Laurent Garnier: Chef de Party
In the sleepy town of Apt, Luberon, revered French DJ and producer Laurent Garnier discusses the music industry’s post-pandemic paradigm shift, how his love of cooking helped shape his latest album, and his plans to change the way he DJs.
Words: Claire Mouchemore
Images: Jim la Souille
Laurent Garnier has been playing music in clubs for nearly four decades and hanging out in the back of kitchens for even longer. My chat with Garnier starts and ends with food. When he joins me on our video call the first thing he says to me is “what’s cooking?”, which is both a literal and figurative question given the context of our conversation. In Garnier’s case, he’s got a Thai curry on the stove that he’s preparing to serve his family for dinner that evening and is keen to rush back and watch it simmer once we wrap things up.
Born in the western suburbs of Paris, the French DJ and producer spent most of his formative years in the UK. After a brief stint studying at a Parisian culinary school during his late teens, in 1984 Garnier left for London, where he worked as a waiter at the French Embassy at age 18. Two years later, a job opening at a restaurant in Manchester pulled him in a different direction and, unbeknownst to Garnier, would place him at the center of the UK’s house music movement. By the end of the 1980s, through his restaurant work, Garnier had become part of a tight-knit community of clubbers and scored a weekly residency at acclaimed Manchester club The Haçienda, launching his promising career and propelling him into the international dance music scene. Since then, Garnier has co-founded two record labels, toured the world extensively and released his own productions via some of dance music’s most prominent record imprints.
In 2020, Garnier was torn from DJing, traveling, meeting new people and what he loved most – playing music to big crowds from all over the world. Like the rest of the population, he was relegated to his home, and so began immersing himself in understanding and mastering the elements of gastronomy. This led to a different type of weekly gig, cooking four days a week at a friend’s restaurant. 2020’s change of pace brought about a new era for Garnier and after 36 years of DJing, constant touring, and a steady output of records, he’s starting to slow down. For Garnier, that means spending more time with family, deepening his love for food and the communities that surround it, and exploring parts of the world he only ever saw through cab windows in the early hours of the morning on the way home from the club.
For this issue, Garnier opens up about the music industry’s post-pandemic paradigm shift, how cooking helped rekindle his relationship with music-making, and his plans to radically change the way he DJs.
CM: The pandemic brought about a shift that led you to question your career, where you felt you fit into the industry and your longstanding affinity for techno. How did you navigate that period of uncertainty?
LG: At its core, my work is about sharing a space with a group of people and building something together in that space. So when the pandemic hit, I felt really cut out of that world. Prior to that, I’d been asking myself if I should carry on with my career and I wondered if this period of total industry shutdown was a good time to take a step back from it all for good. I can’t say it was as hard for me as others, because I didn’t lose people as a result of the pandemic, but that period did amplify the voice in my head that was asking, “What do I have to offer? Am I still relevant, at my age? Should I go back to that life, when I can?” I’m not the only person who has ever felt like that, but for me it was a very tough process to undertake, because I’ve been having those thoughts for most of my career. I’m 57 now, and I’ve been questioning myself and my place in the industry since I was 30. I’ve always seen techno as the music of the future, the music of tomorrow. The music that always looked forward and never back. Thirty years ago, when I first encountered it, it was something of another world. So when Covid left us with a very unclear idea of what tomorrow may hold, I no longer felt this longing and excitement for the future. I couldn’t imagine myself or our world in a future time, because we didn’t know where the fuck we were going. We were completely lost.
CM: During the pandemic, you traded DJing for cooking and took on a new role in the kitchen of a small restaurant in Provence. What prompted this?
LG: During the lockdown, due to where we lived in the remote countryside, it was possible to go days without seeing anyone. I missed seeing and interacting with people. A friend of mine had a restaurant called café Les Valseuses and although it was forced to close its doors for service, it carried on offering takeaway. The restaurant was run by a group of Japanese chefs and I’d mentioned to my friend, who was the owner, that I’d love to come down and do three or four days in the kitchen to shadow the chefs and learn the basics of Japanese cooking – how to perfect the filling for gyoza, which vinegars to use to balance the acidity of certain dishes and so on. I had a background in catering and knew my way around a kitchen and after my first shift, he ended up inviting me back on a weekly basis. Every week for a year and a half, the seven of us worked together in that kitchen, coming together to cook and drink and laugh. Even now that I’ve returned to DJing, I still go there and cook with the team once a month.
CM: When did you first start experimenting with food and what drew you to it?
LG: I’m not a chef or a cook and I’ve actually never been a kitchen guy. I worked in catering for seven years, but on the service side as a waiter, starting out at a catering school in Paris before moving on to the French Embassy in London and eventually moving up north to work in a restaurant in Manchester. I always loved waiting tables. For me, waiting is very similar to DJing – you provide people with something they’re in need of and engage in an interaction with groups that are there to have a good time, try something new, have a chat and escape their normal lives momentarily. I knew the basics of cooking but it wasn’t until my late 30s that I began cooking at home more frequently. I bought recipe books and memorized dishes, slowly redoing them, adding and subtracting ingredients to modify the recipes. When I began working with the chefs at café Les Valseuses I started to develop intuition, ditched the recipes and learned how to balance flavors in order to master the elements of cooking.
CM: How did working in restaurants across the UK in your youth connect you with the underground dance music scene?
LG: I moved to London in 1984 and then on to Manchester in 1986. In 1987, house music arrived in the UK. Back then Danny, a good friend of mine, was a lightjockey at The Haçienda. I was working at a restaurant and one night we closed the place and threw a party where I played some house and disco tunes. Danny liked what I was playing and asked me to put together a mixtape for him which eventually ended up in the hands of The Haçienda booker. A few months later, the booker reached out to me saying they wanted to start a new night at the club and have me play every Wednesday and I was like, “Fuck yeah.” Those were the early days of house music and within three or four months, the genre had swept the nation. So yes, the restaurant was an important place for me. It’s where I found a community of people.
CM: Would you liken your relationship with cooking and food in general to the way you approach music?
LG: For me, both cooking and DJing are about working with and mastering the basics. The core of DJing is never repeating yourself, always reinventing things. The records are part of the recipe, part of the ingredients, and the rest of it needs to be refined, added up and put together, which is similar to the second step in cooking. At some point, intuitively, you have a pretty good idea of what works together. In cooking, you begin to realize what works well together and what doesn’t. You understand that you add some sugar to balance saltiness or bring in some acidity to level out the bitterness of a dish. It’s about taking the fundamental elements and transforming them to create a story.
You can cook chicken or eggs again and again, but there are a thousand ways to cook them and transform them so the dish becomes more interesting. The same goes for music, it’s not about the base and what you start off with, it’s about how you transform the different elements to create something new and exciting. It’s all about telling a story, with both music and food. A lot of chefs bring their own history into their cooking, either from their childhood and where they grew up, or where they have traveled, or from the restaurants they have worked at. These different elements influence the chef, their story and in turn, influence the food. A musician approaches their craft in the same way.
CM: You have a new album coming out in May. What does this release represent?
LG: The album is called 33 Tours Et Puis S’en Vont. The title references a very famous French nursery rhyme that every single kid in France knows from childhood. The name also references the 33 RPM [revolutions per minute] of a vinyl record. So basically, I’m playing with that famous sentence from that nursery rhyme and the rotations of a record, which all represent the rotations throughout my career, because this album, in a way will announce the fact that from the end of 2024, I will completely change my way of DJing and will slow down a hell of a lot. I’m not going to stop, but I’m going to slow down a lot. After taking some space from techno, I worked with a psychedelic band, reconnected with soul music and then came back to my love for house music, before slowly reacquainting myself with techno. I always said it was crazy to make a full-on techno album, but here I am doing exactly that. I also said that every album needs to be telling you a story, and I’ve stuck to that promise. The story here is that I’m not stopping, I’m just slowing down.
CM: What does slowing down mean to you?
LG: Slowing down doesn’t mean I’ll stop touring or making music, but I don’t want to get on planes anymore and instead I’ll be taking trains and not traveling as far. I want to spend more time in the cities I’m touring, because I’ve seen so much of the world but never had the chance to experience it properly. It’s about spending more quality time in places, having the time to actually go to a restaurant or spend a weekend with a friend, visit a museum, and spend time hanging out with the promoters that booked me, which I haven’t been able to do in a long time. I want to play more diverse gigs too – a techno gig here, a disco gig there, a house set, a special drum and bass set, and even something punky. By playing different sets I feel like I’m able to share more about who I really am. The pandemic allowed me to be at home and with my family in a different way and I want to continue prioritizing that too. I’m approaching 60 and I don’t really see myself being a touring Globetrotter DJ like I’ve been for the last 35 years. This album is part of my announcement that I’m taking a step back.
WIP magazine issue 08 is now available from Carhartt WIP stores and our online shop.