Robert Levin, artistic director of the Sarasota Music Festival, is probably one of the busiest musicians you know. From Boston to Sarasota, Berlin to Vienna and Australia to Utah, this peripatetic pianist barely has time to catch up with his own feet — no less set them down in front of the stove. Yet, like most performers, he finds time to cook creatively and eat enthusiastically before and after concerts.
“In the years before I became the artistic director of SMF, I had some time to savor the many fine restaurants in the (Sarasota) area,” he says. “A favorite then was Yoshino in Burns Court, and I was heartbroken when it closed. I sampled offerings from Euphemia Haye and Café L’Europe, Carmichael’s, Michael’s On East, Mediterraneo and the Bijou Café, with an occasional jaunt to Phillippi Creek, Capt. Brian’s or Patrick’s. But, my schedule is so demanding that I rarely have time to do the wonderful Sarasota dining scene the justice it deserves.”
Still, Levin feels that “no festival visit seems complete without a 1905 salad at Columbia.”
Levin, and his wife, the pianist Ya-Fei Chuang, manage to eat really well wherever they are.
“In Boston, Ya-Fei and I love Clio — one of the most imaginative cuisines around,” Levin says. “And its sister, Uni, has magnificent sashimi, and O-ya, in the Leather District … pricey, but unforgettable.”
Lest you think they eat only Asian food while in Boston, Levin assures us that his favorite cuisines are “American, Chinese, French, Italian and Japanese. In alphabetical order.”
Then, there’s also Austro-Hungarian.
“Both Ya-Fei and I look forward to our annual master classes in Salzburg (Austria) to savor traditional delicacies,” he says. “I have a small cookbook of recipes from Mozart’s time.”
Levin has a particular affinity for Mozart and has delved into that composer’s life and work with such passion that he’s even completed some of the music Mozart left unfinished, including the C minor Mass and the beloved “Requiem.”
Levin and his wife “share the pleasure” of cooking when they’re home, but ask Levin to expound on favorite restaurants and, like his pre-concert lectures, he speaks volumes. In fact, his restaurant run-down is like a musical travelogue.
“We enjoy L’Espalier from time to time (important birthdays), but our favorite restaurant in the Freiburg area during our time there was Hirschen, in Sulzburg,” he says. “The Swabian chef, Hans Paul Steiner, and his French wife, the sommelier Claude Steiner, ran an exquisite establishment of warmth and supreme culinary imagination. They have retired, and their daughter and son-in-law have taken over. And, of course, almost anywhere in Italy are culinary experiences of a lifetime, such as the Enoteca Pinchiorri, in Florence.
“What is wonderful about the ancient European traditions is the love for recipes, some of them peasant dishes, like cassoulet, that take days to prepare properly. Modern-day existence puts such dishes out of the reach of most of us. We simply lack the time to prepare them. Restaurants keep these traditions alive.”
Yes, Virginia, musicians love dining as much as children love Santa Claus. And, when you speak with someone like Levin about eating, you hear as much enthusiasm for the dishes as you hear when he dishes about music. But, again, like many professional performers, Levin is specific about what music accompanies his dinners.
“Never classical music, which demands concentration,” he stresses. “If any music is on, it is likely to be early to swing-era jazz. But, even there, I hesitate because the inspired solos of individual players deserve the same attention and wonderment as classical music.”
One of Levin’s favorite snacks is a batch of gooey, homemade, chocolate-chip cookies. Levin, who jokingly refers to himself as “Uncle Bob” when it comes to recipes, has given us his version of the traditional one we grew up eating.
UNCLE BOB’S CHEWY CHOCOLATE CHIP COOKIES
Yields: 5-dozen cookies
Prep time: 30 minutes Bake Time: 1 hour
2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup (2 sticks) butter, softened
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup packed brown sugar
1/4 cup of your choice of Mandarine Napoléon, Grand Marnier, Cointreau or Triple sec (in steeply declining order of preference).
2 large eggs
2 cups semi-sweet chocolate morsels
1 cup whole pecans (optional)
1/2 cup shredded coconut (optional)
• Preheat oven to 375° F.
• Combine flour, baking soda and salt in small bowl. Beat butter, granulated sugar, brown sugar and Mandarine Napoleon (or Grand Marnier, Cointreau or Triple sec) in large mixer bowl until creamy. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Gradually beat in flour mixture. Stir in morsels and nuts and/or shredded coconut. Drop by rounded tablespoon onto ungreased baking sheets.
• Bake for nine to 11 minutes or until golden brown. Cool on baking sheets for two minutes; remove to wire racks to cool completely.
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