Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson is a DJ, drummer for The Roots, late-night talk-show fixture and one of the most thoughtful leaders of modern hip-hop. He’s also an adventurous eater, as documented by his Tumblr Quest Loves Food and his Twitter account, cook4quest. Now he’s written a genre-busting, fascinating book, Something to Food About: Exploring Creativity with Innovative Chefs, which doesn’t quite fall into any pre-existing category and is all the more engaging for it.
Something to Food About consists of 10 interviews with prominent chefs working in the United States, with photography by Kyoko Hamada. It’s not a cookbook, since there are no recipes; it’s not a coffee table book, since the interviews are quite involved; it’s not a textbook, either, notwithstanding the man who saw me reading the book on DART and asked, “What school you go to?”
No, Something to Food About is more engrossing and more informative than most textbooks. Questlove approaches each of his interviewees with a relatively short list of questions about creativity, the better to let conversations flow freely. He relates cooking to his own field, music, in illuminating ways, and finds that many of his subjects think about music, theater and painting while they cook. Chicago's Dave Beran likes to compare menus to Radiohead albums.
Some of the chefs create foods with emotions in mind. Dominique Crenn, in San Francisco, builds her menus around her own poetry. Sometimes she goes further.
“I was taking care of a little girl called Hannah," she says in the book. "She had leukemia and she passed away. My menu, which was the spring menu, was very reflective of the emotion that I felt being with her and hanging out with her. ... It was one of the most emotional menus in my life.”
The idea is bold. When was the last time you thought about how a menu makes you feel? Or how it might make the chef feel?
There’s such range in these conversations that “aha!” moments are in every chapter. Several chefs say they wish that unhappy diners would complain more, rather than running home to write a scathing Yelp review. As New Orleans legend Donald Link puts it, “Feedback, especially negative feedback, is one of the most important things. People come up after meals all the time and say they loved everything. I’m glad to hear that but I’m more interested in what people didn’t like.”
Jesse Griffiths, a chef and avid hunter from Austin, suggests that Texans should be eating more rabbit and feral hogs for ecological reasons. “Both of these animals make more sense than, say, cows, which aren’t any threat [to biodiversity] and require so much more water and land.” Modernist guru Nathan Myhrvold sees a big future for "fusion" dining, while Daniel Patterson talks about the social cause behind his latest project: a fast-food burger joint in Watts, Los Angeles.
If there’s one common trend among the chefs, besides the depth and thoughtfulness of their conversations, it’s that they see maturity as learning to do less. Many of the subjects bring up ego and critique their ambitious younger selves. Daniel Humm tells Questlove, “Early on you want to prove yourself. You want to show five techniques in one dish. When you’re young, you have to do that, in some ways, to get recognized.” Griffiths adds, “When I was young, I took more chances. Now the innovation is being brave enough to stick to the things that are classic.”
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There’s another common thread in the interviews, too. Nine of the 10 subjects are white men, and the 10th is a white woman. Three of the four chefs born outside the United States are French or Swiss. Questlove is worried about kitchen diversity, and brings up the subject several times, although he could have been even more persistent. At one point he half-apologizes and changes the subject: “This is a heavy issue. I feel like I’m Charlie Rose.” Later, he forgets a promise to ask about Daniel Patterson’s charity, which teaches basic cooking skills to teenagers in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district.
Not that this book is all deep thoughts — Something to Food About is fun, too. Questlove teaches us how to use the Sesame Street theme song in a DJ set. Chefs confess to hating basic foods like celery, or loving all-you-can-eat buffets. At the end, Questlove sits down to a mind-bending meal in Nathan Myhrvold’s modernist food laboratory, where sea creatures get turned into noodles and strawberries make up the spaghetti sauce. In addition to Hamada’s photographs, Questlove pairs each course with an accompanying song.
Maybe some readers will be surprised that Questlove can be such an astute interviewer, so keen to make connections and analogies. But this book is well-suited to his strengths, and it has a lot to teach both keen restaurant-goers and the cooks who serve them. After all, what’s a series of interviews, sequenced for maximum reader interest, but a DJ set in written words?
By the way, Questlove, if you’re reading this, the Dallas place you really ought to visit is Small Brewpub.