At the age of 63 I decided to finally take guitar lessons. I have owned a beautiful Fender Stratocaster for years as well as an Epiphone Les Paul without really deserving either. For quite some time I have dabbled in building a repertoire of chords and trying to figure out some leads (without much success). Better late than never, I now find myself taking weekly lessons, practicing a bit every day and building an understanding of scales and how guitar music is put together. What strikes me now is the parallels between learning to really play the guitar (or any musical instrument) and learning to be a professional cook.
Let’s begin with tools. Just as I have no business owning a Stratocaster (hopefully that will change now), young, inexperienced cooks have no real business owning $300 knives. The guitar only makes great music when the player understands how to put together a piece of music and master the beauty of the instrument. A cook can truly only make great food when he or she understands the raw materials, the simplicity and complexity of building flavors and the beauty of the tools that they use. It has always dumbfounded me when an 18 year old walks into a kitchen with a set of Henckel’s (I still don’t own any).
Music, just like great food has a foundation to it that must become second nature to the musician. Until that is not just learned, but understood and appreciated, the music tends to lack a melodic quality. Until the cook understands and appreciates the foundations of cooking, their food will oftentimes lack focus and a balance of flavor. These foundations must become part of conscious memory. The use of the guitar must become an extension of the musician with fingering and song structure that is second nature to the person playing. With the cook, the same is true. The way that they handle a knife, prepare a pan for a piece of fish, build foundational flavors in a stock or even know when to pull a steak from a chargrill must become an extension of his or her conscious memory. On the guitar this is referred to as finger memory and in the kitchen it is the same.
When it happens both with the guitar and on the kitchen range – there is magic. Watching an accomplished guitarist is mesmerizing; watching an accomplished cook on the line, slicing fish for sashimi, sautéing vegetables or even dicing an onion can be just as mesmerizing. In both cases, what they do is second nature, they KNOW what to do and the tools (instruments) that they use become vehicles of a masterful expression.
In the early 70’s Eric Clapton, after time with the Yardbirds and John Mayall, formed a band called Cream. This was, to those of us around at that time, an incredible fusion of blues, jazz, rock and inspiration from some other planet. There is no question that Clapton was talented and creative beyond his years, but the music, although exciting, was hardly melodic and beautiful. Some referred to him, as a Guitar God at the time and even the most accomplished guitarist would bow to his creativity.
Today, chefs like Heston Blumenthal, Ferran Adria, Grant Achatz and Wiley Dufresne are drawing tremendous attention from the press and from their peers for their incredible creativity and riskiness with cooking. Everyone is turning his or her head to watch just as everyone turned his or her head to watch Clapton in those early days. The question is always – what is the longevity of their work, who will remember what they have done and will their style continue to have traction for decades to come? Fast forward to the year 2000 and beyond: Clapton is now considered one of the gentlemen musicians of an era. His technical mastery has fallen back to the foundations of melodic music and as a result he has transitioned from “Crossroads” in the seventies to “Born in Time” and “My Father’s Eyes” in recent years. His music has taken on a flavor that is well developed, balanced and yet still very exciting. It has finish, just like a great wine.
Blumenthal, Adria, Achatz and Dufresne are all extremely talented chefs but how will their cooking evolve into something more mature, melodic and balanced. The sign of great music is the desire of many to listen to it time and time again and savor the beauty of what is being offered. The sign of great cooking is the same to the diner.
It has taken decades for me to be truly comfortable with cooking. The process involved building a better understanding of the foundations and learning to imbed this understanding into my subconscious and conscious mind so that when presented with ingredients I know where to begin and where to end. I hope that in the years to come I can say the same about how I play that Stratocaster.
We can all learn from Eric Clapton. Finger memory, flavor memory, the foundations of a craft and respect for the tools that we use will always lead to great music and great food.
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC
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