Musicians on the Menu
In concert or in the kitchen, these locals have the chops
Austin has the well-deserved reputation as a city that fosters creative expression of all kinds: musical, literary, theatrical, culinary, and artistic. It only makes sense that in a city with such a wealth of creative energy, genres would tend to overlap. The local connection between live music and dining out is particularly strong, perhaps due to the immediacy of the gratification involved in both endeavors. Live music and good cooking are created to be consumed immediately, to satisfy the senses and nourish the soul. So, it's no wonder that a connection between food and music would flourish here and be recognized by fans and musicians alike. The connection is supported by historical precedent, local-business participation, and a huge talent pool.
Austin has been known for the link between food and music since the days when Kenneth Threadgill served beer, rat cheese, and soda crackers to bluegrass music fans; since players on the Chittlin' Circuit enjoyed soulful meals at the Victory Grill; and since road-weary troubadours looked forward to a feast of enchiladas, nachos, and guacamole delivered backstage by the staff of the legendary Armadillo World Headquarters kitchen. More recently, music fans eat Southern comfort food in the Janis Joplin shrine at the original Threadgill's, chow down on ribs in a barbecue joint/music venue named for a renowned pit master (Stubb's), and make the annual SXSW pilgrimage to wait in line for a table at Las Manitas. It's not all barbecue and Mexican food, either. Austin City Limits honcho and NARAS trustee Terry Likona tells the story of Coldplay's hasty exit from the studio after an ACL taping earlier this year the world travelers didn't want to miss their dinner reservation at Uchi. It's also entirely likely that we're the only major American city where remarkably unique grocery stores are also music venues, where certain cooking classes include live musical performances, and where live local music is a necessary component to every food and/or charity event.
Bringing forth music that attracts attention from all over the globe and producing restaurants that garner the attention of the national food press requires an enormous depth of culinary and musical talent. While we're sure there are plenty of local cooks and waiters dreaming of musical stardom (if the number of CDs slipped to Likona along with restaurant bills is any indication, that's a "yes"), we've chosen to focus on musicians who are exercising their chops on the menu.
Danny Roy Young
One of the most recognizable intersections of food and music in Austin would have to be the Texicalli Grill in South Austin, where longtime restaurateur and "Lord of the Rubboard" Danny Roy Young personifies the food and music connection. As Young himself tells the story, "I started training as a drummer 55 years ago and started working in my parent's restaurant in Kingsville 50 years ago. It's been music and food for me ever since." Young played drums and worked at Young's Root Beer Drive-In through high school and beyond. After stints in college and the Coast Guard, he and wife Lu packed up kids Scott and Holli and moved to Austin in 1975. "After I'd been here about three days, I figured out that Austin was exactly where I was meant to be," Young says with conviction. He played drums with some Austin bands and commuted back to the Valley from time to time to help his folks with their restaurant. "I finally realized there are some guys who can play in bands and raise kids at the same time, but I wasn't one of them." Young put his drum kit away, and he and Lu opened Young's Texicalli Grill on South Lamar in 1981. Musicians naturally gravitated to the friendly joint, and several tried to recruit him to pick up his drumsticks again. "I finally told Ponty Bone I'd sit in sometimes on the rubboard," Young says. "See, if the band's playing, the drummer's gotta be there, but the rubboard just isn't all that crucial, and it's portable to boot!" Fourteen years ago, Young began playing rubboard in his buddy Cornell Hurd's band, as well. He still gigs with both guys to this day.
The Texicalli Grill moved to the current Oltorf location 17 years ago. Young has amassed an incredible collection of Austin music memorabilia and greeted thousands of customers in 25 years. On May 29, he'll celebrate his 65th birthday and turn over the Texicalli keys to new owner Jimmy Keith "Bonz" Kendall. The next day, the unofficial "Mayor of South Austin" embarks on a self-styled one-year sabbatical. "I'm gonna sleep late, go to the movies in the middle of the day, read, spend more time with my grandkids just see how the year plays out. The only definite commitment I have is a concert with Cornell's band in Switzerland in August," Young reports. He admits he's never gotten rich playing music or running restaurants, but it would probably be impossible to find anybody in Austin who has had a better time doing either.
Paul and Joni Constantine
Here's a great Austin trivia question: Name the local chef who is the only man in Austin to be recognized in both the Chronicle's Restaurant Poll (first runner-up Best Chef 2006), as well as the Chronicle Music Poll (Best Horn Player 1982, 1983). That singular distinction belongs to Paul Constantine, currently the chef/owner of Cafe Caprice and former trumpet player for the Professors of Pleasure and the Cobras. Constantine came to Austin with his college roommate Dan Del Santo in the Seventies and played trumpet in Del Santo's eclectic Professors of Pleasure for many years. He also contributed his horn stylings to local blues legends Paul Ray and the Cobras after Stevie Ray Vaughan left that band, garnering the aforementioned awards. Joni Constantine tended bar at the original Soap Creek Saloon, and the two met when the Cobras played their regular Tuesday night gigs there. Paul continued to pursue a music career until the late Eighties when "the music money wasn't all that regular anymore unless you were touring all the time, and we were talking about having kids." A career change was definitely in order.
Paul consulted with his brother Alan, a chef who worked steamship cruises on the Mississippi River out of New Orleans, about pursuing a cooking career and began studies at the former Le Chef College (now the Texas Culinary Academy). Joni tended bar at all the many Soap Creek incarnations and ran the show at more than one location of the Cedar Door. One of Paul's more memorable jobs after culinary school was working for chef Gert Rausch at the Courtyard restaurant.
"There were days when the chef with classic European training shone through, and I was able to learn plenty from Gert," he recalls. After the Courtyard closed, Paul spent 10 years cooking in all the various venues at the Barton Creek Country Club, another situation he describes as a valuable learning experience.
A little more than two years ago, the Constantines decided to put their accumulated years of hospitality experience into a project of their own and leased the former Basil's location from owner Marshall Slacter. Cafe Caprice debuted in 2004 in the charming cottage overlooking Shoal Creek, with Paul channeling his creative energies into a distinctive personal cuisine, and Joni running the front of the house (www.cafecaprice.com). His coffee-stained Best Horn Player award is framed and hanging in the foyer. According to his longtime friend Terry Likona, chef Paul Constantine "approaches cooking much the same way he did playing music: creating something unique from many different influences." These days, the Constantines' kids Wyatt, 15, and Nicole, 12 are the musicians in the family. Paul exercises his musical chops jamming with Wyatt on occasion and orchestrates the work of his kitchen crew at Cafe Caprice six nights a week.
The Beat Divas
When the Beat Divas perform the Mady Kaye original "Cookin' in the Kitchen," it's not just a catchy tune about lovers cooking Louisiana food set to a swamp-romp rhythm, it also illuminates an important new aspect of their professional collaboration. The Beat Divas Mady Kaye, Beth Ullman, and Dianne Donovan are all accomplished musicians and singers, as well as passionate home cooks. Now, in addition to performing a delicious mélange of jazz standards, jazzed-up American pop tunes, and clever original material, they are cooking together and presenting quarterly classes at the Central Market Cooking School. Each class includes the demonstration of a seasonal dinner menu developed by the trio, served up with side dishes of their music. The lucky guests at the upcoming June 10 class will feast on such items as Cantaloupe and Honeydew Soup, Grilled Peppered Pork Tenderloin With Smoky Sour Cream Sauce, and Peach and White Chocolate Cake, in addition to tunes like "A Little Bit of Chocolate," "Sweet Potato Jive," or their newest salute to a hunky pastry chef, "Sweet Treat."
The Divas' culinary collaboration works much the same way as their musical endeavors, with each woman bringing unique talents to the table and to the stage. Donovan, who's rich contralto defines the Divas' distinctive harmonies, likens her own cooking style to playing jazz, saying, "I'll add a little lemon or vinegar if something needs a brighter top note, or maybe a little cumin if the dish needs a note farther down the scale." Ullman confesses she's still not completely comfortable cooking in front of an audience, "so I use humor to relax the situation." All three women describe how the breaks in their music rehearsals invariably dissolve into discussions about food and relate how some of their personal cooking experiences inspire the original material for a CD of all food songs. "Beth and I operate on so much the same musical wavelength that it's easier for us to write material for the group," explains Kaye, but she's quick to point out that all three of them choose the material the group performs as well as the recipes for their classes and planned cookbook.
The Divas hired a videographer to shoot their most recent Central Market class, and clips of the trio cooking and singing for a very receptive crowd can be viewed on the Web at www.madykaye.com/divas. Having a DVD of their culinary and musical collaboration to shop around is just part of a serious master plan and professional wish list: They would love to teach the Central Market tour of Texas, they envision a musical cooking show with a companion cookbook called Dishin' With the Divas, and they'd welcome a guest shot on the Food Network. "I think we'd be a natural to guest on Emeril Live," Kaye says. We concur.
When the organizers of the Texas Hill Country Wine & Food Festival invited singer-songwriter Trish Murphy to appear at the Farm to Table tasting event, they got some all-purpose talent. Murphy had met some folks from Kitchen Pride Mushrooms while performing at a house concert in Gonzales, and she was happy to create a dish using their products for the farmers'-market-style tasting event. She also sang two sets and distributed copies of her most recent CD, Girls Get in Free, to the ACC culinary student volunteers who assisted the chefs. Murphy had a great time at the festival and was very much in her element, saying, "Because of my family background, I've always bonded with people who experience food as a cultural activity." Indeed, food and music have been lifelong passions for the Houston native, who grew up in a household where cooking together and playing music were important elements of the family dynamic. Murphy sang and played guitar with her dad and brother Darin from an early age. "My mom comes from a long line of good Southern home cooks, and one side of my dad's family are Northern Italian immigrants, so food was always very important at our house," she says, adding that "I still enjoy cooking with my mom when I go home to visit."
Trish Murphy moved to Austin to pursue a solo music career in 1996. Her live performances and four albums of original material have always received critical acclaim. Since putting up a Web site (www.trishmurphy.com) to promote her personal appearances and self-produced albums in 1997, she's always communicated with her fans about her interests in food, blogging about restaurant discoveries (or lack thereof: the Midwest is particularly difficult) on the road. While she's at home, Murphy posts monthly updates on the food page of her site, describing such things as her favorite restaurant of the month (it's Mandola's Italian Market), her current food vice (salt), and perhaps sharing recipes. Foodie fans interact with her via the site and show up for her cooking classes as well.
Murphy's performance at the Wine and Food Festival was no fluke. She's been cooking and singing on the same bill for a couple of years now. She was one of the first Austin musicians invited to appear as part of Central Market's Austin Music on the Menu series created by Kelly Ann Hargrove to coincide with South by Southwest in 2004, and she continues to teach there several times a year. Murphy has also been a guest chef at the Lake Austin Spa Resort and will teach her first class at Gina's Kitchen in June. Next week, her Greater Tuna Casserole will be available to the subscribers of the Soup Peddler's dinner delivery service as an entrée choice (www.souppeddler.com), and she's busy developing a project that would offer catered dinners complete with a musical performance for small groups. Fans of her music should know that Murphy hasn't forsaken them: She continues to perform solo and joins a lineup of local music all-stars in the quirky Seventies cover band the K-Tel Hit Machine, but touring and working on material for a new album are on the back burner just now. "This cooking thing," she says with satisfaction, "seems to have its own velocity."