Artisan rhetoric: Patric Kuh on the growth, definition, and future of 'artisanal' food

Oct 11, 2016

Award-winning restaurant critic Patric Kuh explores the soaring popularity of so-called "artisanal" food and drinks in his new book, Finding the Flavors We Lost. He talks with Russ Parsons about why those flavors went away, what artisanal actually means, and why small doesn't always mean better.

Russ Parsons: I want to talk to you about your book, Finding the Flavors We Lost. The title begs the first question, which is, how did we lose those flavors in the first place?

Patric Kuh (Photo: David Stock)

Patric Kuh: We did eat very well and then suddenly we were all eating five-can casserole in 1955. How did that happen? Many factors: speed of transportation, a growing amount of food preservation on an industrial scale, brand awareness, and then the very idea of modernity, this sense of, "Wow, all this cooking and all this cutting of vegetables took a lot of time," and the idea was promoted that you didn't want to be tied to these long tasks. All this colluded to drain the vitality and characteristics from American food.

RP: We tend to forget these days that cooking is work. For those of us who love it, it's also a pleasure, but traditional cooking is a lot of work, and to be freed from that work must have been liberating. Now we're going back in the opposite direction, except now we're calling it artisanal, rather than work. So what does artisanal actually mean?

PK: The idea of work is certainly key to it, and it has been abused and misused and used as a marketing term so often that one almost shies away from using it. I think there's an element of time. This is somebody who's allowing the maximum flavor to develop. It's the 24 hours for naturally leavened bread, the eight months for the Swiss-style cheese, the years for great bourbon.

Secondly, there's the idea of craft. The skill that the hands learn, and can that be maintained in the way we eat today? I think a third aspect of this is the intentionality of something. It's kind of abstract, but this is the way that artisans approach things that industrialized commercial food does not.

Lastly, does it speak to our heritage? I think that one of the most resonant aspects of artisanal is it's picking up on something, whether it's home preserving and home canning or if you go through trouble of curing bacon or making a vinegar. Cider vinegars were being used a couple hundred years ago, and you're picking up a thread that was dropped. That adds a resonance to me about what artisanal food is.

Finding the Flavors We Lost

RP: One of the great controversies at this point is the question of scale. You make a great product, you get really good at it, you find you can start to make more, the money starts to come in, you can actually pay your workers more, but all of a sudden you're no longer that indie band that everybody loved when they were playing in 200-seat clubs. You've become big business. How do you balance the intentionality and proficiency that's required of being a craftsman with the ability to grow and get your products to more people at a more efficient price?

PK: We have to get away from this idea that only small is good, only small is authentic. Think of the language: small-scale, microbrewery, nanobrewery. It's all reducing it to tiny amounts. Long before it meant small, it meant independence, being able to navigate the world as an independent being. People should not be trapped in this fallacy of "small is better" because artisanal is going to get bigger, and if you can maintain the standards, I think you're embodying what an artisan means, not becoming the opposite of it.