Monday, February 08, 2010

Jazz bassist Charles Mingus and the culinary arts

Making food and making music have much in common. Both coalesce the cognitive and the creative. Both require focus and discipline while finding a way to keep innovation unfettered. Both require mastery of the basics and attention to simplicity, rather than a striving for complexity.

What? you say. What is classical music if not complex? What about the complex counter beats of jazz, the riffs of some popular music, the harmonies of gospel? All have their complexities, as do many of the world's cuisines. Agreed. But bear with me on this thought for a few minutes.

Culinary-musical commonalities bring to my mind the late, great bass player and composer Charles Mingus (left), who is among my favorites in jazz.

His innovation, his discipline in getting the music just the way he wanted it and his musical attention to the region of his roots -- the U.S.-Mexican border -- all capture my attention. Mingus was born in the border town of Nogales, Ariz., the same town in which my mom was born.

My favorite Mingus music is his Tijuana Moods set, in which he played a few essential pieces of music several times over, adjusting in each to gain a slightly different outcome. Each is distinct, yet familiar and connected.

About music, Mingus said: "Making the simple complicated is commonplace; making the complicated simple, awesomely simple, that's creativity."

The thought clearly applies to cooking, and it is especially in my mind this week as we approach the stress of final cooking competency exams in Culinary Foundations III.

In short, keeping it simple will serve us well.

Chef Instructor Dan Fluharty reminds us to keep it simple. He does so every time one of us asks about making a twist or turn in the proposed menu, every time one asks about adding an ingredient or using a cooking method other than what is prescribed, every time one says what if ...

Chef's response: Keep it simple.

He knows and is teaching us that the only way to get to complex is to start at simple. That's the key to success in our class.

Just as Charles Mingus found it to be in music.

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