‘Playing With Food’: HSO, Chefs Create A Musical Menu

By MARYELLEN FILLO, The Hartford Courant
March 1, 2013

Some of Hartford’s most well-known chefs have been “playing” with their food recently, and the results are music-inspired dishes that will be taking center stage, both on their tables and at The Bushnell for the next several weeks.

The special menu items are part of a project with the Hartford Symphony Orchestra that begins March 1, melding the creativity and inspiration that music and food share.

Beginning March 1, diners who order the music-inspired menu items at participating restaurants can purchase buy one/get one free ticket packages to the HSO’s “Playing With Food!” concert on May 18. The new event is being billed as “a musical menu” featuring the paired compositions that inspired the cooks in the kitchen and the food that inspired the musicians in the orchestra.

HSO conductor Carolyn Kuan, a self-proclaimed fan of TV’s “Top Chef” cooking show, came up with the idea several months ago after watching the featured television reality show’s surprise “inspirational” challenges.

“I wondered what a chef would create if handed a piece of music for inspiration,” she said, and thus the idea was born. She found several interested restaurants and provided each chef with a piece of music to inspire a new dish. In the interest of fair play, she also found music to match a standing menu item at the restaurants.

The results? Menu items from six restaurants in Hartford and Glastonbury and music that share tempo, texture, timbre and good taste.

Need an amuse bouche?

Firebox executive chef Sean Farrell was handed Dave Brubeck’s piano classic, “Take Five”, and after listening to it carefully, knew the dish had to be hip, unexpected and just plain cool. The result? Stonington Seas Scallops with duck prosciutto wrapped asparagus, English pea-mint coulis and pickled radishes.

Over at the Pond House and sister-eatery, Pond House Grille in Glastonbury, Chef Jordan Stein’s homework was to listen to Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King,” a piece from “Peer Gynt.” The music begins with cellos and double basses and then adds other instruments as the it gradually speeds up to a loud and frenetic pace.

Stein’s interpretation? Lobster and sherry Johnny cakes with habanero ham.

“There are so many parallels when it comes to composers and chefs,” said Kuan who spent several weeks listening and eating to put the project together. “Chefs and musicians use the same words, “savory,” “sweet,” “lush” as they describe their craft. It’s not a surprise that both integrate so well.”

Kuan, who is a regular downtown diner, had a new accessory with her as she worked with chefs — a laptop full of music.

While she handed out music for the new dishes, she was also tasting menu standards and wracking her musical brain to pair each with the appropriate tune.

On her visit to Salute on Trumbull Street, where executive chef Dave Caudill developed peppercorn crusted shrimp with brandy cream to go with his assigned “Rossini’s Overture to William Tell,” Kuan sampled the restaurant’s popular long-standing menu choice, rose pasta, and got to work.

“It’s comforting, it’s smooth, it’s sweet,” she said as she rolled the cream sauce covered pasta over and over in her mouth. After her sampling, she moved to her laptop where she found the song she wanted, Henry Mancini’s “Moon River”, a timeless classic with smooth tones and style.

The exercise was an interesting one for the chefs as well, some of whom readily admit they are not classical music fans so just listening to the pieces assigned by Kuan was challenging.

“At first I thought it was a bit of a different idea and wasn’t sure but then I listened to the music with Dale, who explained the music to me,” said Caudill, referring to Salute front man Dale “Daleo” Kirshnitz, an accomplished musician.

“We went over the beats and how the music changed and what it meant and then I was able to come up with the dish,” said Caudill.

“It was an odd idea at first, but then Carolyn came in and explained,” said Peppercorn’s Dino Cialfi who was handed Verdi’s “Brindisi” from “La Traviata” as the inspiration for his “new” dish, tagliolini alla rughetta.

“The exercise took me back to my music appreciation class in college,” he said. “I’ll do anything for publicity for the restaurants and after listening to the music, all I could think of was the Alps in spring when it is green,” he said. “The green and yellow and red of the dish mimicked the music.”

For Cialfi, the new dish wasn’t really brand new but certainly fit the bill when it came to meshing art and cuisine.

“I actually created this dish many, many years for Alicia Roncari’s mom,” said Cialfi, referring to Roncari who owns Bin 228, another downtown Hartford restaurant. “At the time I told her I would create a pasta dish that would sing,” he said smiling. “Now I can really say it is a dish that really does.”

“Playing for Food” concert is May 18 at 7:30 p.m. and will include musical selections as well as a discussion about the food with the participating chefs. The specially created menu items will be featured March 1 to May 13, with patrons who try each of the special dishes eligible to get a free companion ticket to the concert with the purchase of a ticket. From May 15 to June 30, those who visit the participating restaurants will receive a dinner discount on the dishes featured as part of the concert.

Participating restaurants are the Pond House, 1555 Asylum Ave., West Hartford, Pond House Grille, 2935 Main St., Glastonbury, Firebox, 539 Broad St., Hartford, Salute, 100 Trumbull St., Hartford, Max Downtown, 185 Asylum St., Hartford, and Peppercorn’s Grill, 357 Main St., Hartford. Patrons will receive a slip with their receipt if they eat one of the new dishes; collect all five slips and bring them to the HSO Box Office (166 Capitol Ave, Hartford) by May 13 to receive a free companion ticket with the purchase of an adult ticket.

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