I was 14 years old when my parents took me to see Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich play at a small club in Buffalo. At that age I was convinced that becoming a drummer could easily be my life’s mission. I owned an incomplete, not very high quality, drum kit and could barely carry a beat, but there was something about holding those sticks that was gratifying, invigorating. Watching and listening to two of the masters of the beat was humbling, even for a 14 year old. I played briefly in a couple bands while I was a teenager, but never really had the chops to be serious about the craft, even though I never lost my passion for music of all types. What did happen back then, I think, was the nurturing of a desire, a need, to do something with my life that was creative.
I was a studied observer and listener (and still am), building a collection of music that was borderline obsessive – always wishing that I had the talent and more appropriately – the patience to develop the skill necessary to live my interest in musical artistry. I saw countless concerts from jazz to blues, rock to folk, alternative to classical – always looking past the enjoyment of the sound and spending even more time watching the expression of dedication, the oneness that musicians, bands, and orchestras had with the expression of sound. I learned that although there is no doubt that a few chosen people are born with the gift of music, most acquire the skill through hard work, total immersion in the craft and the instrument, and the power that music holds. There is something magical about the connection that musicians have to the instrument and the interplay that exists between those who share the magic.
It became obvious to me that when incredible music happens there is so much more at play than being able to read a chart, properly finger the frets on a guitar, keep a beat, or know where your fingers should rest on a keyboard. Musicians depend on interplay, the electricity of being on the same page, trust, common vision, and all types of communication as well as talent. I could distinguish, quite easily, between musicians who were conditioned to the structure of reading music vs. those that felt the music, were connected with others in a band, and were locked into the audience that they played for. There was (is) an energy that certain musicians are able to tap into, an energy that others seem to miss. When that energy is tapped into – the music is magical.
I remember watching John McLaughlin, by far one of the most incredible guitarists to emerge through the mentorship of Miles David, lead his group – The Mahavishnu Orchestra, in a concert backed by the entire Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra. I watched McLaughlin and his violinist, Jean Luc Ponty, rip through some incredible music as the enormously talented philharmonic musicians looked on in amazement. The band was tapped into the energy.
So..I never became a musician, I gave away my drums more than 40 years ago, and although I have two under-utilized electric guitars leaning against my office wall, my musical prowess is limited to that unfaltering desire to listen to the magic that others make.
“He had a theory that musicians are incredibly complex, and know far less than other artists what they want and what they are; that they puzzle themselves as well as their friends; that their psychology is a modern development, and has not yet been understood.”
― E.M. Forster
What did happen to me was the discovery of another field of study that borrows generously from that of energized musicians – I became a cook. What are the parallels?
Musicians and cooks share the following:
 DISCIPLINE: Before putting their signature on a piece of music or a restaurant dish – musicians and cooks work very hard at understanding the basics. Musicians learn chord structure and scales, fingering, bending strings, how to hold drumsticks for the best responsiveness, sustain and feedback, and all of the nuances that the instrument can bring. Cooks learn proper knife technique, the foundational cooking methods, building flavor layers through cooking technique and seasoning, and how to adjust based on the maturity of ingredients. In both cases, before the artist is able to call a piece of music or a dish his or her own, he or she must be disciplined enough the build a foundation of knowledge and skill.
“Jazz musicians can improvise based on his (or her) knowledge of music. They understand how things go together. For a chef, once you have the basics, that’s when cuisine is really exciting.”
 DEDICATION: Jimi Hendrix would often sleep with his guitar – it rarely left his side or his thoughts. Many cooks and chefs that I know are always thinking about, talking about, or working with food in an effort to build their skill. Just as musicians are always looking for that next great melody or killer lick, so too are great cooks seeking ways to improve a dish or create a new, exciting flavor profile.
 PRACTICE: Practice, constant practice, allows an artist’s craft to become fluid. When a musician is able to jam with a band it is due to his or her absolute understanding of what works and where the music is capable of going. It is the same in the kitchen. A sign of an accomplished cook is the ability to know how a dish will taste before it is even prepared, know how a combination of ingredients will work before even touching them with a knife or heat. This mastery can only come from constant, focused, serious practice.
 SHARED ENERGY: If you have enjoyed the experience of a band that can stray from the structure of a song as in jazz or jazz related rock – when the music is alive and fluid and being re-created in the moment, then you know how extraordinary it can be when this shared energy is ignited. Miles Davis, Weather Report, Jeff Beck, Cream, and many others had this magic well within their control. A similar experience can be observed in a busy kitchen when the line is really humming, cooks are tasting and adjusting, plates are being set, the timing is perfect, and a shared sense of energy allows it to work even better as the tickets spill out faster than the expeditor can call them out.
What is most interesting is that this is not something that works well with interchangeable parts. When a band, an orchestra, or a restaurant line team has reached that magical point of unity then it is not easy to change players and expect the same result. The band “Journey” engaged in psychotherapy and meditation to try and build the group to that point of perfect chemistry.
 SHARED LEADERSHIP AND SHARED FOLLOWERSHIP: With both musicians in a band and cooks on a line, when they reach symmetry it is easy for leadership to change back and forth in a seamless manner. Musicians will often take on a solo while the rest of the band plays support just as a specific cook will find his or her station playing center stage only to find that 30 minutes later the focus will shift to another station. This happens when the team or the band finds that point of shared energy and instinctive flexibility and when egos are put aside for a moment in time.
“All musicians are potential band leaders.”
 RESPECT: Musicians who are comfortable with their own abilities will more often than not share a mutual respect for any other musician who has mastered his or her craft and who adds a dynamic that is uniquely theirs. Cooks, when they feel that their skills are where they should be will feel the same about their peers, their organizational superiors, and even cooks from other restaurants. Both will also share respect for the traditions and foundations of music or cooking that built a path for their abilities and performance.
 TRUST: The ability to play with comfort or even reckless abandon comes from a level of trust that all cooks and musicians share. This does not infer that trust is lacking in structure or organization. Frank Zappa was one of the most adventurous musicians of the 20th century. He hired musicians who shared this passion to push the envelope, yet at the same time he was a tough taskmaster who insisted that this adventurous approach was well executed. Grant Achatz and Ferran Adria are no different in their approach towards an adventurous cooking that whether we like it or not – will help us to learn and grow as we pay attention to their structured experimentation and trust in creativity.
 PASSION FOR THE CRAFT: Finally, the best musicians, regardless of genre, and the best cooks, regardless of cuisine, are first and foremost – passionate about what they do, how well they do it, and their desire to learn and grow. This is likely why it is very common to find cooks and chefs who are also musicians or at least, in my case, avid lovers of those who can play with skill and confidence.
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC
Restaurant and Culinary School Consulting and Training
WANT TO FIND OUT MORE ABOUT THE MUSICIANS MENTIONED IN THIS ARTICLE?
Buddy Rich and Gene Krupa:
The Mahavishnu Orchestra with John McLaughlin: