If you live around here and are interested in hearing good music in beautiful surroundings, you know The Artist Series Concerts of Sarasota. And if you know ASCS, you know John Fischer, the affable mainstay-of-an executive director who seems to do all things, all the time, everywhere. So, how does someone who’s so busy have time to cook?
“I feel just as busy now as when I retired from my ‘real’ career in marketing 10 years ago,” says Fischer, trying to put things in a Sarasota perspective.
The thing is, Fischer doesn’t just cook for his family. He does a lot of cooking for his friends and for “work,” too, because a major part of his job with the Artist Series is fundraising.
“It’s a bit ironic that I’ve prepared heavy hors d’oeuvres and strolling suppers for hundreds of people and just recently started making dinners for smaller numbers of friends,” he explains.
It’s even more ironic that the home he shares with his partner, Jim, is by most standards, humongous.
“Our home was built with a large music room for our pianos and pipe organ, so fingers frequently point in my direction when it comes to concerts and charity events,” say Fischer. “We’ve hosted more soirees for Artist Series Concerts alone than I can remember. And we’ve also hosted events for the Sarasota Orchestra, Sarasota Opera and other groups. Music is such a great connector. Add food and conversation, and you’ve got a winning combination.”
Fischer’s description of their home underestimates its splendor a bit. Their music room feels closer to the Ringling’s living room, which was also built around a pipe organ. But, whereas the Ringling has only one piano, theirs has three concert grands and a pair of organ consoles and the pipes. Of course, it takes time to build a pipe organ, but that’s Fischer’s ongoing project. Meanwhile, the music and food beat on.
“We joked about downsizing our Sarasota home when we retired here in 2001,” Fischer says. “(But) we still ended up with just under 6,000 square feet.”
The thing is, even with all those musical instruments, there’s plenty of space for listeners and imbibers, so the type of food served is planned as carefully as the music programs.
“We serve lots and lots of one-bite appetizers,” Fischer says. “Beyond that, I’m always looking for presentation ideas. One disaster was the 144 stylish shot glasses I bought, along with tiny spoons. They were great fun but the tall, skinny glasses toppled like dominos, and we used them just once.”
He found a solution, though.
“A year or so ago, I started doing miniature pastry cups that I can fill with a variety of sweet or savory fillings. They’re fairly fast to do, and I really like serving things directly from the oven.”
We’re starting to get a picture here. Fischer loves to prep, cook and make things beautiful, whether it’s for 200 or two.
For more intimate (eight to 10 is his idea of intimate) dinners, I like to do individualized menus with a choice of up to three entrées, he says. Guests like it, and it balances recipes that require levels of last-minute attention. It’s impressive without being scary.
It’s Lee Dougherty Ross, the artistic director of the ASCS, who gets to feed (and cater to) the 40 or so performers on the series. This is fortunate because, according to Fischer, there have been singers who have literally “eaten everything in the house after a performance.” Another gracious and earnest provider of all things good, Dougherty Ross was actually asked by a performer one morning, “Do you have any Weight Watchers bagels for breakfast?” Fischer says, “Lee got in her car, went to the grocery and accommodated the request.”
Fischer says: “That’s just one of the reasons Artist Series performers love to return: to perform and to be pampered.”
The music that accompanies Fischer as he cooks is usually instrumental.
“If I listen to a Broadway cast album I can be drawn into recreating the show in my head,” he says.
John Fischer says: “This is an easy recipe that I’ve been preparing for decades — and one of my submissions back in 1983 to the Detroit Symphony Orchestra’s 432-page ‘Culinary Counterpoint’ cookbook. These days, I always warn my guests that it’s really not very healthy, but it’s always the first thing on their plates and has a wonderfully rich flavor and texture.”
3 tablespoons butter
1 pound raw shelled shrimp, deveined, cleaned with tails removed
1/2 pound sliced fresh mushrooms
4 tablespoons butter
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon dry mustard
Dash of cayenne pepper
2 cups light cream
3 tablespoons cooking sherry
1/2 cup shredded Parmesan cheese
Cooked rice or pasta
• Melt the 3 tablespoons of butter in a large skillet. Add shrimp and mushrooms; cover and cook over medium heat until mushrooms are tender and shrimp is pink (about five minutes.) Remove and set aside.
• Add the 4 tablespoons of butter to the skillet; when melted, blend in flour and seasonings. Sir in the cream all at once; cook, stirring constantly until the mixture thickens and boils. Add the shrimp and mushrooms to the sauce; stir in cooking sherry and Parmesan cheese. Salt to taste.
• Serve over rice or cooked pasta.
While recreating John Fischer’s “Sinful Shrimp,” we suggest listening to “Danses sacree et profane” by Debussy, in a performance by harpist Nicanor Zabaleta.
In honor of Fischer’s easy way of feeding the masses, try: “Revolutionary Etude” by Chopin, played on the organ by Cameron Carpenter.
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