By Robin Chotzinoff
Photography by Marc Brown
For Graham Reynolds, something is always under construction, being deconstructed, simmering or being served. It happens on paper, in his recording studio, in his brain. It might mean working on his live-action graphic novel, writing a score for Richard Linklater or composing music for dancing sanitation trucks. Or it could mean slowly stirring a pot of homemade marinara, because even famous composers need to eat.
“I work at home, making recordings and scoring, so I can put something on the stove and keep working,” he says. “Or my helper, Buzz Moran, might be mixing, and I can be in the kitchen making us lunch.”
Reynolds doesn’t throw meals together, though. He admits to being “pretty nerdy about just about everything.” Not to mention obsessive. “I explore tomato sauce, for instance,” he says. “I’ve made hundreds of different recipes. I make fifteen recipes pretty regularly. I like to have people over and cook multiple sauces.”
When the votes are tallied, one usually wins, but that doesn’t mean Reynolds will stop experimenting, or that tomato sauce will eclipse his fascination with other foods. Cooking has preoccupied him for as long as he can remember.
“My mom and dad had a big garden, and my father had a passion for tomatoes,” he remembers. “He gave us the option of cooking for the family or weeding. Given the option, my brother and I cooked. My mom would let us make up recipes. We’d choose all kinds of kid food and mix it together and come up with menus. It was all inedible! I don’t know how she dealt with it.”
Probably with patience and optimism, both of which paid off. In college, Reynolds served as family cook during summer breaks. Someone else, presumably, pulled weeds. The kitchen became his territory, at home and abroad.
“On the road, food is a major focus,” he says. “It’s not about eating at the closest McDonald’s. Every city has a food destination. In New York or L.A. we try to eat regional or ethnic. I look for sub-Saharan food, from Ghana or Senegal. Or a particular region of China—there’s plenty of Szechuan and Hunan, but I’m still looking for Yunnan.”
Reynolds has been vegan for years, but nowhere in his extensive travels has this cramped his style. He’s the kind of guy who reads cookbooks in bed—most recently a bartender’s guide first published in 1876, in the hope of finding the perfect Old-Fashioned recipe. Or three.
“For years and years I didn’t drink, so it was water or homemade lemonade,” he says. “Now I’ve been experimenting with quite a bit of Italian wine.” That led him to the art of pairing, which may or may not even involve wine. “Nothing makes pizza taste better than Coca-Cola,” he states. “Not beer, not good-quality soda. Coke makes pizza taste better, and pizza makes Coke taste better. That’s the genius.”
Pairing can be easy—salty peanuts to set the stage for booze at a bar, for example—or more elusive, as in wine and tomato sauce. “Chianti has the reputation for being the tomato wine, but I like wines from Campagna, and amarone. In general, I look for an aggressive, heavy red.”
And yet, as previously established, there is no one tomato sauce. For that matter, there’s no single tomato. Reynolds works with fresh, uncooked paste tomatoes; expensive, imported canned tomatoes; and cheap, domestic canned tomatoes. Each has its application, but if pressed, Reynolds will narrow his choices for tomato sauce—from hundreds of recipes, to fifteen and finally to one. “The recipe I’ve made the most was when I had the least money,” he says. “It’s very simple, but the flavor is extremely rich.” Considering the research that went into it, you should probably give it a try.
GRAHAM REYNOLDS’S GO-TO MARINARA
Chop one decent-size onion into half-inch squares. Sauté it in 1 to 2 tablespoons olive oil (the nicer you can afford, the better) until soft. Don’t use a cast-iron pan. You’ll regret it. Crush 3 cloves of garlic with the blade of a knife and add to the pan. Grind black pepper into your hand—about 1 to 2 teaspoons. Add that. Open one 28-ounce can of cheap tomatoes. Stick a cooking spoon into the can and break the tomatoes up somewhat. Add them, juice and all, to the pan. Cook on high heat—as high as you can without burning—for 20 to 25 minutes. Keep an eye on it. After 15 minutes, start turning down the heat. You don’t want the sauce to turn into paste. When it’s thick—not sticking to the pan, but thick—remove the sauce from the heat and put it through a food mill—omitting some of the onions to add back in for a subtle chunkiness. Put the sauce back into the pan, heat and add salt to taste. Serve over spaghetti or linguine.