I was planning to go home and cook something from Made in India for dinner. Instead I sat amongst the crowd in a full theater at New York Times to listen to Kim Severson speak with Questlove, whose book somethingtofoodabout: Exploring Creativity with Innovative Chefs went on sale Tuesday.
As I waited for the talk to begin, I scrolled through Instagram and looked at what other people, most of whom I do not know, were eating; I clicked on the geotags to see where they were eating it; and I read through the menus online. (I did not end up cooking anything for dinner.)
Questlove was also on his phone—and not just before the show, but on stage, too. Severson opened the interview, hosted by TimesTalks, by showing the audience a video he'd posted on Instagram at 2 A.M. the night before.
“He is a compulsive Instagrammer,” writes Anthony Bourdain in the book’s foreword, and, proving that point, Questlove goes on to mention the social media platform three times in his introduction: “My Instagram blew up,” he recalls of his meal at Sukiyabashi Jiro, the restaurant made famous in the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi.
People couldn’t get enough of my comments about my food, even though they could no more taste it than I could jump through the screen and taste what they were eating—meatloaf in Miami, or pho in Phoenix.
He had tapped into (and now, spurs on) the flurry that surrounds looking at and talking about food. But excitement about cooking it? Not so much. A recent article in The Atlantic named Michael Pollan's "overarching lament" as the notion "that Americans are transfixed with the culture of food, but not with the actual cooking of food." And Pollan's not just imagining it: The Atlantic points to data from the U.S. Commerce Department that, for the first time on record, consumers spent more money at restaurants and bars than at grocery stores in March of 2015. (Questlove himself does not cook—or at least not often. When Severson asked him if he had interest in learning, he said it would be "only because" his Roots partner Tariq Trotter is so skilled.)
In many ways, this book—which is grouped under "Arts and Photography" on Amazon and makes no conceit about being a cookbook—reflects that visual fixation, where gazing at food is more desirable than preparing it, where food—as Severson herself put it—"is cultural currency and all brands are extending" into it, crowding the space. The bulk of Questlove's book consists of interviews with ten innovative chefs around the country, most of whom run restaurants you and I will likely never set foot inside, whose food we'll only ever see through a phone screen.
Some of these chefs (Questlove referred to them, during the Severson talk, as "culinary artists"—"not to sound pretentious but as a level of respect"), like Daniel Humm and Eleven Madison Park: The Cookbook or Nathan Myhrvold and Modernist Cuisine, have cookbooks—if you can call them that.
Humm answered the question of whether people can cook from his book with "yes-ish," and an Eater feature from 2011 put it frankly: "Let's be real: you're not buying this book for the articles, are you? This is some epic food porn."
Somethingtofoodabout shrugs off the cookbook genre altogether, forgoing recipes in favor of multi-page, text-packed discussions and beauty shots of finished dishes for Kyoko Hamada's photographs of petrified dinosaur poop (page 25) and "shrimp on a log with strawberries and bean sorbet" (page 118). In doing so, it takes the look-but-can't-touch "food porn" that has migrated from coffee table "cookbooks" and onto Instagram (a territory he's conquered) one step further.
Questlove is relying on the energy that "blew up" his posts from Jiro's restaurants to propel his book: He's counting on an audience eager to eat vicariously through him. I include myself among them.
But the traditional pornographic elements of food are out of the picture—in place of runny yolks and half-glazed cakes, you find food (but is it food?) as forbidden, as enticing, in its complexity. (This is a type of pornography less lascivious and more off-limits.) And so the book becomes not only about food we will never taste, but also about a world that we will never be a part of and never fully understand.
When Questlove asks Ludo Lefebvre of Trois Mec in L.A. whether customers would realize if he did not source the best ingredients, he answers, "The strange thing with food is that vegetables and meats of worse quality are so plentiful that people get accustomed to them. Those bad foods help to form people’s taste and their sense of what is desirable.” Hear that? We're all living with blinders on. We barely know the difference between good and bad ingredients, the very core of cooking.
And not only that, but we might not understand what cooking even is. Lefebvre didn't know until he studied with Alain Passard, chef at L'Arpège (three Michelin stars) in Paris: "Mr. Passard opened my mind about what is cooking. The sizzling. All this poetry and message. Cooking with my ear. All this new language, new vocabulary I never learned before in the kitchen." The interviews are often intimidating like this: "You know so little about food, about artistry," they chastise, if inadvertently.
But the true beauty of somethingtofoodabout is that this world—desirable in its elusiveness, mysterious in its wizardry—is not an impenetrable fortress, for we have Questlove as our guide. His Instagram account is public, after all; through social media and through insight into his personal relationships, he grants us access to an exclusive world we might never have known to look at before.
Questlove is relatable, he's personable, and he doesn't come across as serious as the "culinary artists" he speaks with. He's like us. He’s an equal-opportunity eater who admits that his palate is still young: “If you put it in front of me, I’ll devour it,” Questlove summarized to Severson. He told the TimesTalk audience that there was a point when he was living on nothing but cereal (his favorite is Peanut Butter Cap’n Crunch) and that when it comes to the Thanksgiving plate, he’s a “cranberry guy—but not the homemade kind.” He'd never touch a salad if left to his own devices and if he's having conversations with these chefs, so can—so are—we.
Which explains why somethingtofoodabout is as much, if not more, about Questlove than it is about any of the people he interviews. It explains why the questions that he asks are as long as the answers he receives; why he inserts annotations on every page; why the ten starring chefs were barely mentioned during the Severson talk; why three of Eater's top ten quotes from the book are from Questlove himself; and why Bourdain writes somethingtofoodabout "offers some evidence of his reach, the depth of his interest—and his extraordinary good taste [italics for emphasis].”
Just take a look at the cover, not a representation of any or all of the chefs but rather an image of Questlove, front and center. It’s a formal portrait of a great man, set against a black background that's somber and uninviting. It's like something you’d find on the wall of a rich person’s home, but then not at all: His glasses are Twizzlers, his hair pick is a fork, his bowtie is an iced cookie, his vegetal lips are in a slight smile.
And yet as much as Questlove acts as an entry point into a closed world of elite chefs, there are constant reminders of the distance that exists not only between the reader and these culinary innovators, but between the readers and the guide himself (even if he likes cereal and can make an audience laugh).
During the TimesTalk, Severson described the food salons that Questlove hosts at his New York apartment, where he brings in the world’s best chefs to cook for the likes of Bjork, Chris Rock, and, in Questlove’s own words, “all walks of life—my landlord comes.” Severson turned to the crowd, laughed, and said “It was fun and y’all will never come,” to which Questlove responded, “Now I’ll have to personally invite every person in this room.” We all knew that was never going to happen. Sure, you can "like" as many photos of the food Questlove is eating—you still won't be eating it.
He's aware that he's part of a world the reader is not. "Incidentally,” he writes in an annotation to the interview with Lefebvre, “it’s even harder to get into Trois Mec than it is to get into the Roots Picnic. So don’t be callin’ me for the guest list (you know who are).” A funny, personal aside, yes—but also a reminder of our place in this relationship: We are the spectators.
But, but, but despite all of this—despite readers' outsider status; despite the recipes that we're not even given the chance to make; despite the hard-to-interpret words and images that expose our ignorance and hint at others' genius; despite the fact that we're onlookers rather than participants—somethingaboutfood is connective.
Dave Beran, executive chef at Next in Chicago, doesn't like bell peppers (in any color) or celery—that's humanizing. Daniel Humm "[doesn't] cook just for people who know food. I cook for everyone. I want everyone to enjoy this food. I want it to be delicious whether or not you are a professional"—that's assuring. And Michael Solomonov confesses that "the food world can feel indulgent" when he thinks about countries without water or education—that's refreshing; that's honest.
So yes, somethingtofoodabout is another example of America's food fixation: focused on restaurants and social cachet rather than cooking—a loss for Michael Pollan, a win for Instagram. But it's also an opportunity—one that's given more freely to other artists—for chefs to articulate their thoughts and calculations.
"I hate saying this and I hate hearing this, but I also believe it," Michael Solomonov says in his interview: "it’s just food. Our primary purpose is to feed people." Yet here, Questlove explains how food can have meaning even for those of us it doesn't feed directly—he pulls apart those pictures, the ones we all "like" on Instagram, and unearths the real and inspiring thought behind them.