10 things Van Halen can teach us about food and cooking

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10 things Van Halen can teach us about food and cooking

Hi, I’m Adam Ragusea — failed musician turned internet cook, and here’s 10 things that we can all learn about food and cooking from the mighty Van Halen thing. Number one, everybody wants some. Number two, when you have something really good, there’s no need to layer it with a ton of stuff. On Van Halen’s 1978 debut, we hear something pretty unusual in a heavy rock record, and that is one track of rhythm guitar at a time, most of the way through the whole album. Rhythm guitar just means the guitar part that’s playing chords or some other kind of accompaniment. That’s as opposed to lead guitar. Rhythm guitar is [playing] Lead guitar is [playing]. And in a typical heavy rock record, you would generally have at least two simultaneous layers or tracks of rhythm guitar playing together at all times: one generally panned a little bit to the left and one generally panned a little bit to the right. Two guitars playing the same part together, just doubling it to make it sound a little bit thicker. So as opposed to a single track of rhythm guitar, which would sound like this [playing], a double track rhythm guitar would sound like this [playing]. By the time I was a teenager in the 1990s, listening to heavy rock music, I heard the mighty Van Halen and I thought, Oh my God, this is so weak. There’s only one track of rhythm guitar. And I thought that because I was young and deeply stupid, slightly stupider than I am now, because what I didn’t understand was that Eddie Van Halen’s rhythm guitar playing was so rich with nuance and texture and detail. He knew that to double all of his parts on this record would be to obscure what made them special. Likewise, when you have a really beautiful piece of fish or something, maybe all it needs is some salt and pepper I mean, the world is full of brilliant culinary traditions that layer strong flavor upon strong flavor upon strong flavor. I love food like that, but it’s also probably the case that those recipes originated historically as a way of dealing with meats and vegetables and things that simply weren’t that good — things that were a little off, a little gamey, a little spoiled — things that needed some covering up in, say, the days before refrigeration Again, I love recipes that evolved in that historical context, but what the mighty Van Halen teaches us is that when you’re lucky enough to have something really fresh and beautiful and special, it can be awfully nice to just let that ingredient be heard in the clear, nice and solo. And when you keep things really spare, you leave room for maybe one or two other layers to really sing in harmony The great example from Van Halen is the harmonies, the incomparable backup vocals of Eddie and bass player Michael Anthony. The fact that there’s only one layer of rhythm guitar on “Running with the Devil” means that there’s room in the texture for those glorious backup vocals to cut through the mix Likewise, you might develop a whole new appreciation for lemon if you just let it sing against the relatively sparse rhythm section of a simply sauteed piece of fish. Or here’s another example: I just put out this key lime pie recipe. That pie was good, but after I made it, I was looking at the graham crackers and I was looking at the whipped cream and I was like, I’ma do it. And you know, graham crackers and fresh whipped cream are such good things that maybe they don’t need to be layered with custard. That custard is the second rhythm guitar track that Eddie knew he didn’t need thing. Thing number three we can all learn about food from Van Halen: All Dave’s flavors are guaranteed to satisfy. Thing number four: the better you are, the more likely you are to let your imperfections show. This seems contradictory And in fact, it is contradictory when we’re talking about any creative endeavor being practiced at a very low level. The singer most likely to hit a sour note is the no-talent ass clown at karaoke, not Daryl Hall. Yes, I’m obsessed with the 1970s and ’80s. But you are a lot more likely to hear a sour note on a Hall & Oates record than you are on a record by a professional but less talented singer. Why? Well, because when a professional singer who just happens to not be quite as talented as Daryl Hall gets into the vocal booth, they don’t just sing the song top to bottom in one or two takes, and then leave Daryl Hall was known to do that. No, the less-talented professional singer will go back and rerecord the lines — or even the individual words — they sang a bit off-key This is a recording practice known as “punching in.” Or they might sing the whole song all the way through like 20 times, and then the producer will painstakingly edit the best bits of all 20 takes together into one Franken-take That’s known as “comping.” Or more likely these days, if a singer hits a few sour notes, the producer will just run it through a little bit of auto-tune. For all these reasons, you’re less likely to hear an off note on a record by a middling singer. In contrast, an incredibly gifted singer like Daryl Hall gets in the booth, does one or two takes and leaves. And what he leaves behind is a real human performance

with a few off notes. Likewise, Eddie Van Halen would get in the studio and just run the song top to bottom because he could, and it would be brilliant, but it would also be human. When he recorded the intro to “Ain’t Talking ‘Bout Love,” he messed up the riff the second time through. Here, it is the first time. And here it is the second time He fumbled it a little bit. And these days you would never hear that from a less-talented player, like me. A lesser player these days would use all their concentration to nail the riff once and then just copy and paste it a hundred times. So it is with food. Of course you’re most likely to see mistakes in truly abysmal, terrible cooking. But if you just look at middling food and above, you’re more likely to see mistakes in the truly excellent food. Middling food is standardized, industrialized, extruded, shrink-wrapped perfection Really great food is made by human hands and has human imperfections. These are some beautiful hard candies handmade at a shop in Montreal called Candylabs. They’re big on YouTube Unlike factory-made candies, each of these has a slightly different length, because a human being cut them, not a machine. When you have the confidence to let your imperfections show, that’s when you really start to look cool 38 years into my life, I’m not sure I’m there yet, but I’m feeling kind of cool today, thanks to my new glasses. You notice these? They’re from the sponsor of this video, Warby Parker You’ve actually never seen me in glasses that weren’t Warby Parker. I’ve been a customer for years. They provide exceptional vision care online and in stores — eyeglasses, sunglasses contacts, eye exams. Glasses start at $95. You can go to a store near you, or you can get a free home try-on kit. You go to the website and you pick five pairs. You can filter by type. I have a big face, so I only want to see wide frames. 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Thanks, Warby Parker, For the support and for the specs Thing about food number five we can learn from Van Halen: The most impressive stuff is often the easiest, and vice versa. I’ll never forget being maybe 14 years old and sitting in the car with my mom, when Van Halen’s “Eruption” came on the radio. It was all pretty impressive, and then it got to this part I was like, What is that? Is that even a guitar? So I went home and I grabbed this guitar that my dad had bought me from the Music Mart on Beaver Avenue in State College, Pennsylvania, and I leaned in really close to my boombox to try to pick out the notes to that solo — because that’s what we did back in the day, kids. We didn’t have the tablatures on the internet. We had to pick things out by ear, and the notes were pretty easy to pick out But I could not, for the life of me, figure out how he was playing those notes so fast and so fluid. I figured it was just that he was amazing, and I wasn’t. I figured he could do this really, really fast and really, really smooth. It wasn’t until years later that I figured out the whole two-handed tapping thing This is where the act of fretting the note and the act of making the string vibrate are one and the same, thus making it a much more physically efficient way to play the instrument Eddie wasn’t fretting and picking each one of those notes individually. He was doing this Now, if you don’t play guitar, that might look and sound pretty impressive. But if you do play guitar, you know, it’s not. It’s super easy. That particular arpeggio pattern just falls out of the hands on the instrument It’s nothing compared to the frontiers of shred that today’s dgentlemen are exploring But back in my day, we didn’t have Jared Dines and Sarah Longfield and Stevie T on YouTube to show us this stuff. It took me years to figure out for myself, through experimentation, that the impressive stuff is often the easiest stuff. Likewise, if you think that somebody painstakingly drew this design on your coffee or your hot chocolate, then yeah, that’d be pretty impressive, but just look behind the curtain. It’s easy. In contrast, there are all kinds of really hard things that don’t seem very hard from the outside, like the riff to my favorite original Van Halen song,

which is “Unchained.” It does not sound particularly challenging And it’s easy up until that point. And then it does this. It’s that transition between those two chords I find that physically difficult — not to do by itself, but to do it fast and make it sound super fluid. Eddie makes it sound like water trickling downhill. One more time. Yeah, I can’t do that. Nobody listening would hear that and think that it was particularly virtuosic — not until they tried it. Nor would anybody be particularly impressed to get some perfectly al dente, warm and still bright-green broccoli next to their pork chop. But let me tell you, that is no small feat — to have the broccoli be perfect at just the moment when the meat is hitting the table, because it doesn’t stay perfect for long. Thing number six: Just because you can do what the greats do doesn’t mean that you’re also great. Around the time that my dad got me this old Mexican Strat, he also gave me a Jimi Hendrix record and he says, Son, this is the greatest electric guitar player who ever lived. Go listen to this So I brought it up to my room and I put it on the boombox and put my head down next to it, really, really close to try to pick out the notes to the song. And I picked out this And 14-year-old Adam thought to himself, Oh my God, I can play what the greatest electric guitar player ever can play. I’m as great as the greatest electric guitar player. I was, of course, being every bit as delusional as the philistines who look at a Jackson Pollock painting and say, I could do that. Well, maybe you could, but you didn’t. He did. The main riff of just about any classic Van Halen song can be played by like a first-year guitar student. “Ain’t Talking ‘Bout Love.” That might sound kind of elaborate, but remember thing number five: that which is the most impressive is often the easiest. All that riff is is just kind of a creative picking of three of the basic chord shapes that you would learn on your first day of guitar lessons: this one, this one, and this. You learn how to play those and you can easily pick out that riff. And of course, just because you can do that doesn’t mean that you’re as good as Eddie Van Halen. Maybe you are as good as Eddie Van Halen if you can play that flawlessly and effortlessly while also darting around the stage like a crazy person, while also singing amazing backup vocals with Michael Anthony and compensating for the fact that your lead singer often bizarrely refused to actually sing very much at live shows preferring instead to high kick and zibbity zibbity bop his way through the whole gig Maybe you’re as good as Eddie if you can play that riff beautifully while also being blitzed out of your mind on god knows what substances Maybe you are that good. I’m not. I can only play that riff when I’m sitting here in my quiet room, giving it my full sober attention Likewise, just because you can cook Thomas Keller’s dead-simple roast chicken recipe does not mean you’re as good as Thomas Keller He can cook that and 10 million other things flawlessly at the same time and run a wildly successful restaurant empire while also somehow being, by many accounts, a very decent human being to work for — unlike certain other celebrity chef/restaurateurs. Both that chicken and that riff lead us to thing number seven: The greats usually keep things pretty simple, but deceptively so. Sure, any first-year guitar student can play the “Ain’t Talking ‘Bout Love” riff, but can they play all the little filigrees and details that come between the riff? An even better example on that first Van Halen record is their cover of “You Really Got Me” by The Kinks. It’s the dumbest imaginable two-chord riff. Anybody could have come up with that, but you didn’t. Ray Davies did Here’s how Ray played that riff Now here’s what Eddie Van Halen did with the same two-chord riff It’s almost always the notes in between the notes with Eddie — all the little flashes of brilliance that embellish what is, at its core, a meat and potatoes riff. Likewise, in this Thomas Keller Masterclass, the guy is not cooking anything terribly sophisticated, but it’s all the little special touches that elevate the profane into the sacred. Thing number eight: Just because somebody is great at something doesn’t mean they understand it. One of Eddie’s signature techniques is to take this string, the second string on the guitar, the second one from the top, and tune it down ever so slightly A lot of Van Halen riffs sound a little out of tune on a perfectly tuned guitar, and Eddie can fix this by simply tuning the second string down a little bit. And he was given to saying in interviews that this phenomenon is the result of a fundamental design flaw of the guitar. The problem, he said, is that the distance between the third string and the

second string is the interval of a major third — one scale degree, two scale degrees, three A third, a major third. That’s what that interval is called. The minor third would be this, but it’s major. It’s a major third on the open strings. The second and third strings open — open meaning I’m not fretting them with my left hand. It’s just the natural tone of the string. All other adjacent strings on the guitar are tuned a perfect fourth across This is a fourth. That’s a fourth, that’s a fourth. There’s a fourth year. This is a third. If it was a fourth, it would sound like this, but it doesn’t, it sounds like this because it’s a major third. And Eddie says that somebody screwed up when they designed this aspect of the guitar. All the strings should be a perfect fourth apart, and because they’re not, the second string is always a little out of tune. At least that’s according to Eddie. That thing that Eddie Van Halen apparently believes simply isn’t true. On a perfectly tuned guitar, the second string is no more likely to be in or out of tune than any other string. The flaw is with 12 tone equal temperament. That’s the standard Western tuning system of dividing the octave here into 12 equally spaced notes, right? The distance between these notes is the same as the distance between these notes. 12 tone equal temperament. This system allows you to play anything in any key, and it will all sound equally in tune. Like, I could play “Jump” in the original C, or I could move it down to G and it will still sound just as in tune The problem is that the interval of a major third sounds noticeably sharp in 12 tone equal temperament. The top note sounds a little too high. The 12 tone equal temperament system doesn’t get you the mathematically perfect, whole-number ratios of “just” or “pure” intonation This problem is particularly noticeable on overdriven rock guitar, because for physics reasons, distortion — that crunchy sound — that really emphasizes a phenomenon known as “acoustical beating,” which is a kind of nasty sound that happens between two notes that are not perfectly justly, purely tuned Here they are pretty close to justly tuned And here they are not justly tuned. This is more standard, 12 tone equal temperament tuning Now let me turn on the overdrive, the distortion, and play those for you again. Here’s that major third with just, pure intonation. And here’s those notes in kinda standard 12 note equal temperament tuning Distortion really emphasizes that kinda nasty sound, and that was a particular problem for Eddie Van Halen, a guy playing a really distorted, overdriven rock guitar. It was also a particular problem for Eddie because Eddie has a very particular riff writing style where he is very, very often putting the third of the chord on this string, the second string. So here he is doing it in “Unchained.” Here he is doing it on “Running with the Devil.” On all these riffs, he simply happens to be positioning the third of each chord on this string, meaning it’s one, two, three scale degrees up from the root of the chord. And because he happens to be writing riffs in this way, he can make the major thirds of his chords sound more justly in tune by simply taking this second string, where he’s always putting the thirds of his chords, and tuning it down a little bit. Eddie’s solution to the problem works, but he doesn’t quite understand the problem, or quite understand why his solution works. And I don’t blame him. It’s not his job to sit at a computer and be a music theory nerd. His job is to get on stage and melt faces. Like many professional chefs, he doesn’t have the time or the inclination to acquire much theoretical knowledge. He needs applied knowledge, and his application works. Likewise, great chefs make great food all the time in spite of the fact that they often have mistaken notions of why their techniques work. Gordon Ramsay is the prime example “Start the duck breasts in the pan cold. But we put them into a cold pan and turn the heat up gradually. It starts to release the fat If we put them into a hot pan, it seals them in, and the fat stays in there. We want to render that fat down.” Yeah, cooking does not seal in meats. That’s a chef myth that has been disproven innumerable times, and yet: “Seal the duck.” So, Gordon’s reasoning for starting duck breast in a cold pan is flawed, but his method still works great, because fat renders at a much lower temperature than

the temp at which meat browns. Therefore, if you start the duck in a cold pan and gradually bring up the heat, you’re giving the fat layer a head start. You’re giving it more time to render before the meat actually starts cooking And this lets you render out a ton of fat before you overcook the meat. Gordon has the wrong idea, but the right technique, just as Eddie has the wrong idea but the right technique when it comes to de-tuning this B string. Just because they’re great doesn’t mean they understand fully why they are great And that’s important for us to remember and keep in mind when we’re trying to learn from the greats. The ninth thing that Van Halen can teach us about food and cooking is: the secret ingredient is you. Look at this video on YouTube. 1996, Eddie is giving a guitar clinic and invites a fan to come up and play his guitar. That’s Eddie’s guitar, his amp, his gear, all the technical elements of his signature sound handed over to another human And it’s a human who happens to be a fantastic guitar player himself, who has clearly studied every note that Eddie ever played. And yet when he plays Eddie-style material on Eddie’s gear, it doesn’t quite sound like Eddie Only Eddie sounds like Eddie, and it’s not just about the notes that he’s playing. Sideburns McGee over there could probably easily play any of Eddie’s notes on Eddie’s guitar and it still wouldn’t sound quite like Eddie This isn’t something mystical or magical There’s something empirical and tangible happening to that guitar in Eddie Van Halen’s hands that doesn’t happen in anyone else’s hands And maybe it actually is his hands, the sort of physical dimensions of them. Likewise, you can make your grandma’s meatball recipe exactly like she did and they’ll never quite taste the same. That’s not because of the secret ingredient “love” she put in there The secret ingredient might’ve been her hands We all have a unique microbiome on our hands There’s research on bread that I’ve shown you before where scientists documented how certain yeast and bacterial strains found in the bread seemed to be coming from unique colonies on the naker’s hands This could explain why grandma’s bread only tasted right when she made it. Her meatballs also might’ve tasted a certain way because of that pan she used to use that you lost, or that oven she had in that house that’s not in the family any longer. As musicians, or as cooks, we really all are special little snowflakes. That’s not a platitude — that’s science. And I am just as sincere right now when I thank you for watching, and as Diamond David Lee Roth used to say: “It ain’t no **** good without an audience.” That’s thing number 10: It’s nice to play music or cook for yourself, but it’s way nicer to do it for other people