Local rockers Trash Daddy had just finished their set and invited me to hang out with them. They introduced me to their friends seated at the table and I pulled up a chair next to a nice looking long-haired dude. The guy, Michael Davis, was friendly and casually mentioned that he was the bass player for Dramarama and Halford. In turn, I shared that I was a music writer. I then assumed we would talk "shop," but for some strange reason, he kept bringing up cooking. Was this guy just hungry or was there more to his choice of conversation?
I changed into reporter mode and got a little nosy. I learned that Davis was also the sous chef for the Turf Club at Santa Anita Park, a horse racing track in Arcadia, California. When it was time to go, I slipped him my business card and hoped he would contact me-- I knew that this would be a great tale if I could get him to share it.
Sure enough, by Monday I had an e-mail from Davis inviting me to interview him over lunch at his restaurant. A few days later I am seated across from him, looking at the beautiful San Gabriel Mountains when I'm not gazing into his sparkling eyes. Davis' face is one big smile as he sums up his current life- working in a kitchen 13 feet long to serve food to 1,600 diners, touring with Dramarama and recording with Halford. As usual, to really get to know my subject, I like to start at the beginning, so I ask him about cooking, music and growing up.
"My family has always been into cooking," Davis replies. "My folks, my brother, everybody was into cooking. It was kind of the thing that you had to get on board or you would get left out. My grandfather was probably the key because when I was a little kid he used to sit me there with him and feed me all these jalapenos and potatoes and 'Try some of this; eat some of that' and it just looked like a lot of fun, so I couldn't wait to get started on that myself."
Davis' grandfather made mostly about traditional Mexican food, while his father taught him how to grill and other techniques.
"The music, that started off early too with the Doors and the Beatles. Once again, like I said, my folks were into cooking and music so you had no choice," Davis adds.
He was very influenced by Paul McCartney and picked up the bass in junior high school.
"I wanted to be Paul," Davis admits.
And appropriately, he's been in bands ever since he started playing.
"I was very fortunate, when I finished high school I got basically recruited in my first significant band where we actually made records," Davis tells me.
At 19 Davis became the original bass player for the metal band Lizzy Borden.
"Talk about cutting your teeth, I didn't drink, I didn't do anything... We were obviously on an independent label so we didn't have much money. We toured in a motorhome and I was the one designated to do the shopping and cooking. We would be traveling and pasta goes a long way, so we'd do pasta, we'd do hot dogs, but I guess I made it taste better than anybody else. I got to hone my culinary expertise with two ingredients," Davis laughs.
Later he worked as a writer for Album Network magazine and during this time, he became friends with his co-worker, John Easdale (Dramarama), and began playing in Easdale's solo band, John Easdale and the Newcomers. Davis has been with Dramarama since 1996 and Halford since 2003. The magazine went through some changes and ultimately, along with many other employees, Davis was let go.
"In the interim I thought well, the music business didn't get me excited-- playing it does, but not the business, so I decided to go to cooking school." Davis explains, "I went to a place called Chef Eric's Culinary Classroom in West L.A. He was a very nice guy and showed me a lot of the inner workings of the kitchen. I went there for a couple of semesters."
The classes helped him land a job at Santa Anita Park.
"The key part in the whole culinary journey is the executive chef, Matthew Pike, here at Santa Anita and the executive sous chef, Jose Rodriguez, they've been the most influential people in my life as far as my culinary career goes," says Davis. "Not only are they the best chefs I've ever known, they are my friends as well."
"They hired me as a line cook at the FrontRunner and I had a very rude awakening because the amounts of food that we do here in a limited period of time are astonishing." Davis goes on, "That was the way I started and the first day I was very close to going, 'I don't know if this is for me,' but I went through it and at the end of the week I was right at home and running my little section of the line."
"I've worked very hard," continues Davis. "After the FrontRunner, I was the sous chef at Sirona's downstairs, which is a little more lighter fare. They gave me the opportunity to run the Turf Club, which is probably the biggest challenge that I've ever had."
Davis has worked as a chef professionally only three years. But for me, heck, all told I'm not sure if I've spent that much time in my own kitchen... so I have to find out what exactly is a sous chef?
"You are in charge of the day to day operation of the kitchen itself as far as ordering product, designing plates and menus," Davis says.
I look down at my plate feeling unworthy and take another few bites of his wonderful mahi mahi, scallops and asparagus to ease my pain. Perhaps if I ask him some more personal things I'll forget how challenging cooking is to me.
We discuss his son, Neill, who is in college and most likely will end up in a career dealing with computers, digital recording or editing. Then I learn Davis is a hockey fan.
"I like the Ducks," I chirp.
"The L.A. Kings, there is no other hockey, no Ducks, no," Davis replies.
He tells me that he used to play hockey-- he was a goaltender, but now he just doesn't have the time needed to be fair to his team.
"I love going to restaurants and eating, it's kind of funny," Davis goes on about his free time. "I love socializing and hanging out with my friends over a couple of drinks and just talking because I think that's something that's overlooked. I like to eat tapas-style, little foods, I like to taste a bunch of different things. I'm not the kind of guy to go, 'Give me the super duper deluxe thing.' I'll get three little things and taste them- seafood, a protein and a vegetable or something."
Cooking again.. but I win a little this time by getting Davis to admit that he sometimes steals ideas, as well as finds inspiration during his food outings. Then I tease him about combining his careers.
"That's the thing that I've been bouncing around in my head," Davis nods. "The Food Network is a weird thing, chefs are almost like rock stars and I think there's music in food. People ask me, 'How did you do both?' My brain sees it as random notes, as in music you take a bunch of random notes from all over the place and you put them into a song, into a melody. So you take these notes and make them into music. Food is random ingredients just all over the place and you make a cohesive dish out of them. To me it's a very parallel path- music and food."
"I would love to have some kind of a show where I could make food." Davis goes on, "Show some dishes, make food with some friends and afterwards we would sit around and then have some of my friends play music while you eat the food. That would be a great thing. We do that at home anyway, it's like a day at the office for us."
I give, "So what are your favorite dishes to cook?"
"I seem to have a penchant for Italian food," shares Davis. "I feel very comfortable making homemade marinara and pasta dishes. I love seafood and shellfish, clams, shrimp. I love making sauces. California, to me, is like a playground of culinary lives, you have so many ethnicities and I like to cross-culture a lot of things. I like to use chorizo a lot in my dishes and try to make it for somebody who's never had or present it in a different way, so that's where I see myself taking it to that level."
I ask him what is his favorite music.
"That depends on my mood." Davis elaborates, "I love classic music, I come back to the Beatles. I like a lot of solo Beatle work - solo George Harrison will put me in a good mood - all the way to Judas Priest. They're one of my favorite heavy metal bands which makes it a fun thing to be playing with Rob (Halford, also lead vocalist for Judas Priest). I don't really care for the new rock like what KROQ is playing, it's just a little kiddy rock to me, I go with a little more substance lyrical-wise. I like to listen to a lot of the Dramarama stuff from before I was in the band."
Davis pauses to share a story with me. When Halford's manager told Rob Halford that Davis was a chef, Halford thought it was very interesting. It also led to some good-natured teasing. Halford assumed the "rocker pose" and renamed Davis Chef Bass-R-Dee. Yeah, even metal gods have a sense of humor.
I ask Davis to share with me the best and worst sides of each career.
"On a busy day, the apprehension of knowing that you need to feed this amount of people is probably one of the worst things," Davis says of being the sous chef. "But the best thing is when you do it and you see that people are very happy, the servers are happy. And Matt will come and shake my hand and say, 'You did a great day.'"
"There's no plateaus in music, what you do is either very good or very bad." Davis counters, "You have to search in yourself why you play because if you are a true artist, you're going to go through a lot of ups and downs. You have to remember that you love to do it. What's kind of a weird coincidence is that when I was pushing hard the music was not going well, when I started to let go and said, 'You do this because you love it,' that's when things started to come together."
So what's the key to keeping his life balanced?
"Bodies in motion stay in motion," replies Davis. "It's the attitude that keeps you going and as long as you love what you do it's not ever work. Santa Anita is a great place for me to work because it gives me the nighttime to do my thing."
Davis will often work at Turf Club during the day on a Friday, fly out and play a gig and then be back at the Turf Club working on Saturday.
"This place really played into my plan because if I get to make food like this in the daytime, it's awesome because usually you work at a restaurant in the nighttime." Davis goes on, "It does get difficult at times because I have a lot of late nights and early mornings, but when it's something you want to do-- I consider myself pretty successful playing music, I'm a pretty decent bass player. I really want to be a really good chef, so that keeps me very highly motivated and also the people that I work with, my co-workers are fantastic. It makes you feel good. If everybody is working together and everybody's happy and hopefully the restaurant will be successful."
"As hard as it gets, if you really love it and you really have a passion for something, then stick to it," advises Davis. "It's all how you look at things, how successful you get. I saw myself becoming a chef, I didn't want to try, it's like, 'No, that's what I want to do.' So I kept going. There was luck to it too because I met the right people."
"My other advice to anyone who wants to become a cook or a chef is you can learn so much from just working in a restaurant, by prepping, by chopping, that's where you really know how stuff works and then you go from there."
The dishes are cleared and our waiter has returned with a plate boasting a large piece of some very decadent chocolate cake, a hardy scoop of vanilla bean ice cream and two forks. Now I know I've made a friend, after all, we're sharing dessert. But before I put away my tape recorder and notebook, I ask Davis for a few final thoughts.
"Working in a professional kitchen is a lot more work than Emeril does," Davis states. "All our cooks painstakingly chop all these things and there's so much prep that goes into it. I think it gets overlooked how much work chefs really put into their product."
"Is it more work than rocking?" I wonder.
"To be good at anything you have to work," Davis smiles.
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