Special Chefs Edition

Food and music are almost always plated together and, in this special edition of the Guest DJ Project, six all-star chefs share songs that inspire their process. KCRW Good Food host Evan Kleiman guides the way through a wide range of tunes selected by famed Bay Area chef Alice Waters, a master of modern Mexican cuisine Rick Bayless, Top Chef host Padma Lakshmi, LA standout chef and Travel Channel show host Michael Voltaggio, food writer Gail Simmons, and NY-based Iron Chef Alex Guarnaschelli.


  1. Alice Waters: Youssou N'Dour - "Tan Bi"
  2. Rick Bayless: Buena Vista Social Club - "Marieta"
  3. Padma Lakshmi: Led Zeppelin - "Ramble On"
  4. Michael Voltaggio: The Beatles - "Let It Be"
  5. Alex Guarnaschelli: Prince - "Starfish and Coffee"
  6. Gail Simmons: Shout Out Louds - "Walking In Your Footsteps"

Evan Kleiman: Hi, I’m Evan Kleiman, host of Good Food on KCRW. And this is a special Thanksgiving edition of the Guest DJ Project, where we invite some of our favorite chefs to talk about the music that inspires them.

Food and music are almost always plated together – it sets the mood, pushes you through hours of repetitive prep and can be as evocative as the ingredients themselves.

For chef Alice Waters, the ingredients are key. Her Berkeley restaurant Chez Panisse is ground zero for contemporary California cuisine. Here, she talks to KCRW DJ Tom Schnabel about Sengalese superstar Youssou N’Dour.

Song: Youssou N’Dour -- “Tan Bi”

Tom Schnabel: Why did you pick Youssou N’Dour?

Alice Waters: I went to a concert a couple of years ago, I walked in and I felt like I was in Senegal. Everybody was standing up, everybody was engaged with the music the whole time, people were dancing. I just thought, ‘he's speaking to all of us and we can understand it even though we can't understand it -- we can understand it with our bodies. It's a universal language that is communicating feelings of love and peace,’ and it touched me and I have been listening to it ever since.

TS: The thing I like about Youssou N’Dour is the fact that his songs are always about something real and something important and it kind of reminds me a little bit of very honest food.

AW: Absolutely. And it's what I'm trying to do all the time is to just let the food be what it is. I think it's so important that food is cooked simply and tastes of what it is.

To pick those ripe tomatoes and do as little as possible to them. I put them on the plate a little olive oil, a little salt maybe, a torn piece of basil and it's just the best possible dish I could eat. And I think it does really feel like the music of Youssou N’Dour.

TS: Because it's honest.

AW: Because it is honest, that's a very beautiful way of saying it.

Evan Kleiman: Chef Rick Bayless may have pioneered modern Mexican cuisine north of the border, but it is the music of Cuba’s Buena Vista Social Club that gets him going in the kitchen. He chose the song “Marieta."

Rick Bayless: This has a very special place in my heart, mostly because when I was working on Mexico - One Plate At A Time, I fell in love with this song and every time I would sit down to write, I would put this song on to get me back into the groove of what I was doing.

It's got such an incredible rhythm to it -- just bears you right along. You can't help but just be engulfed in it. And then when you start to tease apart the lyrics in Spanish, you realize what an incredible tale is being told here about sort of, being released into the party atmosphere and finding yourself kind of lost in it.

I'm being very nice because there's sort of raunchy parts to it, too (laughs).

Most people think that cooking is a matter of following some recipes and some techniques that you've mastered, but yeah it's the techniques but it's not just the ingredients that are measured out, it's the feel for what those ingredients really are calling you to do at any given moment.

Same sort of thing, I think happens in music -- that's why I think there's such a great parallel between music and preparation of food or even enjoying food at the table, because you start to taste something and then the taste begins to evolve and then the conversation starts to evolve and then the next thing you know, the whole thing is just moving together and if you've got some beautiful music that's going to carry you along in that same vibe, then you've got a real party on your hands.

Song: Buena Vista Social Club – “Marieta”

Evan Kleiman: Padma Lakshmi is the host of Bravo’s hit competition series Top Chef. But when it comes to her time in the kitchen, she likes to take it easy. With Led Zeppelin fueling her creativity.

Padma Lakshmi: I love this song because it never ceases to make me happy, happy as a dog’s tail.

You know, in the kitchen, barefoot, with the music up, with a big, wide wok in front me and all my spices. I think of my spice box as a painter’s palate, and I often I just go to the market and buy vegetables or some protein. I usually have tomatoes or coconut milk or something like that, and then I just do what I refer to in the book as “MacGyvering” in the kitchen.

And what I mean by that is just taking what you have and really creating something spontaneously. And I love the kind of tooling, rambling on, you know, attitude of this song. It just makes me want to keep humming, keep on my path, and really inspires me to kind of just keep creating -- whatever form that creativity takes shape in is fine.

Song: Led Zeppelin -- "Ramble On"

Evan Kleiman: Most chefs start in the kitchen as a line cook. It’s high pressure, hard labor all in a tiny space that is hotter than you can imagine. That’s where Chef Michael Voltaggio started at age 15. Now he’s the owner of the acclaimed restaurant INK in LA. He shares how he gets through a tough patch.

Michael Voltaggio: This song for me is actually part my daily life. Even as a young line cook, when I would get in the weeds -- and that's what we call it when you are really far behind, and you have to dig your way out of it -- instead of listening to all the yelling and screaming around me, I would play these lyrics in my head and I would sing them to myself, just "let it be, let it be, let it be" and just get through it get through it get through it.

And let all the wisdom and everything that surrounds you just help you like get through this experience and let everything around you be and just focus on one thing and get it done. And so, for me, when I would get weeded I would just be [singing] "let it be, let it be" and do that in my head, and just…block everything else out, so that I could get through that moment.

And so, this is my "in the weeds" song, you know, as a line cook.

Song: Beatles – “Let It Be”

Evan: Alex Guarnaschelli is a Food Network star and executive chef at Butter in New York City. She explores the sensuality of cooking -- and eating -- in a conversation with KCRW DJ Aaron Byrd.

Alex Guarnaschelli: I hear so much music and I just think, "Wow, whoever is singing this listened to a few Prince albums before they hit the studio." I think his influence on other musicians is undeniable and very prolific.

He has that way of kind of singing a song and nothing about the song particularly makes sense when you actually sing it out loud along with him, yet it totally does make sense and he talks a lot about food.

He uses a lot of ingredients in his songs. I think he looks at food and ingredients, particularly beautiful ones -- raspberries, coffee -- and celebrates both the word, the singing it but also just the ingredient itself. The whole song has a lot of images -- maple syrup and jam, butterscotch cloud and a side order of ham. That’s sort of the random connection of things that I think he’s just singing out loud and it feels very steam of consciousness, I think a lot of cooking is like that. You know what this needs salt and now I’m going to add pepper, you know what now I think it needs a little sugar, you know what now I want garlic and I feel like that’s how he puts together his songs a little bit…like a good recipe.

Aaron Byrd: You know hearing you talk about your passion for food and referencing this particular Prince song does that work together?

AG: Definitely. I mean if you don’t hear erotic energy in Prince’s music I can’t help you. I mean, let’s face it, eating and sex are two of the great pleasures and they certainly I think share a lot.

Aaron: Alright, a sexy and sensual song courtesy of Prince, this is “Starfish and Coffee.”

Song: Prince – “Starfish and Coffee”

Evan Kleiman: As this special Chef Edition of the Guest DJ Project comes to a close we wanted to ask one final question.

What is the ultimate connection between cooking and music?

Food writer Gail Simmons tells us…

Gail Simmons: First of all, I think that cooking is an art form like music complex, layered.

Creating a great dish is sort of like laying down a great song. You know, laying down track after track to create the sum that is greater than its parts and I think cooking is very much that process. You know making a soup, for example, you start with the mirepoix. You start with those basic flavors of onion and carrot and celery and then you add in your garlic and then you layer in perhaps a deglaze of white wine and then when that reduces you add let’s say the barley and the tomatoes and all the vegetables and then you simmer it together and it becomes that soup.

So I think music and cooking, that process of creation, is really similar and food is very tied to sense memory and I think music is the same way and so you know there are dishes you eat for comfort the same way there are songs you listen to for comfort and just inspiration. A great meal inspires me and so does great music.

Dining, atmosphere when you’re eating is so important too. I think that no matter what you’re eating if you’re in a restaurant and the music playing is totally conflicting, your experience changes. If the music really sets that mood and if the restaurant really pays attention to that music, I think that your dining experience is enhanced so much so there is that organicness to music and to food.

Song: Shout Out Louds – “Walking in Your Footsteps”

Evan Kleiman: That was “Walking in your Footsteps” by the Swedish band the Shout Out Louds. Thanks for listening. I’m Evan Kleiman.