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Arts and Entertainment Monday, Apr. 19, 2021 6 months ago

Opera à la Carte

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Sarasota Opera’s talents are cooking up something to sing about.
by: Marty Fugate Contributor

Opera is a feast for the senses. Many operas revolve around actual feasts. Say what you will about their morals, Falstaff and Don Giovanni knew how to eat well. The same can be said for Sarasota Opera’s multitalented singers. They fill their free time with a long list of creative activities — and the culinary arts are at the top.

So what’s cooking? To find out, we explore the moveable feasts of mezzo-soprano Lisa Chavez, baritone Marco Nistico, and mezzo-soprano Laurel Semerdjian. We’ll see some of the mouth-watering meals they’ve created,  and how their kitchen magic reflects their family backgrounds and philosophies of life.

When did your love of cooking start?

Marco’s foodie fascination began in his student days in Paris. He was living alone for the very first time. He couldn’t afford to eat out. Like it or not, Marco had to cook for himself—for the first time. “I was forced to make my own meals—and I didn’t have a clue. I thought about my childhood memories of my mom and grandmother cooking in Naples. So I called them up and asked, 'How did you do that? What were the ingredients? How hot did you cook it? How long?' I’d take all these notes, then try to repeat what they did in my tiny Paris kitchen. I wasn’t as good—not even close. But all my French friends loved my pizza and pasta; I guess because it was so different. They said, 'Marco, your cooking is the best in the world!' I knew better, but I didn’t talk them out of it.

Lisa got in touch with her inner chef in childhood. Her parents encouraged Lisa to cook—and to learn. “My aunt always said, ‘If someone in the family cooks a meal you love, don’t just eat it! Ask them how they made it and write it down. You can get the recipe now. The day may come when you can’t.’” Lisa followed her aunt’s advice. But most of her learning was hands-on. “I’d always help my grandma make tortillas or whatever she was cooking. Dad would also let me help cook breakfast on the weekends, usually pancakes. I really enjoyed it. And I guess it stuck with me.”

Laurel’s epicurean epiphany is similar to Lisa’s. “My love affair with food definitely started when I was young. My mom always encouraged me to cook with her—and so did my grandmother. Whatever they cook, it’s always amazing, whether it’s Armenian food or a new invention. After I moved away, I did exactly what Marco did. I’d pick up the phone. ‘Hey, Mom! I really like this recipe you made. How did you do it? Tell me the secret!’ And just like Lisa, I’d write it down and try to repeat the magic. After that, I just kept going. I’ve explored so many flavors, cultures and cuisines over the years. But my mother and grandmother got me started.”

Best-loved meals to eat and prepare?

Lisa’s culinary choices change with the seasons. “My wintertime favorite is a cider-braised sage pork. I’ll stew it for hours, and serve it with fresh spaetzle. In the spring, I celebrate the end of the winter funk with crispy things like fresh lettuces. Summertime is all about grilling. I like myself some tacos, you know. Bread is my favorite thing to prepare right now. I love baking different styles of bread. The possibilities are endless.”

Laurel: "My favorite food to eat is my mom’s Armenian rice pilaf. Browning the vermicelli in butter gives it this rich nutty flavor. It’s every Armenian child’s first solid food. It’s so very simple, and so very good. I don’t really have a favorite meal to prepare. I’m constantly trying new recipes and experimenting with different flavors, proteins and food combinations. The results are sometimes terrible, sometimes great. You never know until you try, and that’s half the fun."

Marco Nistico's interest in food began when he was a student in Paris.

Marco: "My mom’s Italian meatballs — they’re my all-time favorite. And they’re not spicy! People have this cliché in their heads: 'Italian-a spicy meat-a-balls.' So, people think Italian meatballs are always spicy. No, they’re not. You can cook them in sauce. My mom fries them. There are thousands of ways to make them. Unless you dump a lot of spice in them, Italian meatballs are not spicy. The food I love most to prepare is a very simple chicken breast recipe. I got it from another singer here— Stefano de Peppo. And he doesn’t even remember the recipe. He forgot to write it down. I didn’t have to. It’s all in my head."

What’s your top culinary guilty pleasure?

Lisa: "The chocolate-covered almonds from Trader Joe’s. They’re my ultimate temptation, but I approach them with self-discipline. I’ll buy a whole box. Then I’ll eat maybe two a day and make it last for weeks." 

Laurel: "My current guilty pleasure is Nilla Wafer banana pie. It looks like a Southern pie. It’s got sweetened condensed milk and everything bad for you, and that’s why it’s so good. I baked one just recently, and it was just so decadent, perfect and delicious."

Marco: "Mine is Ben & Jerry’s Half-baked Ice Cream. It’s these textured, chewy chunks of chocolate, vanilla, chocolate chips, cookie dough bits and brownie bits. I love the taste, but I can’t really describe it. It kind of tastes like everything."

You’re stranded on a desert island that happens to have running water, a stove and a refrigerator. (To be generous, there’s also an endless supply of wine and coffee.) But you’re allowed only three food items. What would they be?

Marco: “Fresh mozzarella from Naples—I miss that terribly every day. And, of course, some excellent pizza—and hopefully the ingredients for me to make it. Some very good Vietnamese pho is my third choice. It makes me happy every time.”

Lisa Chavez enjoys cooking dishes such as fried green tomatoes ... just don't serve her bell peppers.

Lisa: “Shrimp, avocados and bread are my three wishes. They’re all delicious, and they all go together very well.”

Laurel: “Avocados, eggs and bread, of course. I love bread. In whatever form it takes.”

Name a food you wouldn’t touch with a 10-foot pole.

Marco: “I cannot eat Indian food. The spices in it make me ill. It’s not the food’s fault. Blame me. My body just can’t deal with it.”

Laurel: “For me, it’s Jell-O. The texture, the flavor, the way it wiggles ... Bleaggh. I cannot eat Jell-O without gagging.”

Lisa: “Bell peppers are my food nemesis. I don’t know why. I cook with Thai chilies and jalapenos. I can eat spicy peppers galore. Bell peppers? No. (My reaction is not very pleasant.) They smell so good … but no. I’m sure I would like them. But, for some strange reason, they don’t like me.”

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