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The musician Questlove is fascinated by the way chefs think. Here he talks about three of the mind-bending talents featured in his compelling new book.
"The term foodie is inadequate to describe Questlove's relationship with the international subculture of chefs," says Anthony Bourdain in his foreword to the new book Somethingtofoodabout by Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson. "He would be better described as a fully made member of the chef mafia." Questlove, the brilliant bandleader of The Roots on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon as well as a producer, DJ and writer, is fascinated by the intersection of creativity and cooking. For Somethingtofoodabout, he traveled across the country, having a series of far-ranging conversations with 10 extremely forward-thinking chefs. He got the idea for the book on a pilgrimage to Tokyo to eat at the legendary sushi counter Sukiyabashi Jiro, which he chronicled on Instagram (his feed @questlove is remarkable). "I was like Popeye to spinach," he posted. "'Member when Michael Jackson tried that tonic in the 'Say Say Say' video and it made him dance? You don't? Google it." I did Google it, which got me even more interested in Questlove as an original food thinker. Here, I talk to him about three of the hyper-innovative chefs he features in his book. In the process I also found out where he likes to hang out in the cities he visited, how he came to eat crickets and why the food-truck culture is a prototype for a fast-changing world that captivates him.
Chef Ryan Roadhouse
Ahmir, let's start with a city you love: Portland.
Portland is my number-one favorite city in the world. Some of the reasons are clear. Nike is there, and I'm a sneakerhead. They also have the best record stores ever. The excellence of Portland is especially clear in the food scene: It's all about ideas, and those ideas come to life quickly, often in the form of a food truck, and then change just as quickly.
What's the appeal of the food-truck scene?
Food trucks are about a simple idea and mobility. The most successful trucks focus on one concept but do it with verve and variation: a PB&J truck, a waffle truck. I have had some of the best food out of trucks in Portland partly because of the way they cluster in the city. You can have so many different cuisines all within a few hundred square feet.
Ryan Roadhouse doesn't have a food truck. Why did you decide to feature him in the Portland chapter of your book?
Ryan has a mobile model, a sort of pop-up called Nodoguro that started as a Japanese-inspired supper club. His concept is based on innovation and creativity and working within limitations. He cooks dishes that are based on the foods in other artists' fictional worlds, like the films of Studio Ghibli—which people call the Disney of Japan—or the novels of Haruki Murakami. Ryan and I connected on this. For the Murakami menu, he took a reference to pancakes with Coca-Cola on top and turned it into a dish of slightly carbonated buttermilk ice cream with a syrup that tasted like Coke, and poached peaches—canned peaches allegedly being Murakami's favorite food.
Isn't it unusual to have ambitious cooking like Ryan's be so inspired by the cultural zeitgeist?
It works at Nodoguro. He uses things from pop culture as jumping-off points. What I've learned, whether in music or food, is that the dividing line between high and low is always moving and always dissolving. Sometimes what you're seeing is the afterimage of a line that used to be there.
Even David Lynch, who gave the Pacific Northwest such a great creepy vibe in Twin Peaks, figures into Ryan's pop-up.
Ryan has done a Twin Peaks menu. It included his take on Agent Cooper's "damn fine cup of coffee," which he turned into Cod in the Dashi Percolator: flash-fried black cod in dashi with vaporized sake. So I engineered a dinner with David Lynch. I am a big Twin Peaks fan, as is Ryan. David lives in Los Angeles and doesn't like to drive far. Luckily, I was staying in L.A., at the Chateau Marmont, and so I invited him over for dinner. We ate in Bungalow 3, which is the suite where John Belushi died. David gifted me a small boogie board with a shark cartoon printed on it. He liked the sound it made when you hit it, as did I. We hit our heads with it a couple of times. The whole thing was a surreal and haunting experience. And he was funny, which you'd probably expect.
Tell me a highlight from the Lynch dinner.
David told a great story about the real-life incident behind the Twin Peaks scene where Jack Nance runs in and says, "Fellas, don't drink that coffee. You'd never guess—there was a fish in my percolator." I won't ruin it here (insert my plug to buy the book). I'll just say that in real life it wasn't fried cod. The way David took something that actually happened and turned it to his creative advantage, that's the same way Ryan turned the Twin Peaks food into unforgettable dishes.
Chef Donald Link
Why Donald Link?
For Somethingtofoodabout, I considered the city before I picked the chef. Towns, like New Orleans, that have a robust food culture are especially attractive for a touring musician. Then I looked at who is changing that city's culinary landscape, and who approaches food from an angle other than just opening restaurants. Donald was my choice because he has thought about ethnic identity and cuisine, about how New Orleans has become trapped between tradition and innovation and needs leaders to chart a new course. And I knew him; we met at the Life is Beautiful music festival in Vegas and discovered a mutual love of music and food.
Can the NOLA restaurant scene evolve beyond its greatest hits?
Donald spoke to me about how when he returned to New Orleans after training in other cities, he didn't want to be known as a Cajun chef, as just another blackened-catfish guy. He was defiant about it. But he also said that after opening Herbsaint and being aggressive about serving a traditional-style Continental menu, he loosened up a little. The menu has a soup of the day and also a gumbo of the day. But he found that experimentation with Cajun cooking didn't always travel well. He opened a second branch of his NOLA restaurant Cochon in Lafayette, Louisiana, and the people had even more conservative ideas about food than the people in New Orleans. Lafayette went as far as gumbo and jambalaya, and no further.
Does Donald offer an alternative to the greatest hits?
When I was working on my book, he was writing about Cajun cooking. There are many misconceptions about what it actually is. Donald serves the "A sides," the hits, at his restaurants, particularly at Herbsaint with his Louisiana shrimp and dirty rice. The "B sides" are what he cooks at home—rabbit and dumplings, backyard smoked chicken. His food has a lot of depth; you can't get deeper into a chef's cooking than when he invites you into his home.
Chef Jesse Griffiths
Why are you highlighting Austin? And Jesse?
Austin is my second favorite city in the country, so I go there a lot—because I like it, and because I'm a musician and musicians tend to find themselves in Austin. My first love in Austin is barbecue. There's a secret committee of musicians and music-industry professionals that over the years of SXSW and Austin City Limits try to one-up each other on the best, most obscure spots in town. It's like our version of digging in the crates for deep soul. At least among my friends, I'm the guy in the group who finds beats on an album that have never been done like that before. I heard about Dai Due. It would be wrong to call it barbecue, but it is a perfect embodiment of local culture. Jesse flies under the radar in that he is quiet and reserved, but his food is the opposite.
Dai Due is like the coolest diner, with a local-ingredient focus and butchers' counter. It's now so popular: Is it in danger of being overhyped?
Jesse is connected to the Texan earth in a way that is both historical and modern. There's the whole meat-animal dimension. Dai Due has meat—so much meat—but it all comes from the community. His butcher might bring in an entire deer at 7 a.m. and spend the whole day breaking it down for dinner that night. Jesse's not using animals from a farm that's a long way away. In the book, he talks to me about how hunting is accepted across the political spectrum in Texas. Unless the whole town of Austin becomes vegan, Dai Due isn't going away.
The Dai Due menu is a bit unconventional, i.e., venison hot dogs with black radish remoulade. What's the oddest thing you've eaten?
Jesse is so thoughtful about food. Eating at Dai Due is about risk and experimentation. His approach is sustainable, but he's clear that it also has to taste good. So when he put crickets on my salad, I ate them.