Now that I’ve read Questlove’s something to food about, I want to experience it another way. Do I nap with it? Take it dancing? Watch it get into conversations with my other books? The latter is certainly happening as I sort my responses to the book. It’s a Questlove-curated collection of interviews with ten chefs whose work has inspired him in some way. All of the people he includes are currently working in their own restaurants in the United States. The places are pricey; although the expensiveness is not the focus, both he and the chefs actively consider how few people have access to their dining rooms. In some ways, the rarified atmospheres are inevitable. He wants to talk to people at high points in their careers, specifically exploring the idea of a creative “early middle age” that he asserts describes both his state and theirs. They discuss how each became successful in crafting not only food, but also the entire dining experience so carefully cultivated in their restaurants.
For food geeks, especially those inclined to become fans of particular chefs’ approaches to planning and cooking, the insights into how restaurants are made can be riveting. Questlove’s enthusiasm makes him a perfect guide. He pushes his interviewees to think about their food in terms of creative outlets that are not necessarily familiar to them. When he asks Daniel Patterson which other art provides the best analogy for his food, Patterson balks, insisting that cooking is a craft rather than an art. His goal of creating affordable, high quality, quick meals is reflected in that answer. With a little prompting, more than a few chefs talk about their practice in terms of music. Daniel Humm’s entire ethos is based around Miles Davis. Dominique Crenn and Dave Beran talk a lot about writing in its more florid and formidable forms as essential to crafting a menu.
The question about a complementary or comparable art form arises in all the conversations; perhaps it is Questlove’s favorite. Mine is the question about the chefs’ first memories of eating in a restaurant. I have a longstanding fascination with autobiography that’s tickled by this inquiry. The restaurants range from fast food to Michelin starred eateries, with some chefs remembering what they ate while others were fascinated with the rituals. This question, which I can imagine many of them had not been asked before, really helped to differentiate them for me. The memories the recounted felt less rehearsed, less studiously considered than those about their steps from their early careers to their current places.
I know that desire for a different kind of story is a personal nitpicky frustration of mine. It doesn’t come from the interview questions which I really enjoy. I think it comes from our culture. There’s a history of the Ben Franklin self-made man ideal that encourages all these conclusions within a life story. Most of the chefs describe themselves as achieving a level of technical proficiency that enabled them become creative. While I’m sure that’s true in absolute terms, I hate the narrative shortcut. I want to know how the story would have been told without the ability to say there was an endpoint to training. I want the stories of how they knew or who doubted them or doubts them still. I want to ask whether they have worked with someone whom they consider as good as they are, or better who remains outside the spotlight. After reading the interviews, those transitions remain elusive for me. I’d like more.
Another factor to be aware of is one that Questlove marks at the beginning of the book. The world he is exploring is mostly white and mostly male. The Ben Franklin kind of narrative I describe above is one often said to the dominant American male form of autobiography. I spent enough time steeped in studying autobiography to become hypersensitive to the patterns. Most people won’t notice them. But for me, Dominque Crenn’s chapter felt very different than the ones that came before it. Her descriptions of the information and emotions she wanted to convey in her cookbook and of the kinds of events that inspire her menus left me with more clarity about her process even though it seemed to take a few more questions to ge there. I responded similarly to Daniel Patterson’s discussion of his place in the world; his discussion helped illustrate the place of fine dining within a larger culinary landscape in a way that felt satisfying even as he insisted that he does not have all the answers to the larger societal problems that surround him.
If you’re food fan, or a Questlove fan, or a fan of dynamic interviews, read this book. It’s a great effort. It will make you both hungry and curious.
Randoms that Didn’t Fit into the Review:
- The book has really wonderful photos by Kyoko Hamada. Each chef gets a photo section. They’re bright, crisp and appealing.
- Nathan Myhrvold, the food scientist of the collection, is doing amazing work excavating older forms of cooking and working with foods in new ways. He has a lab. He’s doing fascinating things. Now I want to read his 2500 page book, Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking.
- How do I get to eat with Questlove, or at least get a list of his cheaper recommendations?
- When the chefs were comparing their cooking to another art form, no one chose painting. What’s up with that?