Food and Music Strike a Chord With These Austin Chefs
We explore the link between the culinary and musical in anticipation of Hot Luck
When Aaron Franklin decided to take his backyard smoke-outs to the next level by opening a barbecue trailer in 2009, he shut his drum case not realizing it would be years before he opened it again – or that he'd open a world-famous brick-and-mortar, top every national barbecue list, and win a James Beard Award for Best Chef: Southwest in 2015.
Now, music is back in Franklin's life in a big way. Last year, he partnered with Guerilla Suit founder James Moody and Feast Portland co-founder Mike Thelin to launch a food and music festival called Hot Luck. This weekend, the much anticipated fest returns with live music-fueled sip and strolls, a vinyl-spun barbecue brunch at a hot rod shop, and live shows all over town featuring snacks served by notable chefs. Simply put: It's perfectly Austin. (See below for more details.)
"I think as a lot of musicians grow up, you realize you can't really pay the bills from sleeping on hardwood floors and driving around in a van," says Franklin with a laugh. "I think a natural progression is to get into food and that's why there is such a crossover."
Franklin grew up in his family's music store, with a guitar-picking dad and a grandfather who played pedal steel for Bob Wills. He got his first guitar for Christmas in 8th grade, taught himself how to play drums in high school, and by the time he moved to Austin from College Station in 1996, he was playing in a number of bands, including the high-energy rock & roll band Those Peabodys.
"The rest were bands no one's ever heard of – a bunch of corny prog rock, nerdy Nineties math rock, stuff like that," says Franklin, who operates his restaurant like a band – from the crowd control outside his barbecue spot to the brisket slicers onstage inside.
"I've been playing music forever and grew up in the early-Eighties punk scene, so it all plays into how we run the restaurant," he says. "I'm the maintenance guy so I climb up there and fix stuff when it breaks and rewire things. Gotta get the van working, gotta hit the road!"
Commit to the Dream(s)
Fiore Tedesco, chef and owner of L'oca d'oro, began taking percussion lessons at age 9 from the drummer of a hardcore band in his native upstate New York. Around the same time, he started cooking alongside his first-generation Italian immigrant grandparents, and working at his uncle's deli. When he was 12, he played his first show, opening for an Aerosmith cover band.
"I sang that show with what I thought was a British accent to cover that I did not know what I was doing," remembers Tedesco. "I closed my eyes and imagined I was Johnny Rotten. I'm pretty sure none of the five people in the audience thought I was British."
By the time he was 16, he was playing in junior orchestra, jazz ensemble, marching band, a Rush cover band, and two punk bands. At 21, after touring Europe with psych-garage Kid Congo & the Pink Monkey Birds, Tedesco returned with a new passion.
"The transition in switching careers happened when I had a dream while in tour in Italy," remembers Tedesco. "I had eaten a very inspiring meal that destroyed me in Umbria. I wept openly at the table, played a show at 2am, slept in a converted monastery, and had a dream later that night which caused me to commit myself to a life in food shortly thereafter."
He began staging and working in lauded New York City kitchens (Prune, Roberta's, and Gramercy Tavern) while running a private dining business and playing gigs with a revival rock band, Salt & Samovar. In 2011, after his wife's UT fellowship brought Tedesco to Austin, he worked for La Condesa, Franklin Barbecue, and Bufalina, and began hosting pop-up dinners inspired by artists like Nina Simone, Prince, and the Clash. Since opening his award-winning Italian restaurant in 2016 as an homage to his roots, Tedesco keeps the music alive with events like a Valentine's Day dinner featuring a "love menu" centered around the Carpenters, and a Sex Pistols-inspired "hate menu."
"I love studying the artists and musicians I love, learning about what drives them, and finding ways to respond to their art that inspires me," says Tedesco.
At Kemuri Tatsu-ya, the music is as much a part of the dining experience as the playful dishes at the Japanese-Texan izakaya, and that transcends from the front to the back of house. Tatsu Aikawa, who began as a dishwasher at a Japanese restaurant while he started DJ'ing, and Takuya "Tako" Matsumoto, who got his start in kitchens in high school, serenade their 60-hour tonkotsu broth with a boombox playing everything from Pink Floyd to UGK to the Misfits. "Depends on what the broth wants to hear that day," says Aikawa.
Before they started a local ramen revolution with Ramen Tatsu-ya, Kemuri's noodle-focused predecessor, Matsumoto spun hip-hop records across Texas and Aikawa's gigs spanned the globe, from Tokyo to Berlin, opening for legends like KRS-One, Method Man, Redman, and Pete Rock. Both chefs started working in kitchens while they were DJ'ing and found that the two worlds are not dissimilar.
"Both things are something you get a direct reaction from what you have done," says Aikawa. "Whether getting a crowd reaction from what track or vibe you create through music, or putting ingredients together for a dish and getting a reaction out of a person when they take the first bite." Matsumoto adds, "When DJ'ing you're controlling the crowd and creating a vibe ... if you're doing it right. When cooking it's kind of the same thing. You're controlling the crowd with food offerings instead of music, [with] how you approach service, the food offerings, and the dining environment." (Hot tip: They promise a new smoked version of their chashu will make a debut at Hot Luck.)
Part of the Show
Sterling Ridings began playing music at the age of 14, starting on a guitar his grandfather got him from Sam's Club – a relic he still owns today. The next year, he started working in the dish pit of an Italian restaurant, a job that would lead him to culinary school and up through the ranks of top Austin kitchens like Parkside, Foreign & Domestic, and Uchiko.
While cooking, he juggled a 17-year music career, playing with metal and glam-punk bands like the August Valentine and Trashy & the Kid (signed to Sony Red). But when his first son was born six years ago, he chose cooking and fatherhood over life as a working musician. Just this spring, he opened the seafood-centric Guild, where he leads a team of kitchen veterans who possess the same type of creative passion he shared with his former bandmates.
"[Playing music and cooking] both revolve around equations, require discipline and practice, and necessitate an aptitude for quick decision making," says Ridings. "But performing as a musician, for me, was always about embodying a persona, or exaggerated version of myself. It was comforting in a way: You can fuck something up, and it's just part of the show. I find cooking to be far more stripped down and personal – more bare and vulnerable."
Find yourself at Hotel Vegas or Barracuda on the right night and you might catch Yoshi Okai onstage. The acclaimed Otoko chef began playing piano in Japan at age 4, then guitar and vocals at age 14. When he moved to Austin in 1998, he got a job making sushi at Uchi while singing lead vocals for a punk band called the Kodiaks (which also featured Tom Micklethwait on guitar). Through the years, he's played with a number of other local punk bands like Black Panda, Death Party, and Kuro Neko.
"Music is a huge part of my life," says Okai. "I go home and play music. I come here [Otoko] and I play music. It inspired me to come to Austin in '98. And being in Austin is what led me to food ... my connection to music influenced me to be where I am now."
The intimate, 12-seat format of Otoko allows Okai to curate his guests' omakase experience with a soundtrack of psych, garage, or punk anthems from bands like Thee Oh Sees, the Black Angels, Moon Duo, or the Gun Club.
"I play music in Otoko for me just as much a I do for the guests," says Okai. "I enjoy the performance of both; a chef's menu is a show."
Tom Micklethwait also played in a number of punk bands – Hatchbacks, the Kodiaks, This Damn Town, Hex Dispensers – in the 15 years before opening Micklethwait Craft Meats in 2012. The transition found him: "It wasn't entirely my decision." However, unlike some of the other guys, he sees the two worlds as entirely separate – except when it comes to the extreme fan following. "I think cooking barbecue and playing a live show are about as far removed from each other as you can get, but there is a parallel between barbecue fandom, record collectors, and music scenesters," he says. The similarities between performing in a band and leading a kitchen team converge in the people, not the activities. "Eh, it's the same. Juggling personalities, you know?"
Though Micklethwait also has a brick-and-mortar restaurant in the works in nearby Smithville, he has recently restrung his guitar and hopes to start playing again in a city that's now known just as much for food as music. On the fast growth of the local food scene, he quips, "Is the food trailer at a bar the modern equivalent of the ubiquitous Austin Blues Jam bands of the Eighties and Nineties?"
Aaron Franklin (Reprise)
Franklin's about to gig again, too. Last summer's fire, which caused his Eastside restaurant to close for three months, afforded him the time to pick up his guitar and start a new band with friends. They don't have a name yet, but in a few months they'll book their first show. "We're very loud – extremely loud," Franklin describes. "It probably sounds pretty Nineties-ish. And we're all dudes in our 40s with kids, so there's that. It's kind of cool because we can afford to buy guitar strings and stuff, as opposed to a long time ago, when we were pawning stuff just to go on tour for two weeks. But the downside is that no one really has any time."
Tedesco agrees that any glimmer of free time outside his 90-hour work weeks are best spent with his wife and daughter. "I miss the beautiful catharsis of performing for sure," Tedesco says. "It scratches an itch that I have yet to find a replacement for. Maybe [Franklin and I] should have a co-family band. How about the Franklinesco Family Jug Band?"
Sounds like the type of supergroup we'd wait in line to see.
Hot Luck 2018 Is Here (So, Where Should You Be?)
The food-meets-music mash-up has plenty of events – bounce between or plant a flag – and the killer lineups feature some of those very musician-cum-chefs above.
Hi, How Are You?
Thu., May 24, 6pm; Franklin Barbecue
This old-school backyard barbecue – featuring Aaron Franklin and his world-famous brisket with guest star Sam Jones of Sam Jones BBQ – has all the flavor without the waiting in line for hours. (Note: As of press time, this event is sold out.)
Fri., May 25, 6pm; Fair Market
This ain't no Sbarro pizza, baby. The mall food court revamp challenges a rock star lineup of 12-plus chefs to design a special concept, and includes Thai barbecue, ramen by irreverent legend Ivan Orkin, class-act burgers, and dessert that blows Great American Cookies out of the water.
Fri., May 25, 10pm; Cisco's Restaurant & Bakery
Chefs Alex Stupak (Empellón) and Alejandro Escalante (Casa de los Tacos) will create a medley of Mexican cuisine for a late-night crowd at one of Austin's institutional diners.
Sat., May 26, 6pm; Wild Onion Ranch
This is Hot Luck's headlining act. A supergroup of chefs (seriously, more than 15 badasses including Tatsu Aikawa & Takuya Matsumoto and Fiore Tedesco) will fire up specialties they'd gift their friends at their very own backyard parties. Meat, beer, flames.
Coupe de Grille
Sun., May 27, noon; Austin Speed Shop
You're absolutely going to need Sunday brunch this weekend. Breakfast tacos, Bloody Marys, bacon, and boozy bubbles. (Aaron Franklin will be here, too. Are you sensing a trend?)
Separate music events boast bevs and bites and a killer weekend lineup: Hot Snakes, Girlpool, Con Brio, the Texas Gentlemen, Galactic, Twin Peaks, Paul Cauthen, Joshua Hedley, Okkervil River, Blackillac, DJ Questlove, and Peanut Butter Wolf. For more info see www.hotluckfest.com. – Jessi Cape