What is expertise?

Screen Shot 2016-06-23 at 07.35.58It’s a misleading title, in a way, because I was driven to write this here and now by a new article/interview with “original” bad boy celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain (though as rightly acknowledged in that conversation, that distinction of Uber bad boy must of course go to Marco Pierre White. After Keith Floyd, that is).

I’m a fan of Bourdain, for the record. (And congratulations to him on turning 60, which is why he is pictured here with his face on a cake having narrowly escaped being punctuated by birthday candles.) But here’s the bit that got me:

In order to write well about food you need to eat well, and you cannot eat well if you’re analyzing the food.

I (think I) get the sentiment, but I disagree. That line immediately threw me back to the days when I was teaching in the Film & Media Department at the University of Cape Town (where I incidentally completed a PhD on the topic of celebrity chefs – see what I just did there?), and students used to regularly ask me whether I could ever go to the cinema or watch a movie without the critical eye, the subtext being whether anyone with expertise could just relax and enjoy something without having to be an asshole about it.

My answer was generally that yes, us “critics” do know how to operate as normal people in the normal world, but I think I could have said something more clever than that, which would have been something along the lines of just because you’re “analysing” something doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy it. Or rather (or better!), that when you have expertise in something, of course you’re analysing it all the time, but that’s no reason why you can’t also enjoy it.

I suspect that the reason Bourdain gets so much pleasure out of what he does is precisely because he knows his subject so well. Sure, he can go to far-flung places in the world and be treated to things he’s never experienced (which he therefore has no “expertise” in), but he can appreciate them so much more because he has so many more solid base-lines from which to evaluate them.

I suppose the bottom line comes back to the fact that so many people tend to confuse critical thinking with being critical, which is just not the case. It’s simply about having an actual knowledge base and a systematic process of thinking from which to generate an informed opinion. And owning it.

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