Hrishikesh Hirway on the Magic of Music and Food

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Hrishikesh Hirway on the Magic of Music and Food

Hrishikesh Hirway is a man who’s deeply interested in the parts of things and how they’re put together. The musician (The One AM Radio and MOORS) and designer explores how artists assemble music in the popular Radiotopia podcast that he hosts and produces. In each episode of Song Exploder some of your favorite songs are deconstructed, each part and decision explained by the musicians who created them. Hirway is driven to both create and to pull-apart creative works searching tool-marks left by those that created them — for the joints and seams that show how the pieces are put together. The 80-plus episodes of Song Exploder cover a wide swath of pop music, from The Postal Service to U2 and with occasional detours into music made for TV and film. The show presents unrivaled glimpses into the creative process, and as any creative professional knows, food is fuel for the creative mind. I wanted to know what food fueled Hirway’s busy days.

We met at Amara Kitchen — a small organic cafe in Highland Park — on a blistering August afternoon. Hirway — slender and long limbed with dark eyes and close a cropped beard — orders a plate of poached eggs greens, and purple potato pancakes. I ask him what I should order, and he says the cafe is one of his favorite spots and that I can’t go wrong with anything on the menu (I ordered the lentil salad). We find a table in the back corner of the room, and at first he seems reserved, uncomfortable being the subject of the interview instead of the one with the pad and the questions. “I thought it was a kind of a strange idea for a story,” he reveals, puzzled that I wanted to talk to him about restaurants. “But I like it too,” he adds. “I’m ready to talk about food.”

He often uses a food analogy to explain his podcast to people. “[The podcast is] like being able to taste all of the ingredients in a meal before you eat it,” he says. “Listening to a song is like just going to a restaurant and getting a dish, but there’s a deeper appreciation for what you’re consuming when you can take it apart.” If you like a certain dish your enjoyment of its flavors is elevated with you understand the ingredients and processes that went into its cooking. It’s the
driving idea behind the Song Exploder podcast; episodes feature a track-by track breakdown as the musicians reveal how they realized their ideas and why they made their creative choices.

Thinking about the individual components of whole — be it a song or a dish — may have been instilled into Hirway by his food scientist father, Sumesh Hirway. As a kid growing up in Massachusetts, normal conversations about food would be “derailed by science.” If you remarked about how spicy a jalapeño was, for example, the elder Hirway would explain the Scoville heat scale and the capsaicin-producing glands of a chile pepper. “He can’t help it, he’s always pointing out what ingredient or aspect or technique is responsible for what you’re experiencing,” Hirway says. There’s a clear line between Sumesh Hirway’s impulse to explain how flavors work and Hrishikesh’s explorations of song craft in Song Exploder.

The result of all this analysis, and an innate love for food, is that Hirway thinks about food a lot and Los Angeles is a wonderful place for the detail-oriented and food conscious. While he cooks at home with his wife four or five nights a week, the gaps are filled largely by a rotation of their favorite spots near his Northeast L.A. neighborhood. He mentions some of the usual suspects: popular sushi peddlers SugarFish and related hand-roll specialists KazuNori, Silver Lake's Taiwanese cafe Pine and Crane, and the hip Thai hotspot Night Market Song top his list — restaurants that showcase loud flavors and that skew “good and healthy” with plenty of vegetarian options. But it’s not all organic greens and farm-to- table. “I’m a fiend for breakfast burritos,” he says, calling the much lauded Tacos Villa Corona the best in the city (for what it’s worth, Anthony Bourdain agrees with him). Though not a strict vegetarian, Hirway doesn’t eat beef or pork and also abstains from alcohol and caffeine.

“Sugar is my main vice,” he says. Ice cream is his drug of choice, and his favorite hookup is Scoops — a pioneering artisanal ice cream emporium known for its revolving array of far-out flavors such as blackberry Jasmine and balsamic fig. While he likes to explore new flavors at Scoops, his default for ice cream in general is “to ask for whatever has the most chocolate,” he says. “Any time my life is threatened by the amount of chocolate, that’s how much chocolate I want.”

He’s trying to be better about his ice cream habit, and recently he’s been gorging on fruit instead. “We’re so spoiled in California, so I’m eating a lot of fruit. I can binge with a lot less guilt,” he admits. “I’ll eat a pint of blueberries and then a pint of raspberries.” He adds that he’s “been really stoked” on almonds because they’re natural and probably seem more healthful than they are. “Under normal circumstances,” he admits, “chocolate chip cookies are my snack of choice.” And in his search for the best chocolate chip cookie, he’s discovered his favorite cookie in L.A. is not chocolate chip at all but the mocha chip cookie from the bakery at The Line Hotel.

“I actually made a Song Exploder episode that’s never come out — Cookie Exploder — about how the recipe was created,” he reveals. He’s even planned a 10-part series about the best cookies in America but says he “hasn’t had the time to see it through, or eat that many cookies.”

Hirway travels often — at least once a month — and he’s always on the lookout for the best cookies, most chocolate and — most importantly — a restaurant serving Marathi cuisine. His favorite restaurant in the world, called Gypsy Marathi, is in India and it’s the only restaurant that he’s found serving regional Marathi food like his mom made when he was growing up. As popular as Indian cuisine is in America and internationally, he says that true Marathi dishes — more subtly spiced than typical southern Indian dishes — are nearly impossible to find.

It’s no surprise that subtle differences between regional cooking is important to Hirway, a man absorbed by the details and parts of a whole. When he finds a perfectly assembled creation — be it a song or a fried avocado taco — he’s driven to delve into how all the pieces come together. Those aforementioned avocado tacos — from Eagle Rock’s Cacao Mexicatessen, also the favorite restaurant of another popular podcaster: Marc Maron — may be Hirway’s favorite dish in Los Angeles. “It’s just incredible,” he says. “ When people come to visit Los Angeles I take them there and make them eat that.”