Last night I was a guest of the L.A. Chamber Orchestra, there to talk about the links between music and food. At first, when they asked me to be a part of their program, I thought... huh? But as I started to think about it, the comparisons piled up.
As a kid, I cooked with my mom, and some of my earliest food memories are accompanied by a "score." As I helped her make cheese dreams, with Wonder Bread and Velvetta cheese (yes, it was the sixties), I'd butter one side of the bread and make the stack as high as I could without falling off the chair, and my mom took melted Velveeta cheese, put a spoonful on the non buttered side and I rolled them up and placed them on a sheet pan. The entire time, Barbra Streisand played, Tony Bennett played, Connie Francis played.
As I got older, the music expanded to include Smokey Robinson, the Supremes, then Vivaldi, Mozart, Bill Evans, Billie Holiday... just as the Velveeta cheese turned into Manchego and the Wonder Bread was replaced by homemade flour tortillas with spinach, pine nuts, raisins and salsa verde. (Which coincidentally, you can get at the Border Grill!)
For me, the story that music tells is not that different from the story that food tells. Passion, creativity... the need to be heard. It's the story of people. And I see how closely the process of creating a dish compares to that of composing music.
If I see something at the farmer's market that looks interesting, it sparks me. I take it home and play around with it. Sometimes it's just a riff on a theme: an improv. I caramelize the onions for sweetness, possibly add ginger for heat and fragrance. Then I get a feel for where I want this dish to go. If I want to take it to India, then in go the cumin seeds, black mustard seeds, curry neem leaf and turmeric... using familiar chords but voicing them a little differently than if I wanted to do something Latin. As I go along, I add in texture, almost like a composer chooses which instruments to use. Tomatoes, brown sugar, vinegar. I balance sweetness with acid. Major with minor.
I imagine I'm creating a concerto, with a main voice speaking, backed up by the other instruments, carefully balanced. They all have to make sense together to make that dish sing. And honestly, we use that term all the time in the kitchen. "Does it sing?"
And just as music can create visual images, there's a story in every dish. Take our favorite dish at STREET: Kaya Toast.
Which Southeast Asian tribe first learned how to boil and juice the reedy, sweet, green Panden leaves for sweetness? The custard made of eggs, coconut and sugar tell the story of a Chinese immigrant in Singapore, scratching out a living at a food stall. As the story goes, his wife is the one who had the brilliant idea to crack an egg over the top of the sweet custard and toast. I add my own little tweaks to the recipe, like variations on a theme, and now my story has become a part of his. As I mix and mix that coconut and egg into the sweet custard, there is definitely a rhythm. Bread into the wood burning oven, slice the butter, crack the egg -- all in time. The dark, sweet soy sauce is a splash, an accent, breaking through the lush music; It all comes together on a plate -- a sweet and savory bit of heaven from another culture, another time decades past, speaking to you in the present. Music and food both tell stories present and past, using different languages but translating into one... that of passion.
And for sure, a restaurant preparing for a busy night's service must be how it is for a musician doing a concert. All day long we prep and prep, rehearse and organize, taste, tweak and worry. Then the doors open, reservations come in, maybe slowly at first. People start to settle in, they are impatient for the meal to start, but in the kitchen everything is picking up, quickening. Then comes the groove, the zone -- the place where the rhythm is created and repeated -- and the kitchen actually feels calmer even though it's zipping along.
Working together in the heat of the moment, the energy of the kitchen is fun... even perfect. It's often about a "feel" between the kitchen staff or players, how they blend together, who's leading the team, "conducting." In kitchen terms that's the expeditor who sets the tone. All of the line cooks, servers, runners and sous chefs on a busy Saturday night: it's these trusted hands that have to recreate your vision and perform it to a waiting crowd. And just like a musician feeding off the energy and response of the audience, the moods of the customers come into play. Do they get it? Do they like what we're doing?
In the kitchen, just as with a composition, there's a build up as you near the completion of a dish, a crescendo of everything coming together. You plate it, send it out and it's placed in front of the diner with a final flourish. Someone tastes the fruit of our labors, just as we listen to the fruits of the labor by the composer and musicians.
The outcome, if we're very lucky, is joy. This is great music. And this is also great food. Being emotionally moved by the passion of others -- is there anything closer to pure love than all of that? I don't think so!
STREET is holding a Facebook contest to find new musical acts in LA. Visit their Facebook page throughout the month of May and post a link to your band's video to get a chance to play a show at STREET.