Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Feeding and Care of Artists Across the Midwest

Having just finished a 3-week tour, covering 8 states (and crossing into 3 others), a few reflections are in order on truly the most important aspect of concertizing - the meals!

Many of the states I played in are integral parts of the national food chain - Kansas, Iowa, the Dakotas and Montana. I saw lots of fallow fields, awaiting the spring planting, and many pastures of cows, buffalo and sheep. So much of our national landscape has been altered by our food choices, and driving across hours and hours of farms makes you reflect on food, and gives you plenty of time to do it!

I drove a total of 4765 miles, at an average speed of just over 60 mph. There were a few days dedicated to driving - 8 to 10 hours on those days. Other days, I averaged about 4 hours behind the wheel in order to arrive at a concert venue, rehearse, relax and perform. Given this tight schedule, you can imagine that meals became something quite significant!

Few presenters realize how influential the meals are to the success and the memory of a concert. A middling concert can be salvaged (for the artist, anyway!) by a great meal afterwards, and a great concert can be sabotaged by having to eat McDonalds afterwards in your hotel room. Both have happened to me many times!

The keys to a great meal are: timeliness, quantity and quality. Am I a diva for saying that all three are required - 2 out of 3 is just not good enough. And it shouldn’t have to be such a challenge to find all three! One of the best meals I had on this tour was at a board member’s home, where a large group of guests shared lively conversation and great homemade lasagna, salad and fine wine. Even though I had a 40 minute drive afterwards to get to my hotel room, the good feelings from this get together have lasted much longer than the memories of the concert itself.

As an example of a time when great quality was not enough to carry the day, I remember the meals we had at a chamber music festival in France, which we had catered by a local restaurant. The owner/chef came himself with wonderful local food, and the quality was excellent, as was the variety. However, the timing was not great - he had a set schedule for serving, and the menu was planned out to include a first course, a second course, a salad and cheese course and dessert. But at a festival, musicians were coming and going at all hours, trying to find time to fit in group rehearsals and individual practicing. It was impossible to try to get the entire group there at the same time before sitting down to the table for lunch. And many needed to eat quickly and leave early as well. The well-planned courses did not fit our schedules, and many left hungry, or arrived having missed out on a delicious first course. The quantity was quite limited as well, the food being plated beforehand and assigned to each individual. There were those who would have to skip dinner because they were performing later, who wanted to eat more than usual at lunch. Others had had a late breakfast, and were looking forward to a bigger dinner.

Dinner was even more of a disaster. Performers wanted something light before the concert and something hearty afterwards. Non-performers had time to relax and enjoy at the end of the day. We asked for a buffet style dinner, but that meant just a bunch of salads, breads, cheeses, cold meats.

Quantity is an important thing for musicians! For some, I would even go so far as to say that quantity trumps quality. A French hornist, good friend of mine, truly appreciated a meal I had spent hours making, even though he had filled his plate with wonderful Greek chicken and rice and sauteed zucchini, only to top it off with a large ladle-full of raw crepe batter. He dug right into it without any hint of how it tasted, except for the fact that it was warm and plentiful.

For this road trip, my challenge to myself was to be healthy - both in eating and in exercising. Long days with 7-10 hours of driving would be the death of my otherwise. I had asked specifically to be in hotels with swimming pools, and most of them were adequate for doing a few laps, supplemented with a few minutes on the treadmill. As for eating, I had made a promise to myself that I would try to eat vegetarian when I could. I had given myself one opportunity in 3 weeks to partake of fast-food, to prepare for the situation where I would be in a place with absolutely nothing open otherwise. I used that voucher towards the end of the trip, at a KFC when I had only 15 minutes to eat before having practice time. I ended up, on the night of my last concert, going to a McDonald’s with the presenter, having exhausted all the possibilities in the little Montana town we were in, at 10:45 pm. Fortunately, conversation was enjoyable, and I knew that I was going home the next day.

Too many times on this road trip, I found myself sitting in my hotel room, eating fruit and cereal, and drinking a beer from a six-pack I kept in my car for just such cases. A few times, I was quite happy to find an Applebee’s or Village Inn, large franchise chains that serve the classic American menu. There I could always find a soup and salad of some kind that would be satisfactor

I used the website Happycow.com, which led me to a few China Buffets and Indian restaurants. I would pick out the veggies from the mixed veggies/meat dishes in China Buffet. In one town in South Dakota, the China Buffet’s dishes were practically all meat! Had there been another stealth vegetarian who had gotten to them before me? Not the case, as I noticed that new dishes that came out were also mostly meat.

A few Indian restaurants were great havens in my travels across the meat locker of America. In particular, Gupta in Fairfield, IA and Taste of India in Sioux Falls, SD were quite good. And I was quite excited in Brainerd, MN, when I saw that the managers of the small hotel where I was staying were of Indian descent. However, when I asked where there might be a good Indian restaurant in the area, they said there was nothing short of St. Paul!

I’ll put in a good word for a chain that I found in Montana, called HuHot. This supposedly Mongolian-style cookery features DIY dishes that include fresh ingredients, great sauces, and all cooked in front of your eyes. I’m looking forward to seeing it expand into the Northeast.

I’m not surprised that in these smaller to mid-sized towns, there is nothing really of quality that stays open beyond 9:30-10pm. What does surprise me is that the presenters do not think about making arrangements with a local restaurant or organizing a pitch-in dinner in these cases. I’m not alone among performers to put off dinner until after the concert, and I need a good beer or a glass of wine to relax after a strenuous workout, or else I’m up all night. Without making it seem like an obligation on their part, I try to find out if they’ve prepared anything for afterwards, hoping that it will prompt some kind of action or idea. A couple of times, I was left alone to deal with the situation, and those are always quite surprising to me. It takes away the pleasure of the concert immediately.

So here’s a little reminder to all presenters: no expense you make will give your artists as much pleasure as a good meal after the performance. You don’t need to to go the length of offering a bottle of Petrus ’75 (it happened to me! Many thanks, Lincoln, NE!). Nor does it have to be a gourmet meal. Remember that Quality needs to be balanced with Quantity and Timeliness.