Saturday, October 20, 2012

The Wisdom of David Chang

Chang: So, tell me about your knife skills.

Janette: They’re good. Not great, but solid good, I think.
I assume that’s the real David Chang. But Janette isn’t real. As many of you know, she’s a fictional chef played by Kim Dickins in David Simon’s Treme. I don’t know whether those lines were scripted or improvised (do they do improv in this show around and about New Orleans musical culture?) but they feel true-to-life.

So, what is it with knife skills? Anyone who does more than a little cooking—and that’s all I do, more than a little—knows that you need to cut and chop, a lot. It’s a necessary skill. I assume that on the professional chef’s scale my knife skills are poor to terrible.

What I’m curious about, though, is whether knife skills are merely practical or if they are one of the gateways to artistry. The fact that the issue came up in this scene, which is a job interview in season 2, episode 8 (Can I Change My Mind?), suggests possibly the latter. My own knife usage certainly isn’t skilled enough to give me any intuitive sense of what’s going on.

But I’d guess that knife skills for a chef are like brush skills for a painter or sound for a musician—both of which I do way better than I prepare food. Of course, you need the basic skills to get anywhere at all. The painter needs the brush to get paint on the canvas; without command of basic sound, the musician is nothing. No two painters handle the brush in the same way, you can see the difference in the strokes, that is, in styles where the strokes are visible. And the best musicians have distinctive sounds.

Knife skills would seem be in the same ball park. It’s your basic contact with the physical stuff of your art: images for the painter, tunes for the musician, and dishes for the chef.
Janette: [My chef] said I might be happy here.

Chang: Well, Eric’s awesome, but happy? I’m not very happy, Who’s happy? I don’t even know what that is.
Sounds about right. But the best days are yet to come.

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