Restraint: What Cooks Can Learn From Miles Davis



There is not an art form that I am not an appreciative fan of: food, music, theater, film, fine art. My love of food is evident in my career. My love of art was displayed in every restaurant I opened and is evident when you walk through my home. I would think that my love of music was validated with the creation of my restaurant Biscuits and Blues in San Francisco 16 years ago. Before that I created "Regina's at the Regis," which catered to the theater crowd and actors. You cannot love art and not feel complete awe for the creative artists.

Recently, I have a new found awe for Miles Davis. I know it may seem a bit strange when I say, "As a chef you can learn a lot from Miles Davis," but bear with me, I will get you there.

What Miles knew inherently as a jazz musician, as cooks often learn though experience and time, was restraint, or, simply put, "less is more."

On a recent Sunday I went to Lafayette, Louisiana, to see my friend Lisa Fischer, who is touring with jazz artist Chris Botti. Now that I am in Natchez most of the time, New York just some of the time, and San Francisco less and less, I never see my friends enough. The beauty of true friendship is you always pick up where you left off, and what I have also found with true friendship is that if you keep your expectations simple and sincere it endures. Lisa will remain always as one of the most amazing people and vocalists I have met.

We were instant friends when we first met over 19 years ago. Lisa was working with my more than brilliant friend songwriter, drummer, and producer Narada Michael Walden, on a song for her album So Intense. Narada always brought nice people into my life. He would call me to make reservations at Regina's and say, "I need some biscuit love." I knew I would have a captive audience to show off my art form, which is Southern cooking. Whenever Narada would come to the restaurant he would make me give his guests a kitchen tour, and his favorite part was the rolling racks in the walk-in cooler with sheet pans full of stuffed oysters that were prepared to go into the oven for my popular "oysters 2, 2 and 2." I had a variety of baked oysters, and guests could choose two of each.

Funny, the things that we remember. To this day I remember the black velvet maternity outfit I wore (feeling very pregnant and unattractive) while Lisa was very chic and had the most amazing leopard heels—but all evening she kept telling me how fabulous I looked pregnant. She won a Grammy for "How Can I Ease the Pain"; she should have won an Academy Award for making me believe that I looked fabulous even though I was big and pregnant. Right after meeting Lisa she began touring with the Rolling Stones from 1994 and every tour since—Voodoo Lounge Tour, Bridges to Babylon Tour, No Security Tour, Licks Tour, A Bigger Bang Tour, and the Steel Wheels tour. If you have ever seen her perform, you know how talented she is. I am touting her because not only is she one of the most talented singers I have seen, she is genuinely one of the loveliest, talented, and still humble people I know. She has never been on a tour that did not somehow include my family, and she remains special to each one of us.

I should have known if Lisa was touring with Chris Botti that he had to have mega talent and be a wonderful person. He is hands down the most amazing trumpet player of our generation. Many remember Chris from touring with Paul Simon, then with Sting's band until Sting had the foresight to have Chris form his own band to open for Sting's tour. Like Lisa, Chris has quite the impressive resume and like Lisa he has an amazing heart. I was so touched when he chose a woman out of the audience whose husband had been deployed to Iraq; Chris not only dedicated the evening to her and her husband—he genuinely played to her as if she were the only person in the room. I can spot a true heart, like true talent, when it is present.

Chris was quite engaging and before playing an inspiring version of Miles Davis's Flamenco Sketches from his 1959 album that changed jazz, Kind of Blue, Chris Botti said, "Jazz musicians are never known for their restraint and this record is perfect in its restraint. The song has no written melody, but is rather defined by a set of chord changes that are improvised using various modes of the major scale of each tonality." It struck me instantly what I have learned through the years to improve my cooking is restraint. What Miles knew inherently as a jazz musician, as cooks often learn though experience and time, was restraint, or, simply put, "less is more." I have learned through the years that if I have really good ingredients I should not overcomplicate them.

At the end of the day the dishes that I have made that leave a lasting impression are some of the least complex dishes—the ones that have two or three ingredients. My oysters 2, 2 and 2 had choices as complicated as an eggplant dressing that had a béchamel in it with onion, celery, smoked bacon, and provolone cheese, another with artichoke hearts in a cream sauce with several other ingredients, another with a spinach topping with celery, shallots, grated Romano, and a touch of Pernod. But the one that shined the brightest was simply topped with a perfect beurre blanc and a touch of caviar. As we all grow in our own art forms we find our true selves, whatever the art. Over the past few decades I have experimented with a culinary range from classic to contemporary Southern and French, and through the years I have found my own style and comfort level with who I am as a chef. I have experienced Lisa's talent as a shining star in R & B, rock and roll, and now seeing her center stage as a jazz vocalist it is apparent she has a sense of self no matter what genre she chooses. In the words of Mr. Miles Davis: "Sometimes you have to play a long time to be able to play like yourself."

Recipe: Broiled Oysters with Beurre Blanc and Caviar

Serves 4

• 2 dozen oysters on the half shell
    • 1 ounce caviar (Beluga, Osetra, Sevruga, or U.S. farm-raised)

For the beurre blanc:
    • 2 teaspoons white wine vinegar
    • ¼ cup white wine
    • 1 medium shallot, minced
    • 3 tablespoons cream
    • 1/4 pound butter (cut into 8 pieces)

In small skillet, add vinegar, wine, shallot, and cream, then cook over medium heat and reduce until thick. Turn heat off and slowly whisk in butter until you have a smooth sauce.

Place oysters in half shell on baking sheet, then place under a broiler set at 500 degrees for two minutes. Remove from oven and tip oysters to the side to drain off extra juice.

Top each oyster with beurre blanc, then top with a touch of caviar.

Serve immediately, preferably with a glass of Champagne.