Take a Freewheeling Journey With Questlove and His Chef Friends

Food Features Questlove
Take a Freewheeling Journey With Questlove and His Chef Friends

Questlove has a brilliant new weekly show on Pandora that gives new meaning to “longform” with its three-hour format — it’s called Questlove Supreme. He’s called it the “black nerd version of NPR.” It airs on Wednesdays at 1 p.m. EST and is available until Fridays 1 p.m. EST.

The brilliance of this new-ish show reminded me how much I loved his book. Every once in a while, someone writes a book about food that’s so dense and layered, it takes me months to get through it. Something to Food About: Exploring Creativity with Innovative Chefs, by the inimitable Questlove, is just that book.

You know you’re in for something irreverent as soon as you see the cover—a self-portrait whose components are comprised of food. No detail is missed. There’s even a fork sticking out of his kale-for-hair, mimicking Questlove’s signature hair pick. Aesthetically, the cover may look vaguely familiar; it references the artist Giuseppe Arcimboldo, a 16th century Italian mannerist painter, famous for creating portraits of people out of fruits, veggies, books, fish and other random items.

For this book, he’s paired up again with Ben Greenman, his co-author for his 2013 memoir Mo’ Meta Blues: The World According to Questlove. So begins the journey that is Something to Food About, a series of conversations with ten chefs, interrupted by stark photos with lots of white space and full-page portraits of his interview subjects.

Ahmir Khalib “Questlove” Thompson is perhaps better known as the founder and drummer for the Grammy Award-winning band the Roots—which also happens to be Jimmy Fallon’s house band on the Tonight Show, of course. But he also possesses an encyclopedic knowledge of food, chefs and an insatiable curiosity—and keen sense of humor—which makes him a heady but entertaining guide through these conversations with internationally known chefs. After years on the road, restaurants became an obsession and he loves, loves, loves food—thinking and joking about it, rigorously inquiring of it, and so on. As Anthony Bourdain says in the intro, “Basically, all cool reverts to him,” high praise coming from a serious arbiter of cool himself.

Nearly 47,000 people follow Questlove’s food-addled account on Instagram (@questlovesfood), and his obsession with documentation, from things he ate to hangs with chefs and short videos, is well documented. But his visit to Sukiyabashi Jiro brought it to the next level—you know, the place chronicled in the film Jiro Dreams of Sushi, about the famously detail oriented and obsessive sushi chef Jiro Ono. After this experience, he urgently needed to explore the ideas and questions that surfaced.

Something to Food About is not a cookbook, nor is it a reference book. It’s a deep-diving, philosophical think piece, a culinary tome about ideas and questions—can food be art? Can art be food? And what can food and music learn from each other? Chefs and musicians share a similar challenge when it comes to the introduction of new ideas to their audiences. And the dynamic of a kitchen is not unlike that of a band. Questlove explores what inspires these ten food professionals and the ideas they want to convey. The conversations are freewheeling but they circle back to the same themes and questions. It’s a book you have to dip in and out of, it’s so chockablock with ideas, investigations and analogies, not to mention the discursive and sometimes humorous footnotes.

Questlove starts with Nathan Myhrvold of Seattle, whose food lab produced the massive project Modernist Cuisine, and they talk technology, the genesis of ideas and Questlove begins his recurring theme of finding comparisons between music and food by asking the question: What if you could record food on the molecular level? He likens recipes to sheet music. With the groundbreaking Daniel Humm at Eleven Madison Park in New York City, the conversation naturally examines jazz; Humm keeps a portrait of Miles Davis, a musician known for reinvention and risk taking, in his kitchen. He shares deep thoughts with Michael Solomonov of Philly (Questlove’s home turf), and talks hummus, Israeli cuisine, sobriety, death, donuts, and music. Nationality, memory, art, and poetry all surface in the conversation with San Francisco-based chef Dominique Crenn. It’s hard to really distill these conversations, because they are as stream-of-consciousness and nuanced as human interactions can be when given permission to do so. And because doing so would spoil the serendipity of reading it.

That’s a lot of turf to cover, and the layout breaks up the denser sections—the Q and A’s—interspersed with photographs from Kyoto Hamada. The treatment of images is straightforward and expository and sometimes feels almost scientific in its detachment—and use of almost clinical, unforgiving lighting. There’s Ludo Lefebvre looking sort of menacing, holding a knife on a sidewalk in Los Angeles (either that, or he’s squinting in the sun). There’s a whole dining event with filmmaker David Lynch, requisite yearbook photo of Laura Palmer included.

But the images are also, by turn, artful and humorous—Crenn’s Comme des Garcons kicks and a cleaver, at home, just idly resting on the floor. A simple plate full of LudoBird (fried chicken) looks more like art than food but appears appetizing nonetheless (The skin! So crispy!), yet it’s situated alongside a bright yellow miniature Eiffel Tower, evoking some cognitive dissonance, the jaunty juxtaposition of the chef’s American food and his chef’s heritage.

And then you have ingredients and their cooking vessels, placed on a dining table dressed in its fancy whites—pig bladder in a copper sauté pan and carrots partially run through the foodmill. The size of the images purposefully varies—subject portraits are full page, many food shots are too, but some are smaller, inset, almost like snapshots. They keep the 240 pages moving along.

Like an endless feast, I cannot imagine sitting down and taking in everything this book has to offer in one seating. Nor should you. Something to Food About requires you go back to the table repeatedly—a grazing approach if you will—to consume all that Questlove’s offered. (Speaking of tables, I nominate this to lead the next generation of coffee table books: one that you would actually read.) The footnotes alone are a side conversation worth having with the author, who’s a thoughtful, multi-tasking and passionate guide.

Ultimately, it’s a heartening experience, taking this journey with Questlove and his cheffy subjects, and it’s a completely a win for food, book publishing, and music. Anytime anyone intentionally creates a totally open and deep space for that kind of creative confluence, you gotta be down with that.

Carrie Havranek is a recovering music critic and part-time baker who writes about food, farmers’ markets, chefs and restaurants—and sometimes travel—from her home in Easton, Pennsylvania. You may have seen her work elsewhere in Edible Philly, The Kitchn, or Frommer’s.

Top photo by Steve CC BY-SA. Preview photo by Naoharu CC BY.

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