What Does "Artisan" Mean To You?

Expert Interview

Artisan. Artisanal. What do these words really mean, especially now they've been co-opted by big companies like Domino's Pizza? We asked some of our favorite local food producers what they think of when they hear the term "artisan" and hope you'll join in the conversation, too.

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These five small business owners make some of the finest bread, preserves, ice cream, and confections we have ever tasted. We admire their dedication to their craft as well as their creativity and attention to the local community, whether it's the farms they source from or the people they feed. If asked, we would probably describe them as artisans. But let's see what they have to say...

What does "artisan" mean to you?

Rose Lawrence of Red Bread:

True artisan food implies a profound understanding of the craft of making food. Coupled with this understanding is a deep love for the craft, for food, and for those who will eat your food. This is obvious at every step: selection of ingredients, care of process, and joy in presenting it to others.

Traditionally, if you were an artisan and owned your own business, you were referred to as a Master. Despite running our own wild yeast bakery and seasonal kitchen in Venice Beach, Calif., I believe we will always prefer to think of ourselves as journeymen within the artisan tradition. There is always more to learn, and every day we meet artisans working with food who open our eyes with their love of their craft.

Artisan was a term originally applied to those people that create something of value for the community, who through dedication reach the expressive form of art in their craft. In a food system that has largely forgotten the magic of food, often referring to it merely as a product, we are committed to being artisans.

Karen Klemens of Mother Moo Creamery:

I think of artisan or artisanal food simply as good food. It can be something like a delicious fried egg with a special spice that you might like, to something a bit more elegant, sophisticated, and complex such as a brined, braised pork roast with a reduction sauce, marinated with something from your larder.

Do I consider myself an artisan? No. I think my ancestors were the true artisans. They did it all — they raised the chicken, slaughtered the chicken, cooked the chicken, made soup with the chicken, and of course, made beautiful, handcrafted quilts with the feathers. They made good, artisanal food – we're just trying to keep up with their traditions.

Kevin West of Saving the Season:

"Artisanal" is the Paris Hilton of food words – it went from obscurity to ubiquity in no time, and now I'd like to see that trajectory reversed. The first time I remember hearing it used frequently was in 2001, around the opening of Terrance Brennan's New York cheese-centric restaurant, Artisanal. Back then I liked the word because of its etymological roots in skilled craft – akin to "art" but with that special connotation of the practical arts, such as carpentry, iron-working, and making food.

In recent years "artisanal" has become a synonym for small, smaller, smallest – the Portlandia battle cry – and has grown shabby with overuse. Now that Domino's has unveiled Artisan Pizzas, the word is officially threadbare. Anyone who cares about food or language should put "artisanal" in cold storage for a century, in hopes that it may be restored and repaired by generations to come.

Jessica Koslow of Sqirl:

Sadly the word "artisan" has been taken from its original meaning — a craftsman of skill, one who manufactures functional and decorated tangible goods – and now can be used to qualify something as "quality." Honestly, the term "artisan food" does not mean anything to me. Instead I ask myself what I'm looking for in food — is it the farm or ranch that matters? The point of view of the chef, or their experience? The number of years a place has been around? By defining my own metric of quality, I'm able to navigate the artisan waters and find food, wine, and restaurants that I respect.

If you asked a musician who's played their entire life whether they were an artisan, I have a feeling the answer would be, "No. I'm a musician." It's the same for me. I think of myself as a cook first, dedicated to reaching my technical and creative potential in the field of preservation. Secondly, I consider myself to be a small business owner. And I believe Sqirl is the marriage of the two.

Max Lesser of Morning Glory Confections:

An artisan works to produce a pure product of their vision using often labor-intensive techniques and high-quality ingredients. My approach to making brittle, baked goods, and other edibles is a serious one requiring time, patience, precision, and respect for ingredients and process. It also happens to be what I love to do, and fortunately, I'm able to practice this craft on a daily basis.

There is something odd about enormous brands using the term "artisan" to brand something that is the antithesis of handcrafted. Yet, I'd like to think that they are just responding to consumers who want a connection to the food they eat. People want to feel that what they're eating is pure and authentic, and made by actual people, not machines. So while this desire may increase mass-produced potato chips or pizza labeled "artisan," it will also bring more true food artisans to the table. And that's a good thing.

Readers, what does "artisan" or "artisanal" mean to you?

Related: How Artisanal Became a Mass-Produced Food Dilemma

(Images: Red Bread; Sqirl; Morning Glory Confections)