Digging in: Minnesota Orchestra finds common ground between music and culinary arts

The orchestra’s “A Musical Feast with Sarah Hicks” concert featured local chefs, classical music and plenty of shenanigans

Minnesota Orchestra Musical Feast, Orchestra Hall Minneapolis, Minnesota - July 26.

Courtesy of Joseph Scheller

Minnesota Orchestra Musical Feast, Orchestra Hall Minneapolis, Minnesota – July 26.

Liv Martin

According to Sarah Hicks, the principal conductor of the Minnesota Orchestra’s “Live at Orchestra Hall” series, “chefs and musicians have a lot in common.”

From first discovering a musical or culinary talent to working long hours to perfect it, both crafts require focus and intense training.

Yet, the two disciplines rarely work in tandem like they did Friday night at Orchestra Hall.

There, the musicians and chefs were mere feet away from each other onstage, in front of a live audience and joined by a giant onstage camera rig.

The night featured six chefs hailing from some of the Twin Cities’ most distinguished restaurants, each paired with a different work of classical music.

Jose Alarcon, executive chef at Centro and Popol Vuh, took the stage first and promptly began oiling the pans for his dish: a fried tortilla with filling over an onyx-colored sauce.  His movements seemed to have been choreographed to the first movement of Beethoven’s “Pastoral” symphony,  a 12-minute piece that evokes scenes from nature.

To the right of the stage, a dining table was filled with eager tasters; six lucky community members got the chance to taste one dish. Sue Zelickson, founder of the Charlie Awards, and Star Tribune food critic Rick Nelson sat at the table for the show’s entirety, offering insider foodie knowledge.

One of the tasters, University of Minnesota senior Amera Hassan, said Chef Alarcon’s concoction was something she never would have tried had she not been chosen as a taster.

“I got to try something new, and I was pleasantly surprised,” said Hassan, who is also a violinist in the University’s Campus Orchestra.

Next, Jack Riebel, executive chef and co-owner of The Lexington, began cooking, bobbing his head to Leonard Bernstein’s “On the Town” while preparing an inventive dish of frog legs, garlic, local mushrooms and parsley. 

After an introduction from a short, lively polka by Strauss, Jamie Malone, chef-owner of South Minneapolis’ Grand Cafe, took a slightly different path, this time using a small oven. The product, a dome-shaped pastry with chicken filling, was complemented by “La Valse” by Ravel — a decidedly fitting piece for Grand Cafe’s French flavors.

Three chefs — the minds behind the Travail Collective — prepared the final meal of the night. While hand-rolling a few pastas with the help of the tasters, they put on quite the production, fully embracing “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” by Paul Dukas. 

A theatrical interpretation ensued, with co-chef-owner Mike Brown playing the role of Mickey Mouse (with the outfit to match) and co-chef-owner James Winberg as the sorcerer.

Co-chef-owner Bob Gerken’s role? Making sure the pasta got on the plate. On an average day for Travail Collective, said Gerken, “we don’t actually throw stuff all over the place.” At one point, the chefs of Travail, with the help of the waitstaff, paraded a 36-foot ribbon of pasta dough through the crowd.

The last performers of the evening, a group from the community-led organization Appetite for Change, made their mark in another way by rapping “Grow Food,” a song (and popular video) that encourages listeners to eat healthy. Four dancers, clad in white, rapped the song, backed by the orchestra.

Aaliyah Demry, a high school senior and part of the original group of youths that created the song, was excited to be a part of the concert.

“It was dope to have an actual live orchestra play our song,” Demry said. “We didn’t really think it was gonna skyrocket. We thought only people in the North Minneapolis community would hear it.”

University student Hassan is consistently impressed by how the orchestra tries new things, she said.

“They opened with an overture, and then it was Beethoven, and then they ended with a rap song,” Hassan said. “That’s what I think makes the Minnesota Orchestra really special. And then to combine it with food … it was just insane.”