Notes On Magnus Nilsson’s “Faviken”


In Bill Buford’s insightful essay that introduces Magnus Nilsson’s Faviken cookbook (Phaidon), Nilsson speaks of feeling, touch, and vibration when explaining the transcendent quality of French chef Michel Bras‘ cooking:

“I don’t think I can describe it. Or not in technical terms, because it has nothing to do with technique (…) It’s in an extra feeling that Bras has for the food (…) It’s a touch. He has a way of communicating with the dish. A plate comes alive when he makes it, and it vibrates. Do you understand? It actually vibrates, especially if you’re open to that kind of experience.”

On Flavors, Tastes, Sound And Perception: Thinking Through Ruhlman’s Twenty

“Clear your way. Always be thinking.” – Michael Ruhlman, Ruhlman’s Twenty

First, let me say the obvious: if you like to cook and want to know more about the science and craft of cooking, you’ll probably enjoy Michael Ruhlman’s Ruhlman’s Twenty. The book provides much to think about by explaining fundamental techniques and ingredients in a sensible and accessible way. Having said the obvious, there are other interesting things happening in Ruhlman’s Twenty. In the midst of the cooking theory, tips, instruction, and recipes, Ruhlman spends a fair amount of time talking about taste perception. Here are two examples:

“The complexity that comes from the intense sourness offset by a parallel sweetness goes especially well with…” (100).

“Does this sauce have the depth of texture and satisfying nature that I’m after? If not, fat may be the solution” (134).

Complexity. Sourness. Sweetness. Depth of texture. The overarching theme of this book is how we create and perceive specific tastes, and Ruhlman wants us to “always be thinking” about what affects what in the alchemical world of the kitchen. As it turns out, in the world of cooking, everything affects everything else. In the chapter “Acid” Ruhlman writes: “When you taste anything, ask yourself, What would make this better? Often the answer is acid.” He then discusses the effects of adding a drop of vinegar to a spoonful of soup. Ruhlman describes the taste as brighter: “Bright is an element of flavor that takes some imagination. I don’t mean literally brighter, but synesthetically brighter: vinegar has a brighter flavor–clear, clean, crisp” (92). Similar discussions ensue in chapters on salt, sweetness, and other tastes.

In the end, cooks work with essentially six distinct tastes: sweet, salty, sour, bitter, metallic, and umami–a Japanese word that roughly means “savoriness.” And while it may be difficult to put into words what these different tastes do and the complex ways they interact with one another, good cooking can’t happen without their presence in various ratios. Think about a favorite daily sauce: vinaigrette. Oil (fatty umami), vinegar or lemon juice (sharp sourness), a pinch of salt (saltiness), and maybe some honey (sweetness). That’s four of the six essential flavor components. No wonder salad is so tasty!


As in cooking, so too in music?

Just as food presents us with a range of tastes, music presents us with a range of heard and felt vibratory perceptions. In music, we speak of low-, medium-, and high-range pitches or registers. Low-pitched sounds vibrate at a slower rate than do high-pitched sounds. Moreover, low-pitched sounds are often considered to have a “dark” tone quality or timbre (think of a low note bowed on a double bass, or the sound of a deep gong softly struck) while high-pitched sounds have a “light” quality–or like Ruhlman’s vinegar taste, are “brighter” (think of a shrill piccolo sound). A musical instrument’s design, its mode of vibration, and the material it’s made out of also affect its timbre. It’s for this reason that a flute and a violin sound different and distinctive even when they play the same pitch. When composers score works for different instruments (violins and brass say, or electronic sine tones and pad sounds) they create new hybrid timbres that are more than the sum of their parts. In music as in cooking, one can mix and match to create new depths of perception.

I’ve been thinking about Ruhlman’s book as I’ve been working on some electronic music pieces. I’m in the mixing and balancing stages of a project, listening through to make sure all the sounds are sitting in the right proportion to one another to create a pleasing soundscape. As I listen it strikes me that sounds are like flavors–each one has a different taste. I don’t mean to say that there are six basic sounds that correspond to sweet, salty, and so on. But I do mean to say that different sounds, like different flavors, affect us in many different ways. Put another way, sounds have a feeling dimension just as flavors have a taste dimension.

The five electronic music pieces in my project each have over a dozen parts–including marimba samples, sine tones, Rhodes, glockenspiel and celeste, tom toms and cymbals.  There are a lot of layers and each layer has a distinctive pitch register and timbre profile. The parts were improvised and recorded many months ago: chord progressions were worked out, harmonies, basslines, and rhythmic counterpoint among the percussion added. Then everything was put into order so the pieces have a basic arc shape (each is some 20-plus minutes in length). Now I’m experimenting with different combinations of these layers, tweaking their volume, their tone, their pitch, and adding bits of delay and reverb effects to augment and change them. It’s a lot to think about and the possibilities for tweaking can feel endless.

But like Ruhlman’s story about the effect of a drop of vinegar on the taste of a spoonful of soup, I’m finding that small changes can have large effects on the overall feel of the music. For instance, tuning tom-toms to the tonic note of a section adds a deep euphony. Or pitching a hi hat sample up one octave makes it feel more metallic, crisp and brittle. Or maybe one part needs an EQ scoop (lowering the volume of its middle-range frequencies) to make it flatter, softer, and more transparent. Of course, the sound really isn’t any of those things–it’s basically a sawtooth wave sound–yet that’s how it feels as I listen and so I adjust parameters according to this imagined profile. All this tweaking is done intuitively, until the sound of the music feels right.

Finally, I’m surprised at how different the pieces sound as I return to them day after day. Same headphone volume, but a slightly different listening me, I guess. Taste is like that: it’s not entirely in the flavor, the ingredient, or the sound, but neither is it entirely in our perception of these phenomena either. It’s a combination of the two and that’s what makes the intersection of flavor, taste, and perception so interesting: it’s an unstable and ever-changing encounter for our senses.

On Repetition: “Jiro Dreams Of Sushi”

“I would see ideas in dreams.” – Jiro Ono

Just as I was beginning to think I might know something about repetition, I watched a film that made me rethink that notion. The film is David Gelb’s documentary Jiro Dreams Of Sushi (2011) which follows around 85-year-old sushi master Jiro Ono as he works in his tiny Tokyo restaurant with his son, Yoshikazu. Jiro loves what he does and has been doing it for a very, very long time.

What is fascinating about this movie is how simple and repetitious Jiro’s work appears to be, while at the same time how resonant it is–for him and for his customers who eat what is widely considered to be the best sushi in the world. Every day, for the past seventy years or so, Jiro comes to the restaurant and makes sushi: pressing a small piece of fish on top of some rice gently shaped in his fingers, painting on a little special glaze, and then plating the finished food for immediate consumption. Like a musician playing onstage, it’s an evanescent performance that comes and goes in mere (delicious) moments. But Jiro extends this moment, coming to work seven days a week, year after year, decade after decade, in constant pursuit of the elusive “perfect” piece of sushi. Moreover, the chef claims that he uses no secret techniques or ingredients in his work (besides the freshest fish, and what is that special glaze anyway?) and that he’s not trying to be special or unique. So how is Jiro’s food so tasty (earning the restaurant 3 Michelin stars) and how does the chef remain so engaged and driven? In short, what makes him tick?

In part, the answer seems to lie in transformative power of repetition itself. Through the film we learn about Jiro’s notion that “ultimate simplicity leads to purity” and the importance of repeating the same routine every day in pursuit of perfection. We also learn about the Japanese concept of shokunin which describes someone along the lines of a craftsman or an artisan, but with a spiritual/ethical dimension added in that requires that one’s work be approached conscientiously, with commitment, and for the betterment of humanity. While shokunin may seem like a step beyond sushi making, it nevertheless encapsulates Jiro’s approach. Thoughtful repetition affords him an ongoing opportunity to transform his outwardly simple work into something very special. Just as ultimate simplicity leads to purity, so too perhaps can purity achieved through simplicity become a form of deep complexity.


Jiro Dreams Of Sushi has a repetitious soundtrack too, using as it does a fair amount of music by the contemporary classical composers Philip Glass and Max Richter (plus some Tchaikovsky, Bach and Mozart). The music adds a layer of insistence of the film, but I wonder if all this was necessary? I say this because there were a few moments in the film when the music distracted me and got me thinking: how quickly some forms of musical minimalism have become shorthand for conveying, in a contemporary language, the sensation of urgent constant forward motion tinged with a kind of wistfulness at the very fact of time’s passing. Do we need this kind of musical meta-commentary on Jiro’s life? The film could have used traditional Japanese music, or maybe jettisoned the soundtrack altogether.

In this clip from the film, a food critic who is sitting at the end of the sushi bar watching others eat describes how the unfolding of a Jiro sushi meal is similar to a performance of classical music: