The Rhythm of Chris Robinson’s Cooking
The musician is at ease in the kitchen as he is on stage.
Chris Robinson is scheduled to perform in about an hour but right now he’s sipping wine and enjoying an unseasonably warm fall Kentucky afternoon. The Bourbon & Beyond Festival and the crowd eagerly waiting for him and his Chris Robinson Brotherhood band is far from his mind.
“I’m having a little rose to start the day. Somehow in our hippie commune we try to live as close to a French provincial lifestyle as possible,” he jokes. The warm weather, he says, allows him to continue to drink the summery beverage. Half-seriously he points out that “there’s a bigotry towards rose in macho America but I live in Northern California.”
Robinson isn’t just a French wine fan but quickly admits “French food is my obsession in life.” In fact, the more traditional the better and he really gets excited when begins talking about lard, kidneys and beef cheeks.
It quickly becomes apparent that he’s a passionate amateur chef. “I really work on my technique. I watch a lot of instructional videos and I have access to a lot of chefs,” he says. “Sean Brock is one of the greatest chefs in America and he takes the time if I email him a little question or something.”
But as we chat about his cooking, it doesn’t sound like he needs that much help anymore. In fact, his signature dish is what he calls French grandmother’s chicken, that combines the poultry with shallots, olive oil, red vinegar, salt and pepper and “a little touch of soy sauce.”
“You cook that until those shallots get really caramelized. I love shallots,” he says. “The red wine vinegar really cuts this dish. It gives it a little something else.”
While Robinson may be a serious foodie, he admits his kitchen is thoroughly normal. “I’m a folk singer dude,” he reminds me. “I have nothing fancy. I have to work with what I have to work with.”
When’s he not touring with his band to promote his new studio album, “Barefoot In The Head,” you can find him cooking in his kitchen with one eye on that night’s NBA game playing on his iPad. While he rarely watches television, he makes an exception for basketball, which is another passion of his. (For the record, he roots for the Golden State Warriors despite growing up in Georgia.) “I’ll cook and watch the East Coast games till the West Coast games come on,” he says.
If there are no games, he will put on jazz. In particular, “I listen to a lot of organ jazz when I’m cooking,” he admits. While he chops, dices and mixes he’ll blast the music of Jimmy Smith, Dr. Lonnie Smith, Fred McGriff and Big John Patton.
His love of food and cooking isn’t a new interest. When he was a teenager, growing up in suburban Atlanta, one day he demanded to know from his parents “Why have we not had Indian food?” He admits at the time it seemed like an unusual request given that in 1983 there weren’t many Indian restaurants nearby his parent’s house but he was really into classical Indian music and was reading a lot about India.
When he was on the road with his wildly popular group, the Black Crowes, he would look for authentic local food. In 1992, at the height of the band’s fame they were in Tokyo for a concert and he used the tour as an opportunity to educate himself on Japanese cuisine. “My parents didn’t eat Japanese food, Benihana isn’t Japanese food. I’d only probably had sushi for the first time in 1990 or the end of ’89. I get to Tokyo and I realize we’re eating at the Hard Rock and doing all these American things.” So he decided to “find out not just about sushi but about katsudon, donburi, ramen, soba, the basics of Japanese food,” he remembers. “Part of the adventure and part of the experience is unknowing when something opens up in front of you,” he says.
But Robinson’s greatest culinary triumph was perhaps sweet talking the chef at legendary Queens, New York, red-sauce Italian restaurant Don Peppe to give him two jars of its famous marinara sauce to take home. How’d he do it? The chef asked what kind of pasta he would serve it with, he answered linguine. If he’d said spaghetti, supposedly he wouldn’t have gotten the sauce.
His interest in eating and drinking has also helped shape his current psychedelic rock n’ roll band. It was inspired by, of all things, the California craft beer scene and the cult brand Pliny the Elder. “I realized I was never Bud Light or Coors Lite,” he says. Seeing the lines of people outside Whole Foods waiting to buy Pliny the Elder encouraged him. “It costs more and they can only get two bottles at a time and they walk out with a big grin on their face. I consider that a connoisseur relationship. All my best friends, all my musician friends, record people, writers, poets, weirdos, freaks, horse thieves, whatever, they’re all connoisseurs. I’m a connoisseur. I realize I don’t have to water down anything I want to do.”