% on environmental issues, but I don’t really see the connection between a foodie ego frenzy and saving the planet (even if they did include a couple of lofty sentences in the manifesto).

  18. Bill Klapp permalink
    September 19, 2011

    But Dan, if you were suffering a melanoma and nobody else was offering you a cure or treatment, might you not smear a little Vaseline in your despair? :) And really, from diaper rash forward, is there ANYTHING that a little Vaseline won’t help?

  19. September 18, 2011

    “never, ever engage in the kind of wankerism that was on display last weekend in Lima.”

    Mike, it’s a good thing I wasn’t mid-sip when I read this finale, as my keyboard would have been doused…

    I can’t comment on the chefs, but I can comment on Paul Draper. Meeting him 15 months ago was one of the greater honors I have had in the world of wine. He is full of humility and yet not lacking in strong opinions about what is role is and is not. I have nothing but good things to say about the man and his wines.

  20. September 18, 2011

    Patrick Moore “There’s no getting away from the fact that over 6 billion people wake up each day on this planet with real needs for food, energy and materials”

    Patrick was one of the architects of Greenpeace, beginning in the 1970’s. In that era he is best known for cruising the Pacific and being shot at by the French Navy and Russian trawlers in his efforts to end nuclear bomb testing and whaling. Before that era he was a sometimes classmate as we both pursued degrees in different forms of environmental biosciences. In the past decade or so he has pulled away from the most ardent greens, having recognized that the attention grabbing cunning stunts, protests, and manifestos were not even addressing, let alone attaining, sustainable and global solutions.

    Bill, I’d say that your issue of species endangered by man’s predation is a topic that has not much to do with the environmental issues per se. It can be resolved simply and on its own, and it should be. The elevation of water and food to a priority in front of energy and materials suggests that there is no connection between these. But there is- in watered deserts, and the mass tracts of such as corn, sugar crops, and cotton in places where these things could not begin to grow without massive environmental alteration and no small degree of genetic manipulation.

    Maybe Malthus was right in the end. Sadly, I think we are going to find out soon enough. But headlining chef’s solutions- meah. At best like treating melanoma by application of vaseline.

  21. Bill Klapp permalink
    September 18, 2011

    Dan, I will give you a 50 on that, but only because I use all the points in the 100-point scale, rather than starting at 50. What the chefs did will not save the world. It may or may not call attention to the problems that we are facing. Worse case, it is harmless and ineffectual. But every little big helps, said the old man as he peed into the sea. Here is where you lost points: fingering chefs as ” a shell of commercial interests posing as dream-weavers”, or some portion thereof, is misplaced in my opinion. Those dudes do not need to extract cash from anybody. It is thrown at their feet, along with sexual favors, nose candy and anything else that their groupies can devise to curry favor. (See Gael Greene’s book Insatiable. And, in addition to doing all of the great chefs of Europe, she did Jamie Gillis, Elvis and Clint Eastwood to boot, and there is no evidence that they could cook anything but a fried peanut butter-and-banana sandwich among them!) Irresponsible fishermen and farmers (picture mega-trawlers, not Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, and Monsanto-driven mega-agriculture, not something out of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath) and a Death Star, rather than a shell of commercial food sales and distribution interests, are the problem. And those interests are pandering to, and shaping the opinions and buying habits of, we, the people. Chefs, by their refusal to trade in rare and unsustainable foods, might at least lead by example. Alice Waters planted a vegetable garden outside the White House. Is that garden producing all of the vegetables for all state dinners? Of course not. Maybe it produces the lettuce and tomatoes for the Obama family’s BLTs. (But not Bill Clinton’s, now that he has gone vegan on us.) But that is not the point. Look at how much attention the gesture attracted. And as nearly as I can tell, the gesture hit its target audience, children, reasonably well.

    I am not accusing any of us of being against honest environmentalism. The larger question is: are any of us doing jack-shit affirmatively? And to my mind, recycling glass and plastic and driving hybrid cars isn’t going to save bluefin tuna. Cultivating a sustainable food supply seems to me, along with clean drinking water, the overarching issue of this planet. Without both, we die. With both, we can live to cope with the ill effects of our collective hydrocarbon jones. Without them, nothing else matters to humankind.

    But I quibble…

  22. September 17, 2011

    But Bill, nobody here is against honest environmentalism, back-to-earth lifestyle choices, fish in the ocean, or an atmosphere with 20% oxygen left for out children. The backlash is against self-serving piffle. In point of fact, the environmental movement is most retarded not by anti-environmental opposition but by ignorance. And, (this time in my opinion) it is secondly most retarded by its own make-up; having a shell of commercial interests posing as dream-weavers all around it, and a small core of anarchic anti-social forces buried in the middle.
    May I suggest that you regain some healthy cynicism on this subject by acquiring a 3rd abode- here in the smuggy PNW. Then, with each session at an espresso bar (it takes 4 or 5 a day to survive here) you can make a choice between saving the planet for $4, or destroying it for $2. I buy the $4 stuff; not because I believe in the faux-environmental coating but because I do hope it is really true that the bean pickers’ children do get to go to school.
    Lofty manifestos from the elite chef’s kitchen do not counter the environments #1 enemy- ignorance. They are a mechanism to extract cash from the already enlightened.

  23. Bill Klapp permalink
    September 17, 2011

    Let me offer another possibility: Rayner is full of crap, and had no idea what went on in Lima, and even less perspective on it. For example, we, the people may destroy the world’s wild fisheries WITHIN OUR LIFETIMES unless we change our greedy, wicked ways. A handy example? The Japanese people have, in large measure, driven not one, but three major species of bluefin tuna to the brink of commercial extinction. They claim that their gobbling is historical imperative. That history goes back not centuries, not millenia, but to WWII, when American occupational forces introduced beef and other fatty proteins into the Japanese diet. And we, the people, are rudderless. We cannot control our governments, our governments cannot control us, and we exercise precious little self-control. We are no longer self-sustaining, if indeed we ever were. Read Paul Greenberg’s Four Fish or any of Mark Kurlansky’s “seafood” books. Then go enjoy some bacon, the seafood of the future!

    The idea that chefs, and global movements like Slow Food, might save us from ourselves by doing the heavy lifting on agricultural and aquacultural sustainability may seem far-fetched to some, and downright risible to Mssrs. Rayner and Steinberger, but at the moment, it may be all that we have going for us. Chefs and supermarkets control what we eat, and supermarkets have no social consciousness. They sell what sells, and could give a damn what impact, environmental or otherwise, that might have on sustainablity. (After all, supermarket profit margins are famously thin, don’t you know?) All those “very rich people” may soon enough discover that no amount of money can replace exhausted natural resources, and that peasant farmers with the right stuff in far-flung corners of the earth may end up eating better than they do in very short measure. (Very rich people have a notoriously lousy sustainability track record.) Indeed, there is necessarily a pomposity attached to great chefs issuing a lofty manifesto on the future role of their kind in society. I am no Al Gore, but I know my food and wine, and I have watched too many foods disappear from restaurant menus or become prohibitively expensive in my lifetime. Thus, I choose not to judge the Lima manifesto by its cover. My capacity for cynicism is sweeping, but does not extend as far as Rayner’s.

    And Mike, the wine world hardly free of “gooey, self-aggrandizing piffle”. PRODUCERS may be relatively free of it (well, there IS Michel Chapoutier!), and why not? Wine plays no role in the nutrition and survival of the human race. And that said, there is clearly an audience for a natural wine “G9” and manifesto. But wine writers and critics? Wine criticism is at least 95% gooey, self-aggrandizing piffle! (See article on Robert M. Parker, Jr., the Emperor of Piffle, below. I will add the name “James Suckling”, and rest my case.) Wine writers fare better, but still harbor Alice Feiring and Jamie Goode in the ranks!

  24. Bob R. permalink
    September 16, 2011

    What a great posting. I can’t believe Slate let you go, or stopped publishing a wine column. Your insight is just fantastic. I’m glad to see that others see that sometimes the Emperor has no clothes.

  25. September 16, 2011

    I love when people are humble. It gives me so much more hope for our world. With so much arrogance in the wine world, especially some critics and consumers, it is good to see the humility. It is also ironic to me that many arrogant people drink wine from wine makers who are so humble.

  26. September 16, 2011

    In wine, gooey, self-aggrandizing piffle is more the terroir of wholesale distributors.
    But I’ll contribute a little side note— last week I learned the derivation of the word “gooey”. It is one of the words I use most on a daily basis as I am asked to taste through the plonk to be privileged enough to buy the real wine. I was researching on origons of Riesling– came to a probable ancestor- Gouais Blanc. Then to learn further that gouais was an Old French derogative implying “fit for the peasants”. So, gouais Anglicised to gooey– and some things haven’t changed much in 600 years. And thankfully much Riesling inherited the Blanc, not the Gouais.
    And back to your topic- my preference is excellence that speaks for itself, propagandized souffle, c’est trop gouais!

  27. September 16, 2011

    I do not think that “de Villaine and Draper…are just as eco-conscious, socially aware, and culturally significant” as Dan Barber.

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