Food For Thought

We’re back in Gotham after a splendid visit to San Francisco (and a long break from blogging). The cool and breezy weather was a delightful respite for a thermophobe like me, and each day the lovely Nina and I walked for miles, hammering in pitons as needed, and rappelling down the steeper blocks.

One of the highlights of the trip was a dinner in Berkeley on Saturday at Alice Waters’ celebrated restaurant Chez Panisse. I don’t often discuss food in these pages — in fact I can’t recall ever having done so before — but this was too remarkable a meal to pass over in silence.

What made this meal so special was its wisdom. If you’ll bear with me, I’ll try to explain; there was evidence of real mastery here, and of lessons I wish I had learned for myself far earlier than I actually did. My own experience as a recording engineer captures the point nicely, though the idea is universal.

When I began, back in 1978, to learn the arcane craft of record-making, I was besotted by the external trappings of the art: the lavishly appointed studios, the glamorous clientèle, the gigantic, million-dollar consoles and other state-of-the-art equipment, and above all, the attention that the world paid to the product we created, and to the people who created it. The engineers and producers I assisted every day were adepts of a mysterious brotherhood, and their recondite skills brought them enormous respect, and often great wealth. Sure, they put their pants on one leg at a time like the rest of us — but once their pants were on, they made gold records.

Recording and mixing isn’t simple, and there is a lot to learn. One begins as an assistant, just watching and trying to understand. Somehow, the engineers I was studying under — masters like Bob Clearmountain and Neil Dorfsman and Tony Bongiovi — managed to deploy dozens of microphones in just the right places, get all those signals appropriately distributed on a 24-track tape, and then add just the right amount of equalization, compression, expansion, filtering, reverb, delay, panning, phasing, flanging, pitch-shifting, and so forth to make a stupendous stereo mix that positively leapt out of the speakers. It wasn’t something just anyone could do, and everyone knew it. They basked in the same glow of admiration that also shines upon surgeons, fighter pilots, and other masters of the impossible. We assistants watched with envy as our engineers, with varying degrees of modesty, drank in the praise and gratitude of the world-famous rock stars whose hit albums they crafted — and we wanted some of that too.

When, finally, my own turn came to sit at the console, I wanted to show that I had it all at my command as well. I wanted to do, to put my own stamp on every track. There I was with millions of dollars worth of equipment, in one of the finest recording studios in the world, and to demonstrate my skill and knowledge I wanted to turn every knob, and patch in every last piece of gear. And my mixes sounded awful.

Only very gradually did I come to realize what the problem was: in my urgent need to prove myself, all I was thinking about was me, and what I going to do to make a big, splashy mix out of whatever music I happened to be working with. The music itself was almost beside the point; I just wanted to spread my great big peacock’s tail. No matter what was being played, it was up to me to impose myself upon it, to make it mine. At the time I didn’t realize any of this, of course. I was just trying to be a great engineer.

But what was needed to was to learn to be silent, to be more passive, to listen. Little by little I learned to let the music itself tell me what was needed. I began to understand how to get out of the way, and eventually (I’d like to be able to say that this was a sudden insight, but it took years of gradual self-effacement) I realized that as I did less and less, my work was getting better and better. Simply by putting the right microphone in the right place, and paying careful attention to the levels and other merely technical aspects of the work, I was making far better records than I ever had with all those mountains of gear and snazzy effects. By consciously avoiding any display of technique, I was beginning to turn in good performances.

Above all, I had learned to understand the raw materials I was working with: this particular snare drum, that saxophone, that Marshall amp — and to let them tell me what sort of help they needed, which was often almost none at all. Yes, I needed all the technical knowledge I had worked so hard to acquire, and often I had to reach deep into my engineer’s bag of tricks to solve a problem, or make an exceptional flourish, but more often than not the important part — and this was the hardest thing of all to learn — was knowing what not to do.

And that was what was so impressive, and so wise, about our dinner at Chez Panisse. I’ve been to many of the world’s best restaurants, and have certainly been dazzled by some flamboyantly innovative cooking, but that’s not what this was at all. The meal I was served was simple enough: braised beef ribs, peas and carrots, mashed potatoes, paired with a sturdy California Zinfandel — but what stood out was the utter lack of razzle-dazzle, of ego, of an artist saying “look at me!!” There were, instead, just perfect braised beef ribs, perfect peas, perfect carrots, and some very unassuming mashed potatoes, all in exquisite and mutually supportive harmony. It took me a little while to appreciate this — I was enjoying everything so much on a gustatory level that I didn’t grasp it intellectually at first — but I finally got there, and marveled at how perfectly it exemplified the same principle it had taken me so painfully long to glimpse in my own line of work.

There’s much more I could say about all this, but in short: Alice Waters is a genius, and if you are ever in the Bay Area, you must eat at her restaurant.

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4 Comments

  1. Charles says

    This post needs more cowbell.

    Seriously, though, I don’t know if I’ve ever mentioned this before, but my brother works as a sound engineer. He’s actually more of a musician, but he has been mixing his own stuff for so long that apparently he has developed some talent in that area. Not being a sound engineer myself, I wouldn’t be able to offer an expert opinion on said talent, but the stuff he does sounds pretty good to me.

    He also happens to live in New York–in Brooklyn, in fact. I’m definitely going to send him the link to this post. I don’t know how small the world of sound engineering is in New York (I’m guessing it’s actually pretty big), but that would be weird if your paths crossed one of these days. He’s still at the starting-out stage, though–at least compared to you (for comparison: when you were starting to learn the arcane art of record making, my brother was learning how to live without a diaper).

    Posted June 17, 2008 at 4:24 am | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    Hi Charles,

    By all means send him my contact information; if there is anything a dotard like me can do for him I’ll be happy to.

    Posted June 17, 2008 at 10:20 am | Permalink
  3. bob koepp says

    I’m not much of a foodie myself, but I sure do enjoy the stuff. In my opinion, if you start with good, fresh materials, simple (but careful) preparation is all that’s needed to make a wonderful meal. It helps, of course, to know what flavors and textures work well together, but the preparation doesn’t have to be “fancy.” It was actually a pretty good chef who told me that “home style” cooking with high quality ingredients is what best satisfies the hungry soul.

    Posted June 17, 2008 at 3:21 pm | Permalink
  4. Malcolm says

    Yes, Bob — as with so many things, if you can just start with the right foundation and avoid screwing up, you’re most of the way there.

    Posted June 17, 2008 at 10:10 pm | Permalink