“Will Cooking Make You a Better Musician?” by PJ Sauerteig ’15

While I identify as a musician today, there was a time when I flirted seriously with the idea of becoming a chef. By the time I graduated from the College, I had been lucky enough to intern in two kitchens — one back home in Indiana, and one in midtown Manhattan. (In the food world, these short-term internships are called stages — a young chef works without pay in a celebrated kitchen soaking up techniques, mastering recipes and earning a nice résumé booster). My eyes were opened to chefs’ grueling work, little pay and horrific schedules. I chose another career path, but still cook, eat out and devour new cookbooks as often as I can. I’m realizing that my dual love of music and cuisine is not coincidental, because wherever I find incredible food, music is usually close at hand.

Chefs are often music obsessives, and it’s not uncommon for them to have musical backgrounds. Alain Passard, mastermind of the three-Michelin-star L’Arpege in Paris, is the son of a musician father and plays the saxophone — “L’Arpege” literally means “arpeggio.” The late Charlie Trotter, who reshaped Chicago’s food culture, likened his own cooking to jazz improvisation. The owners of New York’s Eleven Madison Park claim that the restaurant’s most central inspiration is the music of Miles Davis. Le Bernardin’s Eric Ripert once gave an entire interview about the parallels of music and cuisine (and his friendship with Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters).

And don’t forget those from the music world who have their own deep-seated culinary passions. In 2015, James Murphy of LCD Sound System opened a wine bar in Brooklyn. That same year, two members of Arcade Fire announced they, too, would open a restaurant (in Montreal). Chris Taylor, of indie darling Grizzly Bear, took time away from music to train at top European kitchens and publish a cookbook. Hip-hop artist Kelis landed her own Food Network show in 2014, and Food Network stars Alton Brown and Duff Goldman (Ace of Cakes) are musicians in their own right.

I’m sure a scientist could explain exactly how music and food trigger the same synapses, something about pleasure centers, brain stuff — all well beyond my psychology minor. What I’m increasingly convinced of is that music and cuisine both boil down to the same laws of harmony and balance. In music, one must strike a balance on the sound spectrum (basses on the low end, piccolos on the high end). In cooking, that’s not so different from striking a balance on the flavor spectrum: combining fat, acid, salty and sweet together for a perfect plate.

By way of analogy, eating an entire bowl of mayonnaise would be monotonous agony — almost like listening to one single note played over and over for 10 minutes straight. Chefs and musicians both must take a jumble of disparate elements and arrange them beside each other just so — such that each, somehow, complements the others, striking a chord that is greater than the sum of its parts. When that balance isn’t there, we notice. We’d notice if a rock band came onstage with seven bass players and no guitar players: all low-end with no mid-range. Or if a pop song had too many verses, no bridge and not enough emphasis on the chorus. And we’d definitely notice if our trail mix came with 99 peanuts and one M&M: all salty and no sweet. A tasting menu with two savory dishes and 14 dessert courses? Good luck with that.

My interest in food has shaped the way I approach music in a number of ways, but this aching for balance tops the list. One of my favorite ways that chefs and musicians strike that perfect harmony is through subtle layering. You might think your favorite song is just a singer, a guitar, bass, piano and drums. But if you listen closely, I’ll bet the band and its producer have slipped in a host of other barely audible tracks. You aren’t necessarily meant to hear these; rather, a keyboard here, a tambourine there and some backing vocals all flesh out a rich sound and help the main instruments shine. And if even one of these tucked-away layers was removed, the song would somehow feel emptier, even lopsided.

We see this same sort of magical layering in kitchens. For instance, ginger is a famous sidekick to peaches, and any great peach pie or cobbler you’ve enjoyed probably had a whisper of ginger. The point is not to taste the ginger — it’s to taste a miraculously more peach-y, lustrous peach. And there’s something almost symphonic in a rack of BBQ ribs: garlic, smoke, flame, paprika, chili, vinegar, pepper, salt and countless other flavors all woven together, all humming beneath the surface to create an impossibly rich bite.

One last point. For as long as I can remember, I’ve felt uncomfortable writing straightforward pop songs. Some internal tick pushes me into more experimental, conceptual territory. Perhaps it’s because my dad raised me on prog rock (God bless those exhausting concept albums, with 20-minute songs, tempo changes and gratuitous flute solos). But just because a piece of music sounds interesting in theory does not mean it’s actually fun to listen to. You’ll remember John Cage’s 4'33 from Music Hum, where he sits at the piano for four minutes and thirty-three seconds in silence? Interesting in theory, or for its conceptual merits? Sure. But would I go see it played live? Is it on my Spotify playlist? Absolutely not.

And here, I must give credit to cuisine for helping curb my “weirder” songwriting tendencies. Chefs, especially in top restaurants, are no strangers to the urge to dazzle with highly complex, theoretical dishes. But all the cerebral fireworks don’t really matter if the food isn’t delicious. Some chefs are so fixated on their two-year-pickled-flower-petal garnishes and expensive dehydrators that they forget what’s important. When the liquid nitrogen subsides, and the herb foams settle, does the dish actually taste good? Do people like eating it –– do you like eating it? I’ve been to fancy restaurants where the answer is a frank no. And these restaurants, in their strange way, remind me to keep the conceptual stuff in check: Experiment, create with integrity and rigor, but remember to make music that’s actually fun to listen to. I don’t know if I’m there yet, but I’m workin’ on it.

Cropped_credit_Nick Vorderman

Nick Vorderman

PJ Sauerteig ’15 is the musician known as Slow Dakota. Sauerteig founded his own record label, Massif Records, to distribute his music and the music of friends. Shortly after being nominated for a Pushcart Prize, he enrolled in NYU Law, where he’s continued to record and share music. His most recent work, Suite for Voice and Ukulele, was mastered by legendary engineer Greg Calbi.