This past weekend was the first-ever Taste Talks conference in Brooklyn. Curated by chef April Bloomfield, the event featured discussion panels, demonstrations, and cooking events including a discussion of the current state of chicken in restaurants with Jonathan Waxman, an investigation of why coffee in restaurants "sucks," and a Cook It Raw dinner event featuring Anthony Lombardo, David Santos, and Scott Vivian.
Another highlight was a panel discussion with chefs Mario Batali and Wylie Dufresne, artist Jennifer Rubell, and musician Questlove. In a conversation about the intersection of art and commerce, the panelists discussed a wide range of topics from how a visual artist earns money, to the finances of record label deals, to interpreting customer feedback. The group also questioned the role of the critic and the impact of criticism on the creator, suggesting that criticism is intricately linked to both the commercial and creative aspects of their endeavors. Below, the top ten quotes from the panel:
1) Batali, on art and commerce: "I firmly believe that art and commerce have always lived together, and that success in expression can be either or both, that the subsets are not mutually exclusive, and that only the artist can ascertain the personal success of his or her work."
2) Dufresne, on being the boss: "My job has changed over the years, 22 years roughly I've been cooking professionally. When I was younger I aspired to be the star player, now it's more I like to sit in the dugout and make sure the team wins the game."
3) Batali, on feedback: "As chefs, we think about the commerce all the time when if fact you can see, you can tell immediately if something you made was appreciated by the customer by the empty plate that returns to the kitchen ... You're constantly aware of the public's opinion of your work, even if you didn't read Eater every day, or look at the blogs, or read the critical press."
4) Rubell, on constraints: "I really like all kinds of constraints. I think constraints are a real friend to creation of anything. So whether it's a deadlines, or a budget, or an idea about where you are, a physical constraint, for me that's really good. I don't really see this duality between real, functioning life with commerce and art. You do what you do in the context of reality. What you have to do is not put constraints on yourself that don't exist ... Deadlines and time exist. Thinking you can't do something because it will be received a certain way is much more deadly. We limit ourselves much more than we are limited by external constraints."
5) Batali, on strong reactions: "I appreciate hatred more than I appreciate ambivalence. The word I hate the most of the 21st century: M-E-H. 'Meh.' 'Fuck you, meh.'"
6) Questlove, on reading his own reviews: "I am famous for telling press that I check my Metacritic score every night ... I'm more obsessed with the critical angle because critical acclaim is kind of our [The Roots'] saving grace. Because it took us four albums to go platinum, so our critical acclaim, our whole thing is like 'Well, we'll make the label embarrassed to want to drop us because we're so acclaimed' ... I'm not saying that [criticism] informs my decision on what to create, but I'm very obsessed with checking that critical angle."
7) Batali, on the rise of the celebrity critic: "It might be a result of the incredible rise of sadistic reality programming. When in fact it's far more interesting to watch somebody make someone cry than teach them to make something better. There's a lot of that in Top Chef-fy, Iron Chef-fy world where the critic is going to get famous if they're eloquent and particularly hateful."
8) Dufresne, on cooking for himself: "We've often been accused of 'cooking for ourselves.' Which I dispute of course ... I think we're trying to challenge the customer."
9) Dufresne, on the importance of critics: "We have a funny sort of love/hate relationship with critics because, unfortunately, in the art/commerce dance that we do, they drive people to the restaurant. Regardless of sometimes how well we prepare the food, if people don't know that we're out there, if someone isn't talking about us, you guys aren't coming."
10) Batali, on Yelp: "Personally, any place that doesn't have you put your name on it, I don't read. I have no time to figure out what you mean and what your agenda is. Yelp is very insignificant for us."