• UO Interviews: Questlove

    You may know him as the charismatic percussionist from the Grammy award-winning band, The Roots, or from his numerous DJ gigs around the world, but Questlove’s creativity extends well beyond music. Following up his autobiographical Mo’ Meta Blues, the tireless polymath has once again taken to the the printed page to tackle his next big topic: food. His latest book, somethingtofoodabout, explores the intersection of creativity and culinary craft, as Questlove interviews the country’s most celebrated chefs in hopes of answering the important questions: Can food be art? Can art be food? We caught up with Questlove ahead of his upcoming book signings at UO's Herald Square Store and Space 98 to talk about the constantly-evolving process of writing the book and what it taught him about creativity. 

    Let’s begin the way you begin your interviews with the chefs in the book. What’s the first restaurant you remember going to?
    Of the ones in the book? It was probably Eleven Madison Park, because it's in New York, though it's possible it was Trois Mec in Los Angeles. I'm pretty sure that It started on a coast and moved inward from there. If you mean the first restaurant in general, it was an Italian spot in Philadelphia called Pagan's. It's funny, because that place then closed and reopened as a kind of nightclub that hosted the first Roots gig.

    In your forward to Something to Food About, you credit a trip to Sukiyabashi Jiro for opening your eyes to the breadth of the food world. Can you recall a similar moment when music first spoke to you? 
    I can recall a million moments like that. Maybe there are a billion. One of the earliest is when I heard Bill Withers' "Take It All In And Check It All Out" as a very young child. I started playing along on an ashtray. There is just something about the sound of it. That was before I really knew how sound was put together, but I sensed it. Then, much later, the Roots were playing a show with the Pharcyde. I was out in the parking lot, and I heard J. Dilla's kick drums. I didn't really believe what I was hearing. They were so asymmetrical, so strange, and revolutionary. I never knew that things could be programmed that way. It put a strange drunk kind of humanity back into machines.

    How did growing up in Philadelphia shape the way you think about food?
    There are the obvious answers: cheese steaks, water ices. It's a city that has a long, long food tradition. The oldest restaurants are the taverns, some of which have been open continuously for 150 years. But there's also a big vendor culture. When I was growing up, and the city was renouncing a bit, there were high-end French places, one of the best in the world at the time. But I have my own personal hit list from when I grew up. I remember Mama Angelina's, which put in video games and got all the goodwill from kids it could get. I went to places like Harris and Pete's & Jerry's for breakfast before school. And I can't forget the Lap Dance at Bottom of the Sea on 52nd and Pine: fish sandwiches like you've never had. 

    When you get the chance, do you do much cooking yourself?
    I don't really. I'm amazed by it, and would always like to do more, but I am more in the enthusiast column than the practitioner column.

    From a photographic standpoint, Something to Food About is unlike any book about food we’ve seen. What was it about Kyoto Hamada’s work that made her right for Something To Food About?
    She just has such a great way of making things pop off the page. Food is all about smell and taste when you're eating it, but the rest of the time it's all about color and texture and shadow and shape. That's what she does. She makes those things work. And she has a really weird sense of humor sometimes, which helps to offset the seriousness of the subject. It just works. 

    Throughout the book you use food as a lens through which to explore the culture in which we live. In particular, you ask some poignant questions about race and gender diversity within the food industry. What did you learn from broaching these topics with the chefs you interviewed?
    I learned that it's a tricky thing that isn't completely solved. And it can't be. There are lots of deep issues here. African-American communities have an issue with the food world, because it's associated with the service industry, which in turn is associated with some old issues around slavery and servitude. In the modern world, there's not lots of diversity for other reasons related to entrenched racism. For decades, there wasn't any equality when it came to business loans or opportunity, for example. The same is true, in different ways, with female chefs. There are some areas where they are very well represented, like in pastry, and other areas where they're more scarce. Recently, at one of my Food Salons, Marcus Samuelsson discussed the issue, too, and he said many of the same thing. It's something I have kept exploring and will continue to explore.

    You use footnotes throughout the book to elaborate on the questions you ask, but also to break the fourth wall and address the reader directly. What compelled you to take a more meta approach to writing Something to Food About?
    I was mo meta in Mo Meta Blues, and I was mo meta again here. It seemed like a good way to show how I was learning as I went.

    In the book you write that the best restaurants are always evolving, pushing their craft forward. As the book progresses, your interviews begin to evolve as well. Was it a conscious choice to mirror the creative processes of the chefs you were writing about?
    Not conscious, no, but like I said, I learned as I went. 

    What was the hardest part about writing somethingtofoodabout?
    Just hoping that I could do justice to the chefs and their creative processes. When I went to Jiro and the lightbulb went on about chefs and art, I started to see all the connections between what they do and what I do: not just playing music, but DJing, or designing objects, or producing, or even writing. I hope that I was able to connect the dots in a way that worked.

    Throughout the book you mention the impermanence of a great meal. The recipe can be written down, like sheet music, but there’s no way to record the full experience of food. Are there any particular meals you’ve had that you wish you could savor forever?
    That would be wishing for the impossible. One thing that I learned from chefs was that even if you want things to last, you also have to get used to the idea that the past is the past. 

    What do you hope readers get out of your book?
    I hope they get different things out of it. I hope that some of them learn new things about chefs they already know. I hope that others learn about chefs they've never encountered before. I hope that others think that the cover photo is cool and get drawn in and discover that they cared about food all along, even if they didn't know it. And I hope readers see this book as not only a food book, but a continuation of a long conversation I have been having around the creative process, and will continue to have. 

    Now that you’ve had the chance to interview some of your favorite chefs from around the country, where will food take you next?
    To lunch. In the larger sense, who knows? I want to keep doing these books, maybe about other places in the world. I included in this book only chefs in America that I admire as fellow creatives, but I travel internationally a lot and have a well documented love affair with Europen and Southeast Asian cuisine. I hope to continue these discussions around creativity and innovation with my chef friends overseas.  I also have these Food Salons that I hold in my home in NYC, and that's going to keep happening. The list of people wanting to get in keeps getting longer and longer. I just got a call today from James Spader. 

    Join us on Monday, May 2nd at UO’s Herald Square store as we host a conversation and book signing with Questlove hosted by Anthony Bourdain and Chef Ludo. And stop by Space 98 the following night, Tuesday, May 3rd, for an accompanying conversation and book signing with Questlove  hosted by Carrie Brownstein and Chef Dominique Crenn. 
    Buy somethingtofoodabout