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Questlove’s Search for Culinary Creativity: The 10 Best Quotes in ‘somethingtofoodabout’

Insights from chefs like Daniel Humm, Dominique Crenn, Dave Beran, and Michael Solomonov

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Courtesy of Clarkson Potter. Cover art by Reed Barrow. Photography by Kyoko Hamada
Courtesy of Clarkson Potter. Cover art by Reed Barrow. Photography by Kyoko Hamada
Hillary Dixler Canavan is Eater's restaurant editor and the author of the publication's debut book, Eater: 100 Essential Restaurant Recipes From the Authority on Where to Eat and Why It Matters (Abrams, September 2023). Her work focuses on dining trends and the people changing the industry — and scouting the next hot restaurant you need to try on Eater's annual Best New Restaurant list.

Questlove loves food. The musician and DJ is best known for his work drumming for the Roots and for doing said drumming on the Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon — but in the food world, he's known as something of a gastronomic connoisseur and enthusiast. He's been the subject of Food & Wine articles and has appeared on Anthony Bourdain's Parts Unknown. He even, briefly, owned a fried chicken restaurant. And now, he has a culinary-themed book.

With somethingtofoodabout, Quest (aka Philadelphia's Ahmir Thompson) dives head first into the topics that get chefs talking: What is creativity? How are art and food related? What does the future hold for food and cooking? Questlove sits down with some of the most exceptional chefs in America, including Daniel Humm (Eleven Madison Park), Dominique Crenn (Atelier Crenn), Michael Solomonov (Zahav), and Daniel Patterson (Coi). While at a glance the book, co-authored by journalist Ben Greenman, scans as a series of chef interviews, Questlove himself plays an equal part in getting the answers, providing examples and references to his own life as a musician and creator as he talks with food luminaries about the thorny questions surrounding creativity.

The book hits shelves Tuesday, April 12. Here are some highlights:

Anthony Bourdain, on the power of food:

"Food can be magic. It is magic. And yet it's not. It comes from somewhere — and from someplace and someone. Always. Food tells a story. Usually a very personal one."

Questlove, on why most of the chefs in his book are white men:

"Sometimes I would visit restaurants and see pretty quickly that I was the only black person in the room. Those moments made it clear that I had been invited because of my celebrity, or because I could foot the bill. It wasn't that I would have been disqualified because of my color, at least not in any overt way. But it was clear from almost any restaurant that diversity wasn't a priority. Here, I'm talking not only about the people in dining rooms, but the people in the kitchens. There aren't large numbers of black or Hispanic chefs in charge of the country's best restaurants. The same low-representation problem affects female chefs as well. The further I got into this book, the more I wanted to make sure that I handled the issue. But I wanted to handle it in a specific way. I knew fairly early on that I didn't want to artificially inflate the numbers of minority and female chefs I was talking to. That would have been a kind of tokenism, a gesture that would have sidestepped the problem. Instead, I wanted to talk to chefs and ask them, whenever possible, why they thought that the food world was so white and male dominated."

Daniel Humm, on having a reason behind a dish:

"It's important that it all makes sense, that the feeling makes sense. Sometimes I see young chefs putting things together, but they don't have the context, and when you eat the dish they have prepared, you feel it doesn't make sense at all."

Michael Solomonov, on how his relationship to innovation has changed as he's gotten older:

"I have kids now and I didn't have kids before. That's a major change that forces ideas to do a kind of double duty — on the one hand, I want my kids to see what it's like to be creative, though also ideas have to work more often than not because I want my family to be secure. It's very different than it used to be, when I was a young, work-addicted, narcissistic chef. As an older, more experienced chef, I have to be careful about innovation — or, at least, careful about letting innovation run wild and take you heedlessly past all the other requirements of a good restaurant."

Questlove, on practicing and keeping your head down:

"Don't show 'em what you've got, at least not right away. You need time to cook. I don't mean time to cook. I mean time to be cooked until you're finished, to figure out whether what you love is a hobby or a career — and, if it's a career, what kind of career is it?"

Dave Beran, executive chef at Chicago's Next, on how restaurants are like theater:

"Well, the menu is very musical, but the restaurant as a whole is theatrical. We try not to say that in those exact words because people take it the wrong way. It can sound gimmicky, like a theme restaurant. But if you were to walk into the restaurant between menus and see the basic space you just see dark wood tables, blank walls, and a neutral space. It's similar to a stage. It's nothing, but when you add one chair then suddenly it takes on a personality."

Louisiana chef Donald Link, on stubborn customers:

"At one point, I opened a second branch of Cochon in Lafayette, in Cajun country, and that didn't work out well. People out there had an even more specific and conservative idea of what the cuisine is and what it's not. They accepted only the most traditional dishes: gumbo, jambalaya, etouffee ... And I don't think that with most of these customers, their resistance to my food was hugely considered. It was simply that their moms cooked it a certain way, and so that's the only way, and everything else is crap."

Questlove, on eating in the South:

"Deep South food has one scary dimension, which is that you can only go back so many years before you bump into something dark in history. It's not Cochon's responsibility, and I feel it more in other places than in Louisiana, but it's really a factor. I was in Mobile, Alabama recently, and there was a diner there that had a big plate-glass window in front. It was about to be dusk. There were these great old trees outside, and as the sun went down, the trees started to look haunting and threatening. I asked my tour manager how old the trees were and the answer came back: hundreds of years old. So these are the trees that my forefathers hanged from? I felt like they were going to come to life and chase me. It was too authentic."

Dominique Crenn, on the important of mistakes:

"It's important for us to do things that don't work. When you try them and they don't seem to be panning out, you make a note if it. Then may you revisit them right away or put them in a drawer and you can go back to that later. 'Remember when we did that?' It was an interesting idea but it was not the result we wanted to achieve. Going back, trying again, helps you to achieve and to better yourself."

Daniel Patterson, on the art versus craft in food:

"I don't really think of cooking as an art form. I think of it as a craft. I think that what we do is more like building furniture or building a masonry wall. If you do it well, if you spend time learning, you can eventually do something that's artistic as well as functional. But there's still a distinction. To me, art is something that's removed from our basic sustenance, whereas food is is something that's linked to it."

Reprinted from somethingtofoodabout: Exploring Creativity with Innovative Chefs. Copyright © 2016 by Ahmir Khalib Thompson and Ben Greenman. Photographs copyright © 2016 by Kyoko Hamada. Published by Clarkson Potter, an imprint of Penguin Random House, LLC.