One of the best and most pleasurable things you can do in your whole life and one which you should do, if the opportunity ever arises, is take lunch at a Michelin starred restaurant and try their taster menu. It takes over two hours, but you will experience a journey of unparalleled culinary delight, as a parade of flavours is made to dance over your taste buds.
Over the seven courses, what strikes you (if the chef is any good) is that most of the food you eat every day is put together crudely and cynically. Flavours overpower and some things lack any flavour at all. It’s all bulk and filler. In contrast, the taster menu will delight you with its balance of delicate flavours. Nothing overwhelms anything else. Each flavour is distinct and pleasurable. Each taste has its moment, in the meal, where you can sense it and be enthralled by it. The seasoning is perfect. Salt and pepper shakers are not required.
Each dish consists of a limited number of flavours arranged harmoniously. Sometimes there are contrasts, sometimes complements. The medley is a satisfying whole. The seven courses are like an album of music – a concept album, if you will. Each dish shares a unity of presentation and taste, linked aesthetically to the chef’s particular way of cooking, but each dish is different and distinct. The entire meal builds to a climax, where the final dish is the crowning achievement. And so it was, when I tried the taster menu at our nearby Michelin starred restaurant.
Supermarket food, the food most of us eat most of the time, is overdone, overpowering and indelicate. It’s either saturated in sugar, sweet beyond belief, or else it is salty or fatty. The textures are pretty much never considered and the temperature at which this food is presented is never less than microwave nuclear. At a decent restaurant, though, tastes are arranged carefully, in proportion to each other. The texture and temperature of the food is crucial to the enjoyment of the flavours. Little is left to chance or designed to be so robust that even careless cooks can still prepare it, as supermarket food is. In the taster menu, each and every course presented is a small work of art, requiring dedication, attention to detail, care and love.
At the supermarket, the predominating concerns are profit, shelf life, the ability to transport the food in trucks over long periods of time and indestructibility of the product by incompetent cooks. This hardly leads to the most nourishing, flavoursome or pleasurable to eat foods. If you buy a jar of industrially produced pickled vegetables, the vinegar is bought in bulk, from the cheapest supplier, so it tastes sharp and nasty. Consequently, any cauliflower that comes in contact with it is similarly tainted. At the restaurant, I was presented with pickled cauliflower that was just divine. The vinegar used was delicate and light, without the nasty after taste, so the cauliflower, one of my least favourite vegetables, was rendered delicious instead of execrable.
What most industrial food producers don’t accept is that sugar is a condiment, not a filler or bulking agent. As a condiment, it sits alongside many other interesting and varied flavours, as just one more colour in the chef’s palette. In the supermarket, it is used and abused, sprayed everywhere, because people love sugary things, right? However, after you taste sugar in balance with other far more interesting flavours, I don’t think that’s actually true, but it’s the conventional wisdom adhered to doggedly by the industrial food producers, mainly because sugar is subsidised, so cheap, so profitable to include in food.
It might be that we can solve the obesity epidemic simply by getting people to taste and understand sugar’s proper place in the gamut of flavours. Maybe all they need is a single session with a decent taster menu from a Michelin starred chef. Overeating may be nothing more than a fruitless quest for flavour in amongst all the stodge. Fat people might be looking for some flavour at all, in the bland but bulky food, or else something that can counteract the overpoweringly sweet, salty and fatty flavour of everything else. They never find it, so they keep devouring until they do. They might be seeking satisfaction of their taste buds, but instead end up only with bloat. Who knows? In any case, where is the astringent, the pungent, the bitter, the sour and the tart taste in the food most of us eat? Hard to find.
Satisfaction does not come from the bulk or the quantity of food you consume. It also doesn’t come from consuming something with one overwhelming flavour. Both of those are empty, unsatisfactory experiences, but our default experiences. Rather, satiety comes not from a full belly, but from experiencing a delicate balance of tastes, with variety, harmony and contrast in the flavours. As mentioned before, the love and care put into the making of food is apparent even to the most insensate and contributes immeasurably to our satisfaction of what we eat. Loveless food tastes loveless.
That menu got me to thinking about analogies in painting and in music arrangement and production.
Every painter worth his pastels knows that painting with a limited palette and using the colours available to create contrasts and harmonies is the best way to paint. The painting needs to have a unity produced from the delicate play of colours against each other.
Consider Monet’s famous painting “Impression, Sunrise” which gave a name to an entire art movement. Here is a picture of it:
The painting is mainly a collection of blues, pinks and reds. There is no green, brown or yellow. Those “flavours” were not included. There is also no black. However, the colours that are present blend and contrast harmoniously. It isn’t a realistic painting, but you can definitely get a sense of the scene. That’s the magic of it.
There is an artist I’ve found, called Sevan Melikyan (http://offer.clicktech.net/sevanmelikyan/bio%20statement.htm ), whose work consists of reductionist impressions of impressionist paintings. He distils their essence into blocks of colour, identifying the colours that predominate and their proportions, but suppressing the textures and details.
Here is how Melikyan see’s Monet’s famous painting:
You can see, here, that the limited palette has been made explicit and the colour balance made obvious. My point is that the colours, as with the taster menu’s flavours, are balanced and arranged harmoniously. There is symmetry, of sorts, going on between fine art and fine cuisine.
Here’s another interesting painting. It’s Van Gogh’s “Cherry Orchard with Cypress”.
The painting gives the overall gestalt of being mostly pale blue, with pink and orange hues. However, take a closer look at how those colour moments are made. If you zoom in, you can quite plainly see that the artist has used bright red, verdant green, dark blue and yellow, yet still no black. Those colours have been used so delicately that the overall impression of the painting is of different colours entirely. Here, the colours are used like a well trained chef would use strong flavours. They’re present, but only in the service of the presentation of a different effect entirely.
Here is a comparison between Van Gogh’s famous “Starry Night” and Melikyan’s distillation of the same painting into its component colours. It’s an interesting comparison, isn’t it?
The same delicacy of balance of flavours and colours also applies to music arrangement and music production. Here, the artist balances tones, timbres and musical instrument textures to produce a satisfying whole. My favourite music makers let the beauty of each instrument, in their track, speak. Each instrument is given the space, room, time, tonal spectrum and opportunity to develop and evolve its sound, so that you, the listener, can savour the beauty of the tones of each note that the instrument produces.
Once again, the good music producers know that if a mix is muddy and indistinct, the answer is not to turn the obscured track up and up, until it overwhelms the cacophony. The remedy is to turn something else down, or take something out. You have to make space for the featured instrument or vocal line, not make it louder or more strident, in an attempt to drown out its competition and the track’s clutter.
I know a Hollywood soundtrack composer. Jeff Rona says that the secret to producing a powerful and emotionally affective movie soundtrack is to use fewer instruments, but to use beautiful or distinctive sounding instruments and voices, so that you get time to listen carefully to each one, in an uncluttered sonic backdrop. I think Jeff is right about that.
As a student of music production, I like to listen to various tracks critically, in the sense of wanting to understand how they were put together and constructed. One of my favourite examples of a lush, yet sparse and spacious arrangement is Dire Strait’s track Love over Gold. Take a listen:
Alan Clark was the keyboard player on this track and I think he transformed the largely guitar based sound of the band, Dire Straits, into something richer and more varied. Interesting tonal colours are introduced and taken away from the track, as it plays, but at any given moment, there isn’t too much going on. In fact, the most emotionally affective parts of the track are the quiet passages, where few instruments are used, contrasting with the higher energy ensemble sections, where more instruments are playing at the same time. This counter-play is what makes the track interesting, to me.
One of the most beautiful and soulful records I own is Spirit by Mary Hopkin. Take a listen to the track and savour the clarity and beauty of Mary’s singing.
What I love about the track is the spaciousness. Listen for what is in the track and what isn’t. It’s actually very sparse, yet lush. In fact, it’s elegant in its simplicity and this makes the voice sound all the more affecting. Listen to the crystal clarity and beauty of Mary’s voice. The arrangement behind the vocal, which supports and enhances it, rather than competing with it, is a masterpiece of musical arrangement. What I didn’t know, until yesterday, when I was doing the research for this blog post, was that the backing was arranged and played beautifully by the same Alan Clark that had made Dire Straits’ record so pleasurable for me. I was surprised and delighted to have made that connection and it restored my faith in my own taste and aesthetic judgements. 🙂
Incidentally, notice the same aesthetic in Mary’s photographs and the slide show made from them, which accompanies the music in the video clip. Mary’s images are also elegant, balanced, using a limited colour palette. They are sparse images of real beauty. Some could easily be paintings or more correctly, could be interpreted by a painter. I think there is an aesthetic symmetry at work here too, but more level headed people (perhaps even Mary herself) might disparage my view and dismiss it as nothing of consequence. I don’t care. I can see the pattern.
So whatever your art form, consider how your tones, textures, colours, timbres and flavours balance. Consider their relationship to each other, both in space and time. Make room for each to contribute its unique beauty and character. Enjoy the constrained diversity that goes into great works of art.
The art, after all, is in the mix and in the balance.