It takes a bit of genius, a curious mind, and a deep, deep love of food to find the missing link between the Wu-Tang Clan and molecular gastronomy. Or to grapple with the question: what is food for thought? Who cooks it … and why? What, for that matter, is a restaurant? And what does this tell us about our culture and the nature of creativity? The answers, sort of, are the backbone of Somethingtofoodabout: Exploring Creativity with Innovative Chefs, a wildly original food and photography book hitting stores today, April 12.
It’s not a cookbook. There are no recipes; no food porn. It’s more of a free-ranging food salon hosted by the Roots’ Questlove (Clarkson Potter), house drummer for the Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon. The famed hip-hop artist, who leads a double-life as culinary thinker and obsessive Instagrammer, calls it “a journey into the creative process of the (ten) craziest, most awe-inspiring chefs working today.”
That’s just the beginning. Kyoko Hamada’s photography is shatteringly fun and imaginative—the dessert for Questlove’s far-flung conversations. In one chapter, Seattle’s Nathan Myhrvold (the David Wallace Foster of modernist food) makes an argument for “uncomfortable food.” In another, we learn how the ghost of Miles Davis hovers over Daniel Humm at New York’s legendary Eleven Madison Park (“You have to understand the ground rules so that you can decide when to break them”).
But what really fires up Questlove? Portland, which he calls his “No. 1 city in the world.” Not just the vintage record stores (though that's part of it), but the intense embrace of personal style. “It’s the first place that I ever saw a PB&J food truck,” he writes. “The city is also great for inspiring its chefs to move into uncharted waters.” And that leads him to the most surprising chapter in the star-studded book: Portland’s Ryan Roadhouse of Nodoguro, PoMo’s Restaurant of the Year 2015.
In a tiny Southeast Portland restaurant, with a fraction of the budget of the book’s big-name chefs, Roadhouse has grilled, cured, and hardcore sushi-ied a fresh vision of Japanese dining with all the technique, but none of the rules. Sure, the inspiration for Nodoguro’s constantly changing menus is Japanese cooking, but also cultural touchstones for the chef and his wife Elena—perhaps an author, director, or indie band. Suddenly, word play and decorations condense into tasting menus of remarkable precision (without a hint of ego). Nodoguro’s unusual process leads Questlove to ask: “Can high-end cuisine also be pop culture?”
As the answer unspools over 20 pages, a wonderful side story emerges: for the book, Questlove had the Roadhouses remount Nodoguro’s surreal Twin Peaks dinner in Los Angeles for director David Lynch—Japanese-tinged “sheriff’s office” donuts and all. The setting: Chateau Marmont, in the room where John Belushi committed suicide. “The vibe was weird,” remembers Roadhouse in a recent phone interview. “The staff believed the room was ‘haunted.’ There wasn’t much kitchen equipment. We were told Lynch could only stay for 35 minutes. And also: ‘Don’t stare at him; don’t photograph him.’ It was so intimidating. He arrived and everything changed. He was so excited to be there.”
When Roadhouse served Lynch his reimagined "fish in a percolator," the director recounted how that moment came about on the cult TV show. As the story goes, Lynch once had some truly, truly awful coffee with a friend. His friend didn’t notice. It turned out the coffee pot was holding a bar of soap inside.
As Lynch ate Roadhouse's dish (cod with dashi poured from a percolator), he flashed a great, weird grin. “For me, the circle was complete,” says Roadhouse. “A memory inspired him to put something in a TV show, which inspired me to put something on my menu … and now I’m serving that idea to Lynch. It was an amazing moment.”
Now that is somethingtofoodabout.