My son is a serious foodie with the means to eat at the finest restaurants in the world. I'm the lucky occasional recipient of his generosity when he takes me to Michelin starred restaurants in New York. For my birthday this year, he took me to Italy this past week. Although we saw some sights and went to the Ferrari Museum, the focus of our trip was food.
We started in Bologna, then went to Modena, and then on to Rome and Naples. The entire trip was planned around a special event at the #1 rated restaurant in the world according to the San Pellegrino Top 50 List, which happens to be in Modena. Until now, I've identified Modena as the city where Balsamic vinegar comes from, but I soon learned that its two favorite sons are Enzo Ferrari and Massimo Bottura.
I'd seen Massimo a couple of times on TV talking about how he became a chef and about his project to feed the homeless with healthy, delicious food. American Express booked two events this past Thursday and Friday with Massimo. We were in the Thursday group of about 30 people, whom I believe were all Americans and Canadians.
We met at a hotel in Modena at 11 AM and then took two vans to Massimo's bed-and-breakfast out in the country. He recently bought this villa and grounds, which were in need of repair, and repair he did. Everything throughout the buildings and grounds was of the highest quality and aesthetics respecting art and nature.
Besides the rooms and kitchen there were lounges, a music room, a huge wine cellar, ponds, and even a bocce court (where he recently got bested by President Obama). In the van, my son told me that Massimo loves jazz. Massimo greeted us in the courtyard and gave us his welcome speech about his philosophies of food and life. It didn't take but a few minutes before he explained why he prefers Billie Holiday to Ella Fitzgerald. He really understands some deep aesthetic issues at play in jazz. I knew I liked this guy. He was personable, approachable, and eminently likable.
After a tour of the grounds and a presentation of how he prepares three of his signature dishes, we were served lunch. I don't remember all that we ate and drank except for the tortellini, which was easily the most delicious pasta I've ever eaten. The texture, taste and presentation were breathtaking.
After lunch, Massimo took us on a tour of the inn and at one point was telling us a story about how he once asked a patron of his restaurant if he had enjoyed his dinner. The man said he loved it all except the ragu because it wasn't how his grandmother made it. This set up Massimo's discussion of how we grow up loving our grandmother's cooking, but in order to be creative, we need to build on the culture we grew up in.
I was instantly transported back to Al Murray's kitchen table where he had explained to me the difference between folk art and fine art. Folk artists replicate what they grew up in, while fine artists absorb the tradition and then dare to innovate. A blues musician hearing Duke Ellington's Diminuendo In Blue in 1937 might not even recognize it as a blues. Ellington's liberties with form and harmony would be sacrilege to a traditional 3-chord bluesman.
So here I was in Italy thoroughly enjoying the finest of Italian cuisine for four calorie-laden days wondering if the Italians at the next table were experiencing something deeper. They must have been. Their knowledge of the food and their emotional responses to it, having grown up in the culture, are light years beyond mine. The same would be true of an Italian listening to jazz as opposed to an American of a certain age who grew up in that culture and knows all the songs.
And what difference does it make if you are a chef or a jazz musician, as opposed to an eater or listener? Don't get me wrong, I love performing for non-musicians, but I know that they don't understand what I hear in the music. How rare is it that a reviewer hears anything but the most superficial aspects of a performance? They might if they attended all the rehearsals and performances of a specific group over a period of years. I might get closer to a chef's perspective if I cooked alongside him or her in the kitchen for a while.
What struck me about Massimo's understanding of jazz was that he sees the commonality of all art. We discussed this for a few minutes, and then I told him an anecdote that I knew he'd like:
Years ago, Danny Barker told me of an incident that happened while he was playing with Jelly Roll Morton in New York in the early 1930s. One sunny day, Danny walked out on one of the grand boulevards in Harlem and saw a crowd gathered around the great drummer and bandleader Chick Webb. Chick was going on about how Ellington's new record was out of tune and rife with wrong notes.
Jelly Roll happened to be walking by and heard all this, at which point he interrupted, saying that while there was no love lost between him and Duke, he had to admit that the man was a genius. He explained that those notes were neither wrong nor out of tune; this was the harmony of the future.
I love this story. Chick was stuck eating his grandmother's cooking, while Jelly, who was 15 years his senior, could appreciate innovation, even though he could no longer compete in the Swing Era. Jelly's music was stuck in the '20s, but he could appreciate where the music was going.
In 1959 the Baroness Nica de Koenigswarter photographed dozens of the greatest jazz musicians and asked each one the same question: If he had three wishes, what would they be? Most said they would wish for no racism or all the drugs they wanted. Louis Armstrong said that he'd like to come back in 100 years and hear where jazz had gone. It's been 60 years since then, and I often wonder what Pops would think. Back in the '40s, he was asked what he thought about bebop. He said that everyone was playing the clarinet part. That seemingly offhand quip shows a serious depth of understanding of jazz.
Do you ever think what Pops heard when he listened to jazz? Or Duke or Bird? I wonder. I can only hear what I hear and continue to try to hear and understand more. Back in my teaching days a few of my students thanked me for teaching them how to hear music. I'm glad I could help them along on their journey. When we immerse ourselves in the music and the culture, after a while the experience becomes visceral—we stop having to think about it.
In the mid-'80s, after a 50-year career as one of the top lead trumpet players in jazz and commercial music, Jimmy Maxwell was in a bad car accident that left him with amnesia for two years, after which he never worked again. Nevertheless, he continued to practice the trumpet at home for hours every day. His doctor asked him why he practiced, if he was never going to play in public again. Jimmy, Zen Buddhist that he was, simply replied, "Because I'm a trumpet player.”
In case you are curious, dinner that night at Osteria Francescana lived up to its reputation. We were treated to Massimo's tasting menu with the accompanying elegant service and presentation in his beautifully appointed, intimate setting. It's good to be the king, and it's quite a treat to eat the king's food in his palace.