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The Interview

Questlove: Why Cooking Is Harder Than Jazz

The Roots co-founder talks popcorn, Mr Miles Davis and the best advice Mr Anthony Bourdain ever gave him

It doesn’t take a music insider to recognise Questlove, the co-founder and drummer of The Roots. Even if you aren’t already a fan of the jazz-tinged hip-hop group’s excellent records (1999’s Things Fall Apart is a good place to start, by the way), you’ll probably recognise him from Mr Jimmy Fallon’s The Tonight Show, on which The Roots are the house band.

However, you may not know that Questlove occupies another world. Friends with Momufoku’s Mr David Chang, the co-author of a James Beard Award-nominated book Somethingtofoodabout, and host of regular “salons” where A-list actors, musicians and chefs converge on his Manhattan apartment to cook and eat – Questlove, 48, is something of a legend on the New York food scene. And now, he’s pouring his food knowledge into a new project, partnering with US homewares brand Williams Sonoma to create a line of popcorn seasonings.

So, why popcorn?

I think it’s important to have an obsession that isn’t in your own medium. Music was always a lifetime obsession, and then it became an occupation. But I stopped getting euphoric thrills when I released a new album.

Going to the movies is another huge passion of mine, and a big part of that experience is popcorn. It was also the snack of my childhood – my sister and I would stay up until one in the morning, make popcorn, and watch Soul Train. But nine times out of 10, popcorn is bland. When I lived in London, you guys put me on to your version, which is sweet and salty. I’ve always liked to sneak my own spices into movie theatres to accentuate the flavour, which is why I called my popcorn flavourings “Sneakies”.

I was almost as serious with this as I was when I made an album. Some of the spices took four or five attempts. Chefs are more scrutinising and serious than musicians, I think. With musicians, if there’s a misstep, there’s instant correction. Herbie Hancock often spoke about working with Miles Davis. If he played a wrong note, Miles would figure out how to meet him somewhere in the middle. Chefs don’t really get that opportunity, so I think there is more pressure in the food world than anything. I respect it.

When did this appreciation for food start?

Have you seen me? I came from a family which was big on Sunday meals. My grandmother used to cook soul food and the whole process was like a religion. They would start Sunday dinner on Thursday night. They would drown a cake in rum or whisky and let it soak. On Friday she would get her vegetables ready. Saturday – she’d start slow-cooking all the meat. Now, some 30 years later, for that very meal I ate, you could charge $300 to $400 in a high-end restaurant. From the reconstruction period of the 1800s up until possibly the late 1980s, Southern food was survival food for black families in America. Now I’d say Chinese-American food has taken its place. It’s weird how the culture has changed.

What you eat must have changed, too.

When The Roots first got signed, we moved to Kentish Town [north London] and we were broke. We lived above a fish and chip shop and we only had a budget of $35 for dinner. We had to make miracles with food! We’d have fish and chip soufflé. We would refry it, bake it, make it into a stew. After music started giving us a good living, we upped our taste in terms of food experiences.

So who are some of your favourite chefs now?

It wasn’t until [I worked on] The Tonight Show that I realised chefs are artists. A person like David Chang can make you the culinary equivalent of the Mona Lisa. You can own a Basquiat for half an hour. Quincy Jones once told me that when he was learning to notate music in Paris, he would go to the same restaurants as Picasso. At the end of the meal, Picasso would get some glue out of his bag and glue the fishbones of his meal to the plate and give it to the restaurant. The restaurant knew it was going to be worth a million dollars.

Where do you like to eat in New York?

Anthony Bourdain always stressed that I should look for and dig up gems, those local spots that the world doesn’t know about. The borough of Queens is the unchampioned epicentre of the greatest restaurants. I love Koreatown. One of my favourite Korean BBQ spots is a place called Baekjeong. There’s a couple of other spots I dig in Chinatown – like Great NY Noodletown. This is a humble brag, but I know the manager, so I’m allowed to show up at the last minute and get a table. There’s also a place called EN Japanese Brasserie, which is a go-to. Its sushi is awesome.

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