A Conversation with Tomer Niv

Tomer Niv is musician, chef and synesthete. He sees dishes in music and tastes in chords. He makes music on the highest level and learned from some of the world’s greatest chefs. Last week, he created a dinner in the Contemporary Food Lab. His goal: connecting food and music sensually and emotionally. Even though there is probably nobody more predestined for such an enterprise, I was still skeptical before the evening started. I thought music and food could maybe merge to create a special situation, but would not be able to draw deep emotions. I was wrong.

Everything changed when Aaron Goldberg opened up his Impresion de Bienestan with rocking chords, a deep base line and olive puree, earthly. Memories of forgotten childhood feelings popped up, chanterelles grew out of them. I was in a dark forest, plain saxophone lines dripped into my heart and I let myself fall into the sweet bread’s indefinable texture. The cymbal rained metallic over me while peanuts crashed between my teeth. Goosebumps.

We sat down with Tomer and talked about the connection between sound and taste, about war and peace in the Middle East, and about the potential of food to change something one day.

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CFL: In Israel, religion appears everywhere, in buildings, shrines, politics. What role does religion play in your personal life? And do you think there is a God, which helped you come to the point you are now?

T: In my personal life, first of all, I perceive myself and other people as human beings. And I look at nature, because I think, if there is a God, he wants us to look at nature. He gave us eyes and that’s our first way to experience existence. And I see: Everybody is the same, everyone is human being first of all. And this is in many ways the definition of my religion. But of course I was born Jewish and this feeling is very strong in me. But also, I have the feeling that I am a Buddhist and a Muslim and I am Christian, because I connect with other religions. But in a very individual way. I think religion is also problematic, because the modernization of it and the use of it as a tool to bring people to other places could be problematic for me as well. What was the second question?

CFL: Do you believe in God? Or is it God’s fault that you do what you do?

T: Fault?? It’s his miracle! Yes, I do very much believe in God. But I think God is inside of us and individual to each of us. I believe in it in the inside way, not in the conceptual way. I don’t believe that there is somebody with a white beard, who can sometimes be angry with us. It is more of a feeling, but I can say that my experience of life has proven without doubt, that there is something. And I am grateful for it.

CFL: So when you are in nature, is it spiritual for you?

T: I don’t really have any distinction between spiritual and not spiritual. Everything is both. Nature could be not spiritual and a city could be spiritual. Also, for the last five years, I’ve worked in nature and relaxed in the city. Before it was the other way around. My restaurant, Rama’s Kitchen is in the nature, in the most beautiful mountains, in a very dramatic landscape.

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CFL: You told me yesterday that you read the I Ching book, the old Chinese book of Changes. Did this influence the way you look at nature, the surrounding or your work?

T: Well, it was a long time ago, that I read the book and it influenced me back then and it probably formed a part of me. It is the same as in music: You learn a scale and then, when you improvise you forget about the learning process. But still, that learning process is influencing you after ten years or even more.

CFL: So, in Israel there is of course not only religion but also tension and war. We know that music is able to facilitate some kind of peace. There are for example projects like Barenboim’s West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, in which young people from Palestine and Israel play together. Do you think food has the same potential?

T: Yes, even more, I think. If you look at it, food has less boundaries than almost every other art. Because an ingredient is an ingredient. And if it is coming from the same terroir – Lebanon, Israel, Syria or Palestine, it is the same land. So for ingredients, borders don’t really exist. It just doesn’t matter if it’s north of the border or south of the border. So if you look at it that way, taste is also something without any borders. You know, I have been working in many kitchens in London, in cosmopolitan kitchens with lots of other people with lots of other nationalities. When we cook, we forget everything, we are half Muslim, half Christian, half Jewish and we meet as equals – inside and outside. It is kind of a social experiment – the food is without borders and the people who take it further. That’s one of the best things about cooking for me in Israel. We try to create a system, which is about reality, about taste, food, work.

CFL: Ok, but what is the difference of playing in a band with musicians, which are Jewish, Muslim and Christian then? Cooking and eating is a very cultural thing. So doesn’t it have borders as well, being related to different cultures?

T: Food is much more related to the ground. It comes from nature. And nature is not defined by people or by culture. Music came from nature too once. But it is more abstract, it was manipulated by instruments through hundreds of years. It is culturized. So it is also more dangerous.

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CFL: As I understood, you have this kind of synesthesia between music and taste. Can you please explain a little bit? How does this happen? You hear a sound and you have the feeling of a taste or the other way around? How can we imagine this?

T: The connection, the point of reference for me, is the emotion. Certain kinds of music create very strong emotions within me. This has always been my connection with music. And I always wanted to express that emotion in food as well. Because I believe food can express emotion. So this is the basic point of research, a very subjective point of course. But from that I try to find connections, which are more, let’s say, absolute. It is also about exploring the realm of food and the realm of music, trying to find points of contact, and building that on top of the pure emotional experience that I believe in. So this is actually the start of the creative process

CFL: This is the beautiful idea which you put into reality and which really works out as we saw yesterday. But is it also true that you have this gift that you can connect music and food in a kind of “biological” way? Like other people for example see colors when they hear a chord…

T: Yeah, I mean it started happening because I was a musician before I started cooking. And when I started cooking I told myself that I wanted to stop working with music for a while because I wanted to learn everything I could know about food. Obviously this didn’t happen because the more you learn about food, the more questions arise. Now I know enough to combine it back with music. But anyway, I remember when I was biking 20 minutes a day to work and back in England. At some point I started having visions of food with music. And this is where the idea came from. There was really something happening! One time I saw this upside down red pepper, which actually looked like a kind of seafood! There was something in the music that triggered this visual impact with expectations of taste as well, which enhanced the emotion and created this connection You said that all this is kind of a gift. I don’t think it is a gift in terms of a gift but it is a gift because it’s just so fun! Creating a dish cooking-wise is not enough satisfaction for me. With music I really enjoy what I’m doing. If I am just making food – and that’s all I have been doing for the last 10 years – it’s nice. But I need music, it is kind of a frame. When I do both, than I know that I’m doing the right thing.

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CFL: I heard you yesterday speaking with the pianist Alex Trebo about some scales and you two were agreeing on C sharp minor being metallic green. Maybe you already have the ability to connect music with other things and that is why now, you can extend this also to taste.

T: Yes, definitely. This is why it happened like that, being a musician and than being a cook. This connection has such a big advantage. When I speak with a musician about modalities of chords and tonality, I can understand what he is saying from a point of view of listening. But the collaboration with live musicians and also musicologists and any music experts in the process of making food is something that has never been done before. And I think this is a big challenge, because you need to create a creative process, which is really structured and then you can have kind of scientific results. Cooking and music are separated arts but they are both very scientific. Cooking is scientific and music – it’s pure mathematics in every way you look at it! We need to find the time to create a system for that. I wish I could do a three-hour session every week like the one yesterday with Alex. Just for defining the right scales. Can you define a scale with a taste? Can you define a scale with a texture? Can you define a scale with the visual appearance of a dish? I actually tried to do these kinds of sessions already, like psychological research. But I didn’t really come to any conclusions because music is also a very subjective experience. Different colors correspond to different scales, a mish-mash. I think the way to go is maybe like in art, in modern art – and this is definitely modern art. Because modern art is very subjective, you just do what ever you want to do. You first find the connection for yourself. (Which might be the same for some other musicians.) Maybe then it works.

CFL: Yes, it already worked yesterday. And who knows where it brings you, when you now also take science into account!

T: Yes who knows, maybe it ruins it!

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CFL: By the way, I was quite impressed this morning. You’re doing another supper club, similar to yesterday’s, tomorrow, and you said: Actually I don’t know what I’m cooking tomorrow yet! What happens now? How do you get inspired for tomorrow? Did you already choose the songs?

T: Tomorrow, I think, three of the dishes are going to come back, but they will be with more ingredients and with more complexity. But it is dangerous. Imagine, yesterday I was cooking with somebody I never cooked with before in a place that I didn’t know at all, a lab which is not entirely ready yet. By the way, I have to say, this is such a great place. I feel good cooking here, naturally. This is not to be taken for granted. But still, the situation is a bit fragile. Today I will go through my music again and will try to find some new songs. And if I do find some new stuff, I would like to start meditating on this and try to see food combinations. You know, there is this kind of music, when I listen to it I know: ok, that works. With other music it just doesn’t. I don’t know exactly why. The music has to cross the border, cross the mental level, go beyond the mind.

CFL: Ok, so for tomorrow, you didn’t choose the songs yet?

T: No, not really… Since I am here in Berlin, everything is happening quite fast. Before I came here I didn’t know anything, so I couldn’t really prepare so much. I didn’t know where I was going or which ingredients would be available, and also the level of the ingredients. In many ways I wanted to keep it like that, because if I had a plan, most probably it wouldn’t have worked out. It’s better not to have a plan, so you know you don’t have one and you are more prepared to improvise. These four days that I am here have been an improvisation process, an experiment. And it’s fine because we are getting the results we want. The goal we had, Ludwig and I, was to prove that this connection is working. And it does.

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CFL: Apart from the general logistics – is there any structured plan for your creative process? How do you prepare a dinner like this?

T: Yes, there is one. First I have about twenty possible tracks that work with food. And then I bring them here and see which ingredients I have. So I know my bank of possibilities. Then I start listening to the music and see: ok this can work with this or that… Like this, I create a draft of a menu. Afterwards, the organization begins: who is doing what to make the evening happen.

CFL: Do you have any big idols – in life, music, and the kitchen?

T: In life, I have many idols, but not big. MacGyver! He’s one. But I was five back then. Now, in terms of respect, it is maybe my father. In music, it is Pat Matheny, without a doubt. He is the reason I do music! He doesn’t talk about life on this planet, he talks about life in the galaxy, really beyond. He takes me places that are further. I started playing professionally, practicing 12 hours a day on the bass because I wanted to be able to play his music, play on that level. That is what brought me to Jazz and now also to classical music. Another idol in music is maybe Beethoven. Imagine, he wrote the 9th Symphony, when he was already deaf. This is an achievement that I think nobody can really understand what it takes. He wrote one of the best pieces of music in the world, when he was deaf. This is a big deal.

CFL: Do you think it could work with food?

T: The 9th symphony? Yes, definitely. The 3rd movement works for sure, I just couldn’t find the right dish for it yet. In food, Michel Bras is an idol of mine and Brett Graham from The Ledbury restaurant, where I also used to work. I wouldn’t say he is an idol but he is a role model in terms of how to be a modern chef, how to effectively run a kitchen. His creativity, which is very natural, is amazing. There are many more I guess. No idols, but there are a lot of top chefs I have a lot of appreciation for.

CFL: Is there anyone – dead or alive – you would like to play or to cook with. And why?

T: Pat Matheny. He plays and I cook! And he is still alive!

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CFL: If you could choose– would you rather be dead or keep living a bit longer as a healthy plant or an animal?

T: I would be dead. That’s fine. I think it is very interesting to be dead. I think there is enough to do if you are dead.

CFL: But you are still alive. Do you have any plans how to pursue your experiment? In Israel or Berlin?

T: Yes! I will for sure continue with this kind of conceptual dinner here and in Israel. Also, in places like museums. Pop-up dinners. It’s a way to try to get something serious into that direction. But still, of course I have a restaurant to run and a lot of time is consumed there. This is very important for me.

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CFL: In terms of peace again: Could you imagine the combination of music and food, and its deep emotional effects, somehow creating peaceful moments in times of tension? I mean, could you imagine making a project centered around that?

T: First of all, I would love to do something like this. But the connections I make with my colleagues and employees are the most important. This is not an event, it is everyday life. A week ago, I was in a Muslim wedding in an Arabic village, which was an amazing experience for me. Through living together you learn to respect one another. Creating that situation is really coexistence, I mean, you don’t need more than that. Work and cooperate peacefully, that’s all. I think there are many events, lots of European funds in Israel, that give a lot of money for events. But until now we haven’t seen any game changes. I would love to say, let’s do this gala dinner, or a donation party with a huge budget for peace -

CFL: – and getting everybody hypnotized through food and music!

T: Yeah, but that is a dream. The reality in the Middle East is much harsher. You need to be very pragmatic and do your day-to-day action if you want to change anything. If everyone does their own small part to create friendliness around them, it will help.

CFL: Beautiful. Let’s do that.

Questions: Theresa Patzschke

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