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Chefs Who Rock: Guitar-Slinging Cooks Fuse Music and Food

By:  Mackensy Lunsford Apr 11, 2014
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Bill 'Sauce Boss' Wharton

Bill 'Sauce Boss' Wharton plays slide-guitar blues and spices up his live shows with onstage gumbo cookery. 'Music and food together really push a lot of buttons,' he says.

Chefs are America's new rock stars. It's cliché, but sometimes more than a metaphor.

In restaurants, music is often just background noise to cover the sounds of strangers chewing. It's hip-hop fighting for airspace with Latin pop in the prep kitchen.

But for some chefs, the not-so-disparate worlds of music and food intertwine in a more meaningful way.

Chef Ford Fry

Chef Ford Fry

“In addition to chefs expressing themselves through food, they’re now expressing themselves through their iPods,” explains chef Ford Fry, who says serving food to the beat of a meticulously sourced soundtrack is a trend on the upswing. “You’re not only writing menus, but you’re also writing the playlist for the restaurant."

Fry has five restaurants in the Atlanta area, including The Optimist, JCT. Kitchen & Bar and No. 426. He also has four more concepts in various stages of completion.

Food, obviously, is Fry’s primary focus, and he confesses to being the sort of "old-school" chef who keeps the radio silent during service periods to promote better focus.

But after Fry takes off his apron, he straps on a guitar.

Lettuce Turnip the Beets

Fry, a semifinalist for the James Beard Foundation Outstanding Restaurateur of 2014 award, played in bands as a kid. But, while working to become a chef, he sold his guitars.

After opening his first restaurant, however, Fry restocked his inventory of guitars and amplifiers. “It’s pretty loud in the house on some days,” he says, before admitting he often waits until his wife’s in the shower and the kids are at school to rock out.

Chef Ford Fry

Fry onstage in Atlanta

“Then at nighttime, I play acoustic guitar,” he says. But trying to keep quiet isn’t really in the cards when you have rock ‘n’ roll in your soul, so Fry, who gravitates toward ‘90s-era rock bands, started a music-and-food festival called Attack of the Killer Tomatoes.

With Zeb Stevenson of Livingston Restaurant + Bar, Fry and other chefs form Five Bone Rack. Fry’s band also performs with other chef-driven bands at the Buckhead Theater for Eats and Beats, a benefit for Children of Conservation.

His style? "We'll play anything from AC/DC to the Rolling Stones," he says. "We're always crunching it up a little bit too — and we always want to be louder than anyone."

To get ready to shred, Fry and his band of chefs practice at odd hours. “We’re not professional people,” he laughs. “We need practice.”

Still, Fry says that he thinks music will outlive his cooking career. "They may be neck and neck," he says. "It depends. If I have grandkids who want to head bang, I'll have to teach them."

My Baby's Got Sauce

Florida's Bill “Sauce Boss” Wharton also finds it impossible to separate food and music. "Music and food together really push a lot of buttons," he says.

Wharton plays slide-guitar blues and spices up his live shows with on-stage gumbo cookery. Then he feeds the crowd. The gumbo is more than a meal — it’s a movement.

“It’s a soul-shouting picnic of rock and roll brotherhood,” Wharton says.

Wharton started selling his homemade hot sauce, Liquid Summer, at gigs in the late-‘70s. So addictive was the concoction that people took to calling him the “Sauce Boss.”

In a time when good hot sauce was hard to come by, fans burned through a couple of gallons of Wharton's Datil pepper-spiced brew a week. But he still searched for a better way to showcase the pepper's floral flavor.

In 1989, Wharton was in the studio with Louisiana blues legend Raful Neal, whose wife was making gumbo in the kitchen. “I watched her like a hawk,” says Wharton, “It was amazing, the music and food together — and something clicked in my mind.”

That New Year’s Eve, Wharton cooked his first pot of gumbo onstage. “And 190,000 bowls later, here we are,” he says.

Bill 'Sauce Boss' Wharton

Bill 'Sauce Boss' Wharton

These days, Wharton enlists the crowd to help him make gumbo — it’s hard to play slide guitar and stir the pot, after all. But cooking and dancing make pretty good bedfellows

“Whoever’s stirring the gumbo is really getting into it,” he says. “The gumbo? It’s a dance craze.”

For Wharton, the stage is a kitchen, wherever he goes. “And everyone ends up in the kitchen during a party,” he says.

Some of Wharton's most important shows bring the party to people who don’t have kitchens. He created the nonprofit foundation Planet Gumbo, which enables him to play — and cook — in homeless shelters around the country.

“I take the show to a place where people could really use gumbo,” he says. “Some of these people have never been to concerts.”

For Wharton, weaving together music and food “is more than just a job, it's my life's work," he says. “That kind of aural and gastronomical gratification at once is a pretty cool thing."