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Jazz for the Palate!

Jazz for the Palate!

The reason I use the phrase “Jazz for the Palate” to describe our food (other than to justify the musical reference in our restaurant’s name) is that in discussing cooking, the jazz metaphor fits.

How does it fit? Once you know the basic rules and techniques of cooking, you can use your own sense of taste and smell and cultural inclinations to create a riff on any tried and true recipe. Interestingly, the metaphor of cooking is also used to describe jazz.For example, if a jazz cat likes your solo, he might say, “It’s burning!”, “That song was cooking!”, or “Smokin’ solo!” In jazz, the written score is only the jumping point from which many wonderful things can develop! Musicians use the underpinning structures – the chords and scales – of a song to veer off the traditional melody, adding new melodic, harmonic, and dissonant elements to introduce surprise and depth to the piece.


Truffle Hog Doing Her Thing.


The same is true with cooking. I’ve experienced dining out with my own French-Canadian mother who can root out any flavor in a dish like a truffle hog. She doesn’t snort like one, though, so please don’t draw the simile out to its most logical conclusion! When a dish is placed in front of her, she smells the food, then tastes it and identifies every ingredient. She is almost never wrong. Then she will say, “I’d add a little such and such. That’d really jazz it up!”


I’ve seen Chef Ginger do the same thing. She goes to a restaurant, tastes a dish, and recreates it in her own test kitchen with an additional ingredient that improves it to the nth degree.


roundmidnightBaking isn’t like jazz, though. Baking is like classical music where you read the m
usic and play exactly as it is represented on the page.


Barbara McClosky, the aunt of jazz diva Rebecca Parris, explained to me once during a voice lesson that when you sing Gabriel Fauré, you never slow down toward the end, a technique often employed in other songs. When Fauré himself was asked how he preferred the tempo for Après Un Rêve, he replied, “Sans ralentir, sans ralentir!” (Without slowing down! Without slowing down!) So 75 years later, his preference was passed down to me as law.


Dried Up, Cracking Riverbed.


Similarly, in baking, if you don’t follow the recipe precisely, the soufflé doesn’t rise, the bread collapses, the pan of brownies comes out looking like a dried up, cracking riverbed.


The thing I like most about Ginger’s cooking is her sense of harmony in adjusting flavors in a dish. She is able to taste something and know what it needs in order to balance salty, sweet, sour, bitter, umami, oily, clean, pungent, bland, and spicy.

When a dish exhibits too much of one flavor, it can work if accompanied by   complementary flavors in other dishes, but alone it doesn’t satisfy. This concept is characteristic of the Thai people and it flows out of their immersion in the Buddhist way of life. We’re talking here about the Buddhist concept of the middle way, a path of moderation. It informs, really, almost every aspect of Thai culture.

Chef Ginger, Pad Thai & Banana Blossoms!

Chef Ginger, Pad Thai & Banana Blossoms.


How it affects culinary philosophy can best be illustrated with an example: Pad Thai. In making Pad Thai, it is vital to balance sweet, salty, and sour. For sour, we use lime juice and tamarind. (More common victualers use white vinegar.) For salty, we use fish sauce, typically anchovy extract. For sweet, we use coconut sugar. Chef Ginger balances these three ingredients in such a way so that none overpowers the others.


Pad Thai contains peanuts, and a counterpoint to their unctuous presence exists in the popular garnish of banana blossom. The banana blossom provides a mild astringency that counterbalances the oil, cleansing the palate. The bitterness of the blossom, also, is unexpected — at least the first time you taste it — and it is that one dissonant note that brings the dish to new heights of gustatory pleasure.


In Thailand, banana blossom is often served as a garnish with Pad Thai. Unfortunately, it is hard to find in the United States.


For me, the most successful jazz compositions introduce elements of dissonance that resolve by the end of a piece. When everything is harmonious, boredom sets in. Or a sort of musical Pollyannaism takes hold as in my own favorite version of hell in which I’m strapped to a chair over mustard-colored shag carpet with the Osmond Brothers’ “One Bad Apple” playing over and over on a turntable six inches from my head!


Dissonant notes in a musical phrase add intrigue. Our primary response might be one of dislike or of being put off because the mind inherently seeks harmony. If you loosen the bag-strings of your mind, though, and accept the sounds as they come, you will find that these notes add a sense of contrast not unlike that experienced when a gust of rain breaks up a long stretch of sunshine. The rain helps you to appreciate the sunshine, but it also allows you to embrace the utility of an umbrella!


Similarly, adding an unexpected ingredient to a recipe that on first taste doesn’t match, doesn’t mix, doesn’t meld with the others provides a complexity that is satisfying to the palate.


Lydia Shire, my friend Tommy’s mother, and arguably the Top Chef of New England, has banked her fame on adding elements of dissonance to dishes that create a transcendent experience for the taste buds! Every time I brought my mother, Cheryl Squiers, to BIBA (Lydia’s restaurant) years ago, she would ooh and aah over each bite.

Ma (Cheryl Squiers), on left Lydia Shire, on right

Cheryl Squiers                    Lydia Shire

Early in her career, Lydia made a tasting trip ‘round the world (not sure if it was in 80 days), and with the knowledge she obtained (and her prodigious creative flair), she transformed her menus with unusual flavors cohabiting the same dishes. The result was so spectacular that her fame grew almost overnight! Lydia Shire is a culinary genius and should forever be worshipped as the goddess of hearth that she is!


The process goes like this: you take a bite, you expect a certain gustatory harmony – all is well so far. Then an off flavor hits your palate. It is weird. Do I like it? Or do I hate it? I don’t know. You take another bite. Still not sure. Your mind holds on to its old expected patterns of flavor. It is slow to expand, slow to allow other flavors to sully what it already considers delicious!


A few more bites, and your mind, always seeking harmony, seeking order, starts to accept the new taste. “Well, maybe…” you think. Another bite, and, “I love it! This ingredient really adds something! I never would’ve thought of that combo, but it really works!” Your concept of taste expands to include this odd pairing, creating a new paradigm of taste. So, too, with jazz. Your mind, when it encounters a musical phrase with accidentals, at first might reject the sound. Then, especially if the musician is of fine repute, you will try to make sense of the ‘ill-considered’ sounds.


As you listen further, your ear becomes accustomed to their presence, and you begin to see how it adds intrigue and depth to the song. Your mind expands to create a new paradigm of sound, wherein inharmonious notes make sense within the context of what you once considered a discordant sound.


Lastly, here is a silly song about jazz for the palate that I wrote when Chef Ginger and I were going to do a YouTube cooking show:


Cookin’ With Thelonious Monkfish 

The old monk taught us ‘you get what you give’

So we’ve got something to learn

When you sit down, we’ll wipe away your frown

We’ll give you all the comfort you’ve earned.

We’re cooking, we’re cooking

Ba da ba ba dee da

We’re cooking with Thelonious Monkfish!

Chef Ginger, she’s cookin’ up a storm

Red stilettos on her feet and a whisk in hand

She’s boiling and broiling and shaking and baking

She’s stirring and frying who knows what she’s making

She’s got jazz for the palate in her pan!

We’re cooking, we’re cooking

Ba da ba ba dee da

We’re cooking with Thelonious Monkfish!

Chef Ginger, she’s cookin’ up a storm

Red lipstick on her lips and a skillet in hand

She’s chopping and bopping and poaching and toasting

She’s bumping and grinding, we’re really not boasting

She’s got jazz for the palate in her pan!

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