Cooking To Taste
Here today, gone tomorrow. That’s the heartbreak of internet content. Not long ago, before the PBS paywall descended, you could watch chef Jacques Pepin shoot the breeze with the great violinist Itzhak Perlman about the connection between cooking and music, the very topic of this very short essay.
To add insult to injury, once upon a time there was a great clip on YouTube of Pepin discussing the importance of “cooking to taste.” If you know your target flavour and you have the technique, you are more than likely to arrive in the neighbourhood of your target, no matter the quality of the ingredients. Pepin contends that when he was cooking in Paris, even though there were 40 cooks in the kitchen, nobody could tell who was cooking that night because everyone was properly trained.
Pepin’s first book, “La Technique,” offered classic recipes and tips on mastering old-school skills to bring them off. Almost fifty years later, Pepin is still teaching. His latest spate of cooking videos, 250 of them filmed by a neighbour in Pepin’s home kitchen during the pandemic, are a sensation on Facebook. The geezer is such a pro and so approachable. Here is his seminal tutorial on making an omelette.
Pepin has sprezzatura of craftsmanship— charming confidence that comes from high competence. In these videos, he gently stresses cooking technique while he invites you to raid your icebox or fridge for simple ingredients. Shortcuts and improvisations are most welcome. Why waste time on a roux when a bit of potato starch will do for a quick and delicious creamed chicken dish at home? Here’s the man making a cassoulet. The video now sits on the incomparable website of the Jacques Pepin Foundation that is a living library of all his televised demonstrations, tutorials and discussions.
For Pepin, the recipe is almost irrelevant. “I’m very Cartesian. I like to break down a recipe and show how it is done,” he says. “The paradox here is that I can do that recipe five times, and I will never do it exactly the same way but it will come out the same way. When you work in a restaurant, you don’t have a recipe. You do it from training, from instinct. It’s about adjusting balance.” Pepin arrives in the neighbourhood of a classic because he knows the taste he’s aiming for and knows how to get there, give or take a dash of Tabasco sauce. I think “cooking to taste” is an important stance not just in cooking but in all arts and crafts, particularly in the DIY Age. Affordable consumer software for music production, graphic design and digital art abounds. Yet knowing what you want say and how to say it is still the bedrock of good art. You may have good tools but without skills and vision and intent, do you have a good shot at your target? I’d rather eat the food of a guy with Betty Crocker knifes who has great technique and imagination than a poseur with expensive Japanese steel and no courage or sense of navigation.
Somebody of equal value to me as a guide and tutor is Rick Beato, the YouTube king of music analysis. Beato is at ease with Bach or the Beatles or even Olivia Rodrigo. And, of course, Phil Collins.
A music professor and professional producer, Beato knows music and how to play it. He loves getting inside a well-built piece of music and showing how it ticks and revealing all its tricks. Here’s Beato gracefully pulling apart a masterpiece from two musicians who knew exactly what they wanted to say and how to say it together. It’s worth noting that Pepin himself, after all his years toiling in kitchens, stresses the importance of teamwork and communication.
What Beato doesn’t love is lack of imagination in music.
This is not some fuddy-duddy monetizing “master classes” for nerds. Beato’s simply pointing out to there is far too much slavish adherence to recipes and formulas in contemporary music. All the notes that Bach and the Beatles had available are there for the picking, as it were. Why aren’t the kids using them to build better songs? You could argue that form over content is a large part of the problem. Production values and novelties tart up shoddy musical ideas. You can even buy countless midi packs with chord progressions and even melodies to imitate current hits.
Here Beato and veteran guitarist Steve Lukather (Toto, Michael Jackson) discuss, amongst other things, the impact of home recording technology on music and most importantly, craftsmanship.
Over the past few years I’ve taken great inspiration from both Pepin and Beato. The pandemic birthed many hobbyists. When I compose music, I cook to a taste, my taste. But I know that the listener is going to eat my food. In music, there is nowhere to hide. Everything has to be tune and the instruments have to sit properly in the mix. In short, balance is essential to good sonic cooking. I love guitars, I love subtle latin rhythms that don’t move too fast and I love spacey filigree that adds real depth of field to the sound and projects spectral harmonies. The result is country-fried surf music for late night on a beach in the tropics. Here is an example.
Ultimately, you have to respect the art form. You have to pay heed to the language of music — what it allows and what it demands. And above all, you have to be available to the music if and when it arrives as inspiration. Nothing’s going to happen if you’re not available. Or as Vangelis puts it, ready.
Music is fun work. You clock in and mess around with ideas. At the same time, you are exploring and testing the rules of harmony and the combination of colours. The result is something you want to share. Still, you may cook with good intentions but it still has to taste good.