2000s Archive

Rhythm ’n’ Whites

Originally Published October 2003
For many in restaurantville, “chefs are the new rock stars” isn’t just a metaphor. Slinging their Stratocasters the way they do their spoons and spatulas, these guys really know how to cook.

On a scorching July evening in Dallas, a hunka-hunka guy strides onto a stage in front of a magnificent stand of old oaks. He’s dressed in a crisp white jacket, faded jeans, and a pair of custom Lucchese boots. Strumming his reissued ’51 Telecaster, he eases into Hank Williams’s “Lonesome Whistle.” His husky voice is surprisingly worn, and you can’t help but wonder what kind of trouble he’d gotten into the night before. He steps back and turns the microphone over to a tall, serious-looking fellow—Bryan Ferry meets Gregory Peck—who delivers a high and plaintive “Midnight Moonlight.” He’s followed by a heavyset guy whose gruff voice alternates with another fine singer’s on “House of the Rising Sun.” The crowd goes wild.

Country rockers Garth Brooks and Alan Jackson? Voices out of O Brother, Where Art Thou? Actually, the performers in question on this sultry Texas night are Dean Fearing, the chef here at The Mansion on Turtle Creek; Tim Keating, executive chef of Quattro at the Four Seasons Hotel in Houston; Saveur magazine editor Colman Andrews; and a Pittsburgh hotel consultant named Lynn Ferraro. Fearing’s tore-down voice, it turns out, is the result of the nonstop schmoozing he’s been doing here as host of his third annual BBQ Bash, a combination feast, auction, and concert to benefit the Texas Scottish Rite Hospital for Children.

To accommodate the 500 guests, everything from the circular driveway to the parking lot of the palatial Mansion has been taken over by grills, dining tables, and gargantuan fans. Big-name chefs are everywhere, turning out endless variations on the Southern Barbecue theme. There’s Miami’s Norman Van Aken, spooning smoky plantain crema alongside tamarind-spiced barbecue duck. Nat Comisar and Bertrand Bouquin of Cincinnati’s Maisonette are laboring over love-’em-tender braised beef short ribs. New Orleans star Susan Spicer is plating honey bourbon barbecue poussin with five-bean salad, and Jonathan Waxman of New York City’s Washington Park is doing the same with crispy quail and sweet-corn salad.

While Fearing buzzes around, checking in with the various musicians, The Mansion’s kitchen staff oversee his slow-cooked smoked leg of lamb gorditas and an array of side dishes. They’re also handling Keating’s citrus-glazed barbecue shrimp and scallops and Robert Del Grande’s chile-crusted prime rib. Del Grande himself (of Houston’s renowned Cafe Annie) is busy moonlighting as lead guitarist.

Juggling the roles of chef and musician is nothing new for the boys in this band. They’ve been performing together as the Barbwires since back in the early ’80s, when Fearing and Del Grande met at a Texas Hill Country Wine & Food Festival and ended up in a hotel room, jamming into the night. “Parties started happening,” says Del Grande, “and the Barbwires were born.” (Boz Scaggs suggested they change their name to the Texas Tournedos, but they have yet to take his advice.)

Start talking to chefs about their lives outside the kitchen, and you’ll find that practically every one of them is involved in music. In San Francisco, there’s the Back Burner Blues Band, comprising Keith Luce (drummer, chef at Merenda), Joey Altman (guitarist, chef, host of local and national TV food shows), Scott Warner (guitarist, chef at Napa’s Bistro Don Giovanni), and Gordon Drysdale (guitarist, mandolin player, chef at San Jose’s Pizza Antica). At an event last year at New York’s Grand Central Station, restaurateur Drew Nieporent and the band Hiway 13 (featuring Noche’s Michael Lomonaco on guitar) poured themselves into the Doors’ “Roadhouse Blues” before rolling, baby, rolling into an exuberant reading of Dylan’s “Rainy Day Women 12 & 35.”

Dante Boccuzzi, the chef at Manhattan’s Aureole, was a founding member of the Back Burners and is now looking to form a band with Café Boulud’s Andrew Carmellini, who plays electric guitar. (The two have shared rock fantasies since rooming together at the Culinary Institute of America, in Hyde Park, New York. “If I’m not cooking,” says Boccuzzi, “I’m seeing bands or listening to music.”)

Maisonette’s Comisar is a singer and guitarist; Rob Boone of Miami’s Metro Kitchen + Bar plays drums and guitar; and his neighbor Van Aken pulls out a harmonica whenever the mood strikes. Hell, even Emeril Lagasse has been known to join in with the bands that perform on his TV show. (He plays—what else?—drums. BAM!)

Although people like to say that chefs are the new rock stars, the statement is generally intended as metaphor. Sure, Wolfgang Puck works the dining room at Spago Beverly Hills as if it’s one big stage. And Lagasse’s audiences carry on like a bunch of rabid teenyboppers. (Emeril: “We’re gonna add rice-wine vinegar.” Audience: “Whooooo!”). Then there are the Rocco DiSpirito fans, who track that New York chef’s actions the way people once did those of Jim Morrison. But even chefs at this level of fame will tell you that running a kitchen is a far cry from rocking out on an arena stage.

Still, there’s no denying the parallel between the worlds of food and music. “The joy of music,” says the Back Burners’ Drysdale, “is absolutely akin to the joy of creating for the table.”

“There’s just a connection between cooking and creativity, and guitars and creativity,” says Fearing, who as a CIA student in the mid-’70s was in a band known as Escoffier and the Sauciers. “Wherever there’s chefs, there’s music.”

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