This is starting to feel like the year of Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson. You may recognize him as the drummer of The Roots, which appears nightly as the in-house musical talent of The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon (just watch him drum-off with Justin Bieber). But over the last few years, his name has popped up in non-music-related conversations, too: for his style (his colorful Lego brooches made by Dee & Ricky have a cult following); in home decor (earlier this year he launched a trio of super-graphic lazy Susans with Atelier Courbet); and now, food, especially given that his highly anticipated book, #somethingtofoodabout ($20; amazon.com), has just been released.
“I’m fascinated by chefs, people who have decided to devote their lives to food—to making it, but also to thinking about what it meant to the broader culture,” says Thompson, who counts big timers David Chang, Anthony Bourdain, and Dominique Ansel as buds. To satisfy his curiosity, he conducted a series of conversations with some of the world’s more innovative chefs. Ten notable culinary figures—including Dominique Crenn of Atelier Crenn in San Francisco, Daniel Humm of Eleven Madison Park in New York, and Nathan Myhrcold, the author of the $600-book set Modernist Cuisine—sat with Thompson to contemplate all his pressing queries: How does food make us who we are? How much of it is a product of, or a producer of, other parts of our culture? What is your philosophy of food and how do they make it work? What have you learned and unlearned?
We recently sat down for a session of burning questions of our own for the celebrated percussionist to answer. Promise you’ll find out more fun factoids than just what his favorite cereal is.
What’s your typical breakfast? And if there isn’t one, the ideal?
Nothing's typical. Too many days are busy and too different, and there are several ideals: It can range from certain kinds of bespoke omelettes to eating what my chef prepared for me for lunch, because there wasn’t time for breakfast.
My favorite, which I wish I could eat more than I do, is Peanut Butter Cap'n Crunch. Fun fact: Smedley, the elephant who is the mascot, has a hat with a C on it, which stands for Crunch, not Cap'n. The Cap'n himself was created by Jay Ward, who did Bullwinkle. I'm not sure if that makes it ideal, but that makes it interesting.
I know you are passionate about eating, but what about cooking?
I cook a little, but not with any regularity. Time doesn't permit. I remember my grandmother making food for kids in the neighborhood—Sunday supper was a week-long affair to prepare for—and because of that I [know] the ways that food builds or extends communities. When it comes to ideas and ingredients, I try to pick a little something up from everywhere I visit.
If you could work in anyone’s kitchen, who’s would it be and which station?
I would do what I do with my other jobs which is move around from place to place. I'd like to eventually learn everything. Maybe that would mean that I'd end up working with Dave Beran at Next in Chicago, because as the concept changes from one [theme] to the next, I'd be able to switch from one station to another.
Do you have a favorite nightcap?
I don’t really, but I do have people come by my place to listen to records at 4 a.m. or play Cards Against Humanity at 1 a.m. And while I don’t have a full bar set up, I always have some really great bottles of wine. My Food Salons [a party he hosts for famous and non-famous friends to talk about and consume an array of things that are delicious] are also becoming known for their cocktails. We managed to find one of the best mixologists in the city and she has introduced many of my friends to some of their new favorite cocktails, like the Spring Formal. I can’t tell you how to make it, but I can tell you what’s in it: Martell VSOP cognac, strawberry, lemon, absinthe, Mumm sparkling wine.
The eating experience is more than just about the actual food that’s on the plate. Can you describe what the perfect table setting looks like to you, from the plates to the cutlery?
Funny you ask. I am working on tableware designs, so I am currently working on the answer to that question. But I like to operate in the round. I work with drums, I work with records, and now I work with plates—almost everything I do creatively is in circles. The cutlery would be wrapped in a white napkin that has printed on it, in French, “this is not cutlery wrapped inside this napkin."