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Beard Gala Celebrates Music and Food

Meryle Evans - April 28th, 2014

Reception chefs will be composing a culinary concert at Lincoln Center this year at the annual James Beard Foundation Awards Gala on May 5, saluting the synergy of sound and cuisine in America’s favorite music cities. From the soundtrack in the kitchen to after hours jam sessions, chefs from New Orleans and Nashville, Cleveland and Chicago, will be offering attendees a tasty salute to their rhythmic heritage. Orchestrated by chef/chair maestro Mario Batali, the variations on the theme are as diverse as the playlists of the virtuosi in whites.

“Music lives and breathes in the streets and in this restaurant,” says David Slater (Emeril’s, New Orleans), in a video for radio station WWOZ. “Music is in the voices of our guests, in the clanging of silverware, and in the pour of the wine; we're just inspired by being chefs and being in New Orleans.” Slater, who grew up as a piano player in Toronto (NOLA is his adopted city) and counts as regular customers musicians like Irvin Mayfield and Lenny Kravitz, is preparing duck liver bruschetta with smoked Gulf tuna, collard greens, and mayhaw mustard for the gala.

In Cleveland, Dante Boccuzzi (Dante Dining Group) is a serendipitous match with the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. To Boccuzzi, music is so important that he pegs each of his culinary gigs to memorable musical events, explaining that, “my cooking career has taken me around the world like a rock band on tour; and while on tour as I worked for many great icons I also managed to see and meet many of my musical heroes,” like the Scorpions, after he graduated from The Culinary Institute of American in 1991, to Pearl Jam in concert. Hard rock is the inspiration for his reception dish “The Beet of a Different Drum,” beet-tinted hamachi and lemon/caper rémoulade.

Boccuzzi, like many of his colleagues, enjoys playing in a band—lead guitar/vocals/frontman; as does another reception chef, Robert Del Grande (Houston’s Restaurant RDG + Bar Annie), also a guitarist, who has performed with fellow Texan, Dean Fearing (Fearing’s, Dallas), as The Barbwires. But Del Grande admits that he has always wanted to play the organ. “It has all those keys and possibilities. Plus you get to play sitting down so you always have a place to put your drink.” His reception dish, Texas smoked brisket with smoked chile aspic and sarsaparilla bbq sauce, was inspired by country, boogie, and swing, but his favorite music to cook to is Bach fugues. “Cooking and fugues seem to share something fundamental,” he notes, “the unfolding or exploration of an idea. It’s inspirational how Bach could build a sonic cathedral out of the simplest theme.”

Another chef/guitarist, Marc Vetri (Vetri, Philadelphia), who likes cooking to gypsy jazz, will be serving spaghetti alla chitarra with Bolognese ragû; while pastry chef/drummer Brooks Headley (Del Posto, New York City), musically inspired by the many iterations of Herb Alpert, plans to surprise guests with a dish he has been working on: a veggie burger.

Currently re-creating the legendary era of Harlem jazz at their restaurants Minton’s and The Cecil, Alexander Smalls, restaurateur, pianist, former opera singer, and creator of the genre he named Southern Revival Cooking, and his chefs, Banks White and Joseph Johnson, will be tempting guests with seared lamb tenderloin, curry edamame custard, bird’s eye chile jam, and crispy black eyed peas. Although a noted operatic performer, Smalls favorite song to cook to? Miles Davis’ “Sketches of Spain.”

When asked the same question, Stephanie Izard, (Chicago’s Girl and the Goat) replies, “I usually let my cooks choose, but I do veto any screaming music. There's no need to be angry while you're cooking.” However, Izard, a long-ago alto sax player in middle school, insists that “music during prep is a must. It keeps the kitchen fun and motivated. During service no music, as there are orders to remember and more things to focus on.” And on May 5, that focus will be Izard's trout tartare with marinated clams and caper aïoli.

Fish—halibut crudo with asparagus, fava beans, morels, ham, and salsa verde—is also the choice for Andy Ticer and Michael Hudman (Memphis’ Andrew Michael Italian Kitchen), inspired of course, by Delta blues, although Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run” is a favorite to cook to. And from City House, Nashville, where the obvious tempo is country, Tandy Wilson’s culinary ensemble is a fried bologna and cheese sandwich, crushed chips, and Jezebel sauce.

In San Francisco, Charles Phan’s South at SFJAZZ brings the southern jazz tradition to the west coast. Phan, who recalls learning English back in 1975 by listening to the Carpenters and likes to cook to the Eagles’ “Hotel California,” was inspired by George Jones and country music for the bahn bo loc he will serve at the gala: banana leaf-wrapped pork and shrimp tapioca dumplings.

So, it’s rock to Bach this year, and an eclectic cornucopia of good food from a cadre of stellar chefs when Sounds of the City rolls into Lincoln Center for a celebration James Beard would have applauded for an encore.