Monday, April 14, 2008

Top Composer

I’ve been obsessed with "Top Chef" on the Bravo network for a while, but the thing is, since I watch so little TV at home, I mostly get to see it only when I’m in hotels. As I am on one of my Vermont Symphony residency weeks, I am in the Jackson Gore resort hotel at Okemo Mountain, and as it turns out, “Top Chef” is on all night. Good times.

It’s not your average “reality” show. The premise is that a group of sixteen emerging chefs is whittled down to one over the course of a season and the winner gets fame and riches (and a very nice set of knives). The chefs face various challenges against each other and are judged by four professionals from the field (regulars and famous guests). What makes the show different than say, MTV’s “Real World,” or more currently “American Idol,” is that all of the contestants (and judges) on “Top Chef” are experts. And in watching the show I realized how much similarity there is between chefs and composers.

Yeah, yeah, putting together ingredients to make a whole, but what was interesting to me was the sensitivity they had to the different flavors, styles, and textures, much like composers are particularly sensitive to pitch, rhythm, styles, and well, textures… And then some of the chefs have been big on “molecular” cooking. Is that like “spectral” music? I haven’t learned much about it, but it seems obvious that there would be schools of cooking as much as there are schools of composing. And it’s not just like a “French” style or type of cuisine, but actual developing approaches to the subject of cooking that evolve—sometimes growing into different ideas, and sometimes dying away. Perhaps I can create my own schools of cooking based on major trends in 20th century music:

Minimalism: Chefs prepare the same dish every night but change one seasoning per meal. The food must be very palatable and have very few ingredients.

Serialism: Chefs can’t prepare the same dish until they have cycled through all other available dishes first. Early cooks used to just change the entrée every night, but now chefs will rotate the appetizer, dessert, drinks, and even the silverware.

Expressionism: Waiters must scream about the futility and absurdity of life as they bring the food. Interpretive dance a must.

Neo-Classicism: Features only food cooked and preserved for long periods of time. The cutlery is new, however.

Experimentalism: Chefs will try to cook any object to try to make it edible. Particularly requested was a piece for cooked amplified cactus. The famous chef Jean Cage once prepared and served a dish with nothing on the plate.

The New Complexity: That the food will be so full of different flavors will make it too difficult to taste on a first setting. That it’s too difficult to prepare makes this culinary movement ultimately theoretical.

Impressionism: Flavors are vague and ambiguous…food is made light and fluffy, like clouds, really…not sure what that was I just ate, but it tastes like chicken…or did it?

So those are some examples we can pursue. As a side note, I brought this idea before my Second Viennese School at Curtis and we decided that for a final class we’ll make a large serialized pizza. We’ll get twelve different toppings and put each one on a slice, not repeating any topping until all eleven others are adorned on the pie. Then we decided not to tell anyone about this plan because it was too dorky for public consumption.

It’s now a few days later and I’m finishing up this blog addition at the Green Mountain Coffee factory store and café in Waterbury, VT. Good coffee and free wireless? I think I’ll order a cot.

So I did notice one competition between the chefs on the program which was to go shopping and prepare dishes that used no more than five ingredients. At first I wasn’t sure how the judges could tell if the contestants violated the rules, but then I realized that these are experts—they have the kind of palette that can know exactly what is at work in what they are eating, much as a well-trained musician with good ears can hear what is happening on the deepest levels of the music and how it is put together, down to scales, motives, and notes. And as we may enjoy a good meal as much as the next person, does anyone doubt that the more time we spend knowing about food and preparing it that we taste more and (hopefully) enjoy it more profoundly? The same must be true with music.

So take that cooking, I mean, music class you’ve been putting off but meaning to take! Or just listen to Beethoven like you would eat an expertly prepared meal, with the care and a slowness that we seem to lose in our daily concerns.