DURHAM Watch Joe Kwon pivot from pot rack to burner to sink in his red kitchen.
He's toasting garlic, salting water, tending to his All-Clad stainless with a precise grace and perfect posture.
Now watch him dance onstage, sawing wildly at his cello, balancing it with unlikely ease on its endpin.
The Avett Brothers are stomping and banging out the last raucous measures of "Laundry Room" on national television - the uber-cool Craig Ferguson's late-night show - and by the final note, Kwon has thrashed his long hair so hard and long he has to retrieve his glasses from the floor.
If it's odd to see the elegant Kwon play head-banging cello amid the banjo'd Americana-rock stew that is the Concord band-on-the-rise, can it be any odder to see the Korean native grating pecorino Romano onto penne rigate at home? Or to find out that the UNC Chapel Hill math major with IBM on his resume scouts each tour town for the band's dinner, and enlists tour-mates in national pad thai rankings? Or to read his food blog, in which he raves - in equal measure - about gooey cheese fries and raw marinated octopus?
Not if you delve into his history, an interesting meander between formal training and the fruits of improvisation. And not if you realize Kwon has sought out food for comfort, fuel and inspiration all his life.
Lessons from mom
Born in Korea 30 years ago this month, Kwon came to High Point with his parents at 1 - so "he's just like an American," says his mother.
Soo Hee Kwon had majored in piano and married a minister/choir director, and both believed "you always have to know the basics first," says Joe. So his mother found a concert cellist to teach him before he was 10. Both his sisters played piano. And since "in Korea, math is the basic art," all three knew their times tables years before their classmates. By eighth grade, they were getting shipped to high school for algebra.
"We learned if you know the technique behind everything, you can express yourself better," he says.
Learning to cook, though, wasn't theory and rehearsal. It was watching mom.
"He was always interested," she says, and he remembers being handed things to do. But there was no formal instruction - and no recipes. "I never use recipes," she says with some pride. "Just experience."
It was at Idyllwild Arts Academy, the California boarding school Joe attended the last two years of high school, that he learned to improvise. Food, that is. Music was still all classical.
And dorm food was... dorm food. The only appliance students were allowed was a water boiler. "I would have Mom send me toasted seaweed, and we'd buy (from the nearest Chinatown) any little Asian dish that could be canned. We got good at weird variations on ramen: Chinese sausages toasted in sesame oil, we'd add spices, then noodles at the end. Cheap Top Ramen for 10 cents would taste like a noodle shop's."
He'd cook Korean when he could. That would taste like home.
A lot of moving
He spent three high school summers in Italy and Switzerland for music camps, watching wives and daughters cook lunches and gleaning tips.
When he got back to North Carolina - via a music scholarship to UNC - he met Leon Godwin, who played guitar, and ended up rooming with him.
"He'd play in his room with the doors closed," says Godwin. "It'd reverberate through the house. It'd make me weep."
Kwon says Godwin convinced him eventually to loosen up, relax, improvise some music. Says Godwin: "I told him one day: 'Let go. Do whatever happens. Let it roll off.' I guess it was just a mindset thing for him."
The two eventually formed a band that became Big Pretty and the Red Rockets. Godwin, now creative director of a Chapel Hill digital media services company, says musical experimentation may not have come easily to Kwon, but culinary inspiration always did.
"He's really good at that improvisation: 'What spices do you have on hand? What's growing in the garden?' That's a mindset that I'm trying to learn from him."
Enter the Avetts
Long success story short: Bassist Bob Crawford of the Avett Brothers, seeking a cellist for their upcoming "Emotionalism" record, saw BP&RR and got Scott and Seth Avett to watch. They decided Kwon was their guy - ironically, because he was so loose.
He played on the 2007 record, stayed for the tour and has been with them since, improvising sweeping harmonies or peppery stomp-fests, as the songs require.
Along the way, he has taken on the role of food scout on tour. All exits may look the same on the road, but Kwon spends hours seeking idiosyncratic (preferably cheap) places on the Internet and Twitter. "The accessible one" of the Avetts, he's got about 1,400 followers on Twitter, many of whom are eager to steer him toward joints they know.
He balances the band's need to stoke their exhausting performances with the need to not be weighed down. Says Scott Avett: "Our shows have become more and more demanding, physically, over the years. Joe understands the priority that food as fuel plays." Scott also declares a Korean dish Joe cooked for the band - the barbecued beef called bulgogi - "amazing."
At home, Kwon says he relies increasingly on area products, scouring Triangle farmer's markets without a grocery list and cooking what he finds, with significant other Emily Meineke, whom he met during a stint serving at Chapel Hill's Spanky's. He photographs nearly everything for eventual use on the blog, tinkering with creative lighting and presentation. Tasteontour.com is a logical extension of his food-centric tweets and Facebook posts, which he says had spun a little out of control. "People were hiding me on their feeds because I was posting pictures of every little thing I ate. But people interested in food were responding."
For this story, he made a simple penne rigate with broccolini (though he prefers broccoli rabe) and organic Italian sausage, studded with a few red pepper flakes. He's a fan of heat, but can discuss the subtleties of specialty salts and shade-grown coffees.
He works clean, rinsing tools as he goes in the kitchen, which boasts one small bookshelf with a handful of foodie classics: Marcella Hazan, Nobu and two of Thomas Keller's. He is in boyish awe of Keller: "If I could go to French Laundry, I could die happy. He's so good. An artist. It's not fair."
He dreams of going to culinary school, not so much to improve but to understand - the way he does math and music. "I know how it's done, but I don't know why."
And though he doesn't insist all artists need classical training before they digress - there are "spectacular musicians" without it, and Keller had none, But he clearly feels a bit incomplete and insecure. "I could cook for 20 years and would never say I know what I'm doing" without it, he says flatly.
Explosion of sound
At every Avett show - in nearly every Avett song, actually - there's a moment when a lilting harmony shifts unexpectedly, a tempo charges ahead, Seth Avett's buttery vocal cuts to Scott Avett screaming, and what you thought was happening is suddenly more vibrant, more heated, more intense. The precision and control with which it began yields to something... new.
Joe Kwon dishes up his penne, a classic, traditional version, for me and the photographer.
Then he turns to his own and dumps in an extra dose of hot red pepper.
He stirs, and smiles.
Hard Worker: Kwon’s best cooking lessons
1. How to use temperatures – when to brown, when to sear, etc.
2. The science of details: Why something has to be dry when it’s called for, why a surface needs to be flat for cutting.
3. And the critical: “Sharp knives are the most important thing.”
I'd add this: He says he never opens a book and cooks a recipe. He reads through the whole book first, usually, and tries to memorize the recipe he’s about to make, rather than consulting the page every 30 seconds. He wants to feel as if he’s cooking it, an excellent practice.
CURRY FRIED CHICKEN
2 tablespoons turmeric
2 tablespoons curry powder
1 tablespoon cayenne pepper (or to taste)
3 tablespoons fish sauce
2 tablespoons mushroom-flavor soy sauce (or regular)
6 cloves garlic, minced
Freshly ground white (or black) pepper to taste
Oil for frying
1 cup all-purpose flour
5 pounds chicken thighs and legs
MIX all the ingredients except chicken and flour in a big bowl to make a paste; add chicken. Refrigerate, covered, 30 minutes to overnight.
SPREAD flour on a plate; dredge each piece of chicken.
HEAT oil in a fryer or skillet to 360 degrees and drop in 2-3 pieces per batch. Fry until cooked through – 10-12 minutes or 10 minutes per side in skillet.
SERVE with Ginger Dipping Sauce (recipe below.)
Yield: 6 servings.
2 1/2 ounces fresh gingerroot (a piece about 3 inches long when peeled)
2 green onions
Juice of 1 lemon
1/2 cup canola oil
2 pinches salt or to taste
PEEL and mince ginger. Mince onions. Add lemon juice, then whisk in oil and salt. Serve with chicken.
NOTE: Recipe is doubled.
PENNE, BROCCOLI RABE AND SAUSAGE
Adapted from Joe Kwon.
4 tablespoons olive oil
6 cloves garlic, minced
Crushed red pepper flakes to taste
1 pound penne rigate
1 pound broccoli rabe (or broccolini), chopped
4 links sausages (such as mild organic Italian), sliced
Pecorino Romano or Parmigiana Reggiano, grated, to taste
WARM oil in large pan and toast garlic until pale gold. Add pepper flakes and sauté a few minutes; add sausage and cook until browned.
COOK pasta as directed. Add broccoli rabe to pan with the sausage a few minutes before the pasta is done. Drain pasta and add to pan. Toss. Add cheese to taste and more crushed red pepper if desired.
Yield: 6 servings.
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