Cooking Logics:
Cognition and Reflexivity in the Culinary Field

Vanina Leschziner



This paper draws on ethnographic research with elite chefs in New York City and San Francisco to present an analysis of the socio-cognitive and organizational foundations of culinary creation. I examine the cognitive schema upon which chefs rely in creating dishes and seeking legitimation, and the organizational factors that constrain them in their choices. Chefs rely on particular ideas about food, their inclinations, and perceptions of customers’ expectations, to make choices about the food they will serve in their restaurants. I show that they focus on either of two principles of culinary creation: flavor or market differentiation. Flavor is the principle of excellence in cuisine, and as such is the value to strive for in making food, and thus the means to acquire legitimacy as chefs. But chefs cannot simply make flavorful food, they need to differentiate themselves from others to survive in the competitive market of high cuisine. To make flavorful food that customers will like, and distinguish themselves from others, they must find a balance between conformity to traditional styles and originality. Conformity and originality introduce contradictory pressures, and individuals must make choices out of this contradiction. I suggest that one way whereby they make choices is through their “self-concepts.” But self-concepts are not up for grabs, they are constructed throughout individuals’ careers, and are therefore associated with individuals’ positions in the field. Thus, whether chefs focus on flavor or differentiation in creating food and legitimating themselves is associated with both their self-concepts and field positions.


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Vanina Leschziner is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Toronto. Her primary research interests are in the sociology of culture, culture and cognition, organizations, theory, and qualitative methods. She is currently working on a book manuscript about the social logic of creation in High Cuisine that is based on ethnographic research she has conducted in High-end restaurants in New York City and San Francisco, titled Recipes for Success: Elite Chefs, Restaurants, and Culinary Styles in New York and San Francisco. This work combines a cultural, cognitive and organizational analysis of High Cuisine to explain how and why elite chefs create the food that they do. More generally, the book develops a theoretical and methodological framework for studying patterns of cultural creation. She has published this and other research in cuisine in Sociological Forum and Theory & Society.