An egg in a recipe is like a note in a symphony. Photo by Donna Turner Ruhlman

Last night, on the Broad Stage with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, I spoke about connections of music and food, in between selections from Puccini, Rossini, de Falla and Schoenfield.

When Rachel Fine, executive director of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, first wrote to request that I speak, I honestly almost flat turned her down. I’m no music expert, and wasn’t sure what point it would serve. But she pressed, I became intrigued enough to give it some thought and was surprised to discover how many natural similarities there were and are, and perhaps most surprisingly of all to realize a couple of important musical metaphors had worked their way into my own writing without my being conscious of it. The first was my final meal at the French Laundry, having spent several weeks in January and February 1998, which I wrote about it in Soul of a Chef.

I dined alone, and knew by then how the kitchen worked. They never served a table if someone was up from the table. This meant that four different preparations of say, butter poached lobsters could be whisked from the pass, then immediately returned if someone from table seven had left the table.

So midway through the four and a half hour meal, when a server removed course number 14 from my table, I said, I’m going to use the loo, is now a good time? I was assured it was and that they’d make sure that my main server knew. With all that wine and food, one trip away from the table to release what must have been two bottles of wine by then over three hours was admirable I figured.

Later in the meal in conversation with Laura Cunningham, who was managing the dining room that night, Laura confided that Thomas had been mad that I’d gotten up.

I said, Laura, you’ve got to be kidding, what did he expect, all this time and these many glasses of wine; plus I’d made efforts to ensure the kitchen new I’d be out of my seat for a few minutes. Mad, how could he be mad?

Later it occurred to me why. He’d been performing. This was a performing art, with a building of tastes and flavors. He was the conductor, and I’d left the auditorium in the middle of the performance.

Indeed, a meal at that level is a performance. His was a performing art and it shared many qualities of an orchestral performance. There were themes and movements, a narrative arc, the pleasures experienced were sensory, non-verbal. And when it was done, it was gone. I had only the memory of it. I couldn’t relive it, as I could a book or a film or a painting or a sculpture. The art had vanished and I was left with an experience and a memory, and the pleasure of having experienced a virtuoso performance.

And it shares other similarities to musical performance: it’s often a shared experience, it’s enriched when we share it with others, when others bring their impressions to the work and you yours. It evokes emotion.  In Keller’s hands it could achieve ironic effects. It’s a largely non-verbal experience, the pleasures surely are non-verbal. And it ends and when it ends it’s gone. It exists only in memory.

Nearly a decade later, having written numerous books on both food and cooking and chefs, as well as books about plank on frame wooden boats and the people who build them, about a surgical team that repairs the deformed hearts of babies and children, I wrote an opinionated glossary of cooking terms, Elements of Cooking, all the terms any cook would need to know in the kitchen, from bisque (shellfish only, no such thing as a pumpkin bisque), mise en place, salted water, and other vague or not-well-defined terms that I hoped to clarify.

On rereading the introductory seven essays on my convictions about tools, about stock, about important books, and the glossary itself, my editor, Beth Wareham said I’d left out an important term: recipes.

Even before I attended the Culinary Institute of America I’d begun to feel an animosity toward recipes. Then, recipes were a dime a dozen. Now there’s an ocean of them for free. What then did the term “recipes” mean.

Recipes: Recipes are not assembly manuals, I would write in that book.  You can’t use them the way you use instructions to put together your grill or the rec room ping pong table.  Recipes are guides and suggestions for a process that is infinitely nuanced.  Recipes are sheet music.  A Bach cello suite can be performed at a beginner’s level or given extraordinary interpretation by  Yo Yo  Ma—same notes/ingredients, vastly different outcomes.

How to use a good recipe.  First read it and think about it.  Cook it in your mind.  Envision what it will look like when you serve it.  Try to know the outcome before you begin.  Read a recipe all the way through not only to understand it generally, but to make your work more efficient and to avoid making errors or taking unnecessary steps.  Perhaps a dough needs to chill for an hour in the middle of a preparation, perhaps meat needs to be salted for 24 hours, or a liquid must be simmered then cooled.  The recipe suggests adding the flour, baking powder and salt one at a time, but perhaps you can combine all the dry ingredients ahead of time while you’re waiting for the butter to get to room temperature, so you can cream it with the eggs.  Taking a few minutes to read a recipe, acting out each step in your mind as you do, will save you time and prevent errors.

Measure out or prep all your ingredients before you begin.  Don’t mince your onion just before you need to put it in the pan, have it minced and in a container ready to go, have that cup of milk and half cup of sugar set out before you.  Good mise en place makes the process easier and more pleasurable and the result tastier than preparing a recipe with no mise en place.  If you’re unsure about an instruction, use your common sense.  You’ve already imagined in your head what the goal is.  Work toward that goal using all your senses.

How to perfect a good recipe: Do it over again.  And again.  Pay attention.  Do it again.  That’s what chefs do.  Often great cooking is simply the result of having done it over and over and over while paying attention.  Great cooking is as much about sheer repetition as it is about natural skill or culinary knowledge.

This entry (which Heidi also posted on was a last minute inclusion Elements, thanks to Beth’s request.  The fact is, I like to say that I don’t like recipes and I don’t like cookbooks.  But that’s not strictly true.  I don’t like a cooks’ reliance on recipes.  We can learn many things from a good recipe and the best recipes help us to see and understand cooking in a new way.  But when we use them as construction manuals, I think they may do more harm than good.

One of the choices last night was Schenfield’s Cafe Music, featuring among other instruments a cello. I played cello in sixth grade and I’m sure I could have learned parts of this piece, though it’s a frenetic often discordant and brillaint piece of music. But my version would have been far less enjoyable to listen to than the rendition performed last night.

(There’s also tool fetish, famous among chefs and their knives; Margaret Batjer, concertmaster, played violin on Cafe Music using a 1726 Stradivarius—a more gorgeous instrument I’ve never seen; she showed it off at Figs where we ate after the show. Wow.)

This performance was defined by nuances, how long the cellist, the violinist held each note, or how quickly, how hard his and her bow pressed on the strings how definitively he plucked them. Most important of all is practice: they had practiced this over and over. A cook should do the same thing, not make one recipe then another then another, but rather the same recipe over and over and over, not one dish identical, the cook developing in mind and body an increasing mastery of the composition.

This is the way to cook well, really well, truly to cook like a chef. And it may be one of handful of qualities of Thomas Keller that makes him the virtuoso that he is: the capacity to do the same thing, often acts that most would consider numbingly boring, turning artichokes, peeling asparagus, over and over and over, appreciating each time the nuances of the differences of each experience, being acutely aware the entire time.

In his superb book Complicatons: A Surgeon’s Notes On an Imperfect Science, Atul Gawande makes the observation that physical genius, whether that of a heart surgeon or Larry Bird or Yo Yo Ma may be that way not because of an innate gift, but rather because they have practiced more, that what unites those who achieve excellence may be not genius, but rather the capacity for practice itself, for doing the same thing over and over.

So it is with music, so it is with cooking.

If you liked this post on A Recipe as Sheet Music, check out these other links:

© 2011 Michael Ruhlman. Photo © 2012 Donna Turner-Ruhlman. All rights reserved



48 Wonderful responses to “The Music/Food Connection”

  • Susan

    I totally agree with you; practice makes the master. But, the chef also has to work with ingredients that can be different from time to time. Asparagus in the beginning of the season to the end or from different farms, can taste different from one time to the next and this may be so with each ingredient. I think there has to be some genius or maybe a hightened flavor awareness, that succeeds in bringing flavors together well, time and time again.

  • Bryce

    I’ve only eaten at the French Laundry once (best meal of my life), and our table of four was able to remain seated for the entire 4 hours and 3 bottles of wine. However, every concert or theater performance I’ve attended that’s even 3 hours long always has an intermission. The audience needs a break after a couple hours of sensory overload…perhaps diners at the French Laundry should be “allowed” to get up, stretch, and relieve themselves mid-meal? Keller’s a genius, but if he truly gets upset with a person who can’t sit in a chair at full attention (after eating 9 courses and a liter of wine, no less) for 4.5 hours, he needs to get over himself.

  • andrew

    Great post. I’m really interested in this concept of transitory and ephemeral experiences versus arts with longevity like painting or literature. I read something recently, escapes me where, that studies have shown that live music activates similar areas of the brain to drugs like cocaine. But apparently recorded music doesn’t create the same effect. I wonder what the experience of a fine meal—nuances in technique on a given night like you refer to, or even things like atmosphere or the company you’re with—does to your brain? As you say, the art of music and cooking both begin in the practice but do the variables of a live event like a recital/concert or restaurant dinner, provide the real spark?

  • Mike

    From a genius in another artistic field:

    “The length of a film should be directly related to the endurance of the human bladder”

    Alfred Hitchcock

  • Tom

    Practice is definitely important, although I’m skeptical about many of the recent assertions minimizing the importance of innate talent versus simply putting in some Gladwellian “10,000 hours”, at least when it comes to music.

    I know that there are a lot of aspiring musicians who have put in massive amounts of practice time and yet will never be a Yo-Yo Ma. There are also some truly masterful performers out there who seem never to have put in huge amounts of practice time.

    To add even more noise to this issue, I suspect a lot of people spend countless hours practicing inefficiently (or practice the skills they enjoy practicing versus the skills they need for the task). And I suspect that a lot of great musicians actually spend a lot of time practicing mentally (like when walking down the street, or washing dishes).

  • Michael Ruhlman

    Typos and awkwardness fixed; shouldn’t post from LAX as 7am!

    • Jay

      “plus I’d made efforts to ensure the kitchen new I’d be out of my”
      “new” – Sorry, couldn’t help myself.

  • Guy

    I’m a huge fan of Gawande’s writings — not just Complications, but also “Better” (about individuals that made step-wise improvements in the deliver of health care) and “The Checklist Manifesto”.

    But wait — isn’t his notion of a checklist not so different that a recipe? The book is only partly about medicine, but also describes the origins of checklists, and the qualities of a good one. It is fascinating reading. I would imagine a similar treatise of the notion of a recipe would also be fascinating reading.

  • Natalie Luffer Sztern

    the gift is the innate talent, the practice is the love, the production becomes the genius.
    I was once told that a great kitchen is a choreographed dance when it is in harmony and when one misses a step the entire show is thrown if just for those minutes.

  • karen downie makley

    i think i blogged about “phrasing” within the last year and a half. phrasing is how a musician interprets and accents notes. the same song can be vastly different in the hands of different musicians. same notes…totally different feel. in modern terms you might remember the rolling stones’ “satisfaction” versus devo’s cover. same notes…totally different song. cooking is just the same. someone can give you and me the exact same recipe. even if we both follow it closely, i can promise the resulting product will vary. your pinch of salt is not my pinch of salt. your rolling boil may not be as furious as mine. and so on and so forth. phrasing utterly fascinates me both in music and food. and i am obsessed with both music and food…trying to define and attain the special “touch” that some have and others do not.

  • Natalie Luffer Sztern

    Karin d.m., I feel the exact same way as you do which is why I often wonder when a restaurant, not owned by a chef, has a fantastic reputation based on its chef – what happens when that chef moves on? My pinch is not your pinch of salt is an excellent way to express this point.

  • Michael McCullen

    I have often discussed the parallels between music and cooking through my career with young cooks starting out. I would always ask if they played an instrument, what kind, and did they like to practice? The fundamentals of practice, repetition and discipline apply to both fields of study. Once one has mastered the fundamentals through repetition, be they scales and arpeggios or brunoise and batonnet, only then can one truly improvise, and cook from the heart or create jazz.

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  • Richard Miller

    For an interesting comparison of taste and music, see John Livingstone-Learmonth’s review of 2010 Northern Rhone wines in the April issue of Decanter.

  • Paul Kobulnicky

    I bake free-form breads. When I switch over to a different type of bread I will bake it constantly for several weeks and i will bake lots more than I can use (my friends and neighbors suffer/benefit) and I do so just so i can get back to doing it very well before i move on to yet another.

  • vladka

    Very same everywhere. Practice makes perfects, I’ll have to show this blog post to my students. I teach English as a second language and it’s all the same. Everyone’s eager to express their opinions, to order their meals, but none of them wants to practice present continuous 🙂
    Well written post, thank you.

  • Kent

    Band directors in Texas have a saying I ran in to two years ago at a seminar, “Don’t practice until you get it right, practice until you can’t get it wrong.”

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