An outlet for creativity. An avenue for self-expression. A stage for entertaining audiences.
Plenty of similarities crisscross the professional worlds of music and cooking. The working conditions tend to be sweaty and run late into the night, fueled by a nonstop rush of adrenaline. Both attract renegade spirits, types too restless to sit in an office cubicle for the better part of eight hours. Cramped conditions are the norm, whether it’s a touring van that can barely fit a band and its gear, or the typical mosh pit of a kitchen where cooks incessantly bump into one another. A successful night, whether it’s a band or restaurant crew, depends on timing and teamwork.
Mike Thiemann has found success in both venues. The chef and co-owner of Mother and the upcoming Empress Tavern was a well-known drummer in local punk and indie-rock circles before emerging as a culinary figurehead in Sacramento.
“There’s a reason why we end up in the kitchen,” Thiemann said of musicians. “It’s a world of misfits, but there’s successful misfits. I’m not saying we’re all (messed up), but there’s a reason why we’re here. We want to use our hands and be creative.”
Several well-known musicians have made the transition from playing with instruments to playing with knives. Greg Norton, bassist for the seminal punkers Hüsker Dü, turned to a chef career after the band broke up in the late-1980s. Other musicians who have found their calling in the restaurant industry include Warren Oakes, former drummer for Against Me!, who co-owns Boca Fiesta restaurant in Florida. Brooks Headley, ex-drummer of Born Against, now serves as executive pastry chef for Del Posto in New York City.
Like music, food is a way to connect with people.
“It’s that immediate gratification,” said Thiemann. “People appreciate your songs at a show and it’s cool. You get the same thing when you cook for people. They’re immediately stoked.”
Here are some of Sacramento’s musically inclined chefs. Some of them have left their nights of gigging in the past, while others still find time to record and rock a crowd when they’re not slammed by a dinner rush.
Restaurant: Field House American Sports Pub, kitchen manager
Band: City of Vain; former bands include Whiskey Rebels, New Rock Militia
Bio: Boyce likes it loud and aggressive, whether he’s playing guitar for slam dancing crowds, or managing high-volume dinner rushes as a cook and supervisor. His current band, City of Vain, recorded an anthem for the Sacramento Republic FC. One day he hopes to open his own British-style pub.
Favorite moment as a musician: “We did a mini-tour with Rancid, from Northern to Southern California and back up. On the first night, toward the end of Rancid’s set and (the singer) thanked all the bands and said, ‘And to City of Vain’ … and everything just stops and gets quiet … and he said, ‘Holy (expletive)!’ Everyone went nuts. That’s been one of my musical heroes forever and he toasted us.”
On music and cooking: “When I’m trying to give a positive critique to a cook, I always say you’ve gotta think of your sauce or dish as a song. If a steak is going out with potatoes au gratin and a nice sauce, the bass and drums is the steak. That backbone has to be solid. What’ll make that stand out are the high notes: the singer and lead guitar (or sauce and seasonings). In food, like music, what stands out are things that are harmonious. …
“When you’re on stage playing for a packed house and everyone’s going nuts, you’re ‘in the pocket.’ It’s the exact same thing as turning pans on a busy Friday and Saturday night and you’re not coming up late. You’re just flowing. The adrenaline’s going, and it’s emotional and you’re moving with meaning. At the same time there’s a sense of euphoria and calmness. At the end, it’s a big sweaty hug.”
Restaurant: Culinerdy Cruzer food truck, chef and co-owner
Instrument: Upright and electric bass
Former bands: The Refuzniks, Cheshire Cat, Gangster Alley
Genres: Rockabilly, glam-metal
Bio: This burgeoning celebrity chef who recently appeared on “Cutthroat Kitchen” has also been known to lay down some bass lines. Breedlove played on the Bay Area’s hard rock circuit in the 1990s and more recently gigged with The Refuzeniks, a Modesto-based rockabilly and cowpunk band. His now-defunct Papa Dale’s Diner food truck also had a rockabilly theme.
Favorite moment as a musician: “Meeting Matt Freeman from Rancid (and Devil’s Brigade). We opened for Devil’s Brigade in Modesto and he walked up and said, ‘Man you guys are really good. You’re a great player.’ That was a great show, dude.”
On music and cooking: “The biggest reason musicians and cooks get along so well is that you’re working your butt off for no money. But you’ve already got this passion and you’re used to sacrificing for your art. If you get into (music) for the money, you’ll end up dropping out. It’s the same thing with culinary arts. You have to stick with it. You’ve gotta pay your dues and go with the trends.”
Restaurant: Cafe Bernardo, executive chef
Instrument: Vocals (as a rapper)
Former bands: FTS, Soul Clap, Joint Function
Bio: Depina was deep into Sacramento’s hip-hop scene while working as a line cook at Biba Restaurant in the 1990s, known on stage as a rapper named Pedroc. Weekend shifts often ended with him rushing to a gig for soundcheck, but now Depina focuses on his culinary career full-time. This former Sacramento Burger Battle champion is itching to get back in the studio and record some verses.
Favorite moment as a musician: “Opening for KRS-ONE at (The Grind) skate park in West Sacramento. We met him on the tour bus and talked for a bit. (Another) one of my favorites was with Team Sleep at Harlow’s because that was a diverse hip-hop and rock kind of thing. That was pretty cool.”
On music and cooking: “When you’re in the kitchen and on the line, everyone’s watching what you’re doing, and you have to do it under pressure and with rhythm. It’s like when you’re on stage. You have to be (comfortable) with the spotlight, and you have a certain amount of time to get things done. When the drum hits, you’ve gotta jump on that. When the sauté pan is on the burner, as soon as the oil starts smoking, it’s the same thing.”
Restaurants: Chef and co-owner of Mother, Empress Tavern (opening soon)
Instrument: Drums, vocals
Former bands: Crash and Britany, The Yah Mos, Pretty Girls, Sons of Valdez
Genres: Punk, indie-rock, garage rock
Bio: Thiemann started his culinary career at the former Greta’s Cafe on Capitol Avenue, which also employed John McCrea of Cake and Zach Hill, who worked as a deli cook before becoming the much-lauded drummer for Hella and Death Grips. While on a day off from Greta’s, Thiemann’s band, Crash and Britany, performed for 50,000 people in San Francisco as an opening act for Pearl Jam. When he’s not in restaurant mode, Thiemann drums for a band called Gym Boys, with former Yah Mos and Pretty Girls guitarist Tristan Tozer.
Favorite moment as a musician: “The one show I always remember is the 7-inch release party for The Yah Mos. I was about 16. It was at a house and we got a hardcore band called Antioch Arrow to open up. It was just nuts. At one point I looked up and saw someone being pinned to the ceiling, like pushed up against it. Then, the show ended and nothing was broken. It was almost magical.”
On music and cooking: “Ultimately they’re both creative and highly repetitious. It’s all about using your hands in motion. Good bands are the ones that practice and practice so they can repeat (their songs) over and over again. To be a great cook, you have to be really good at repeating yourself and being consistent.
“When you talk about pro bands, it’s like a band of pirates. The kitchen is that same sort of feeling. Every night in a busy restaurant is intense, and you either become friends or enemies (with your fellow staff), or both. And then you get over yourself by the end of it.”
Restaurant: Pangaea Bier Cafe, executive chef
Former bands: Filibuster, Joint Function
Genres: Ska, hip-hop
Bio: Some local restaurant folks still refer to Venditti as Robb Rossi, his DJ name with Filibuster. This late-great Sacramento ska band also featured Jason Boggs, co-owner of The Shady Lady, on saxophone and vocals. Before disbanding in the early 2000s, Filibuster was signed to Skunk Records, the label that launched Sublime. Venditti, Boggs and Depina also collaborated in a side project called Joint Function, which featured cameos from Brotha Lynch, the million-record-selling Sacramento rapper who also makes a mean bowl of clam chowder.
Favorite moment as a musician: “Touring Europe with The Skatalites twice. And we recorded our last album with Steve Albini (producer for Nirvana, The Pixies) in Chicago and The Breeders were there finishing their record. (Frontwoman) Kim Deal and her daughter were basically staying there, and we were hanging out with her playing pool. Looking back, it’s like, ‘Dude, I hung out with Kim Deal while recording with Steve Albini for a week.’”
On music and cooking: “You can really get a feel of a culture by going back to its food, and it’s the same with music. Food and music both affect you and give you different feelings. Some will take you back and almost bring tears to your eyes. With music, I prefer something with heart and feeling over something that just sounds good on the radio. I stick to the classics with my food. You’ll never see me putting fancy flowers on a plate. I play music in that same sense. I’m going for something that gets me pumped.”
Call The Bee’s Chris Macias, (916) 321-1253. Follow him on Twitter @chris_macias.