Earlier this week, Steve Albini’s great noise band Shellac released their fifth album, Dude Incredible. And while most artists surround a new album with a tour and a series of interviews, yesterday afternoon at Pop Montreal, Albini led a cooking class and prepared lunch for about two dozen attendees. Albini’s interest in cooking is well known thanks to his blog, mariobatalivoice, but otherwise he has kept a low profile about it. That changed yesterday.
The details on the Pop Montreal event page were vague. It had the title, “In the food lab with Steve Albini,” and it specified that the ticket price included lunch. Would this be a full-on cooking class? Or just a lunch, with Albini hanging out quietly in the kitchen? Despite the lack of clarity, as a lifelong fan of both lunch and Steve Albini, I had to be there.
When I arrived at Montreal’s Society Of Art And Technology food lab, there he was, stirring pots and chopping vegetables, flanked by a couple sous chefs. Soon everyone was invited to crowd around the open kitchen.
“Hello,” said Albini, looking up at the small audience with a self-deprecating smile. “This is my first time cooking in front of anyone so I hope it goes well.”
It did go well. Albini showed that he’s both a natural-born producer and performer, as he engaged the crowd without allowing a dull moment, and offered up a vast amount of detail about the gastronomical processes behind his cooking. In fact, according to the sous chefs, who had seen countless demonstrations like these, Albini was a natural in the kitchen who spoke with rare clarity and enthusiasm about the food he was making.
He started by explaining that he developed his interest in cooking more out of necessity than anything else, since he needs to eat and wants to make decent dinners for himself and his wife. He likes dishes that are easy to make because he doesn’t always have much energy after getting home from the studio. They often eat at midnight or later, and he presents meals to his wife in bed with a Mario Batali impression (hence the name of his blog). His culinary knowledge comes from messing around in the kitchen and seeing what works. He hates being called a foodie, and has no plans of making a cookbook.
Then he got down to cooking.
First up were some greens. “There are a lot of good greens, and you can treat them all pretty much the same way,” he said as he chopped up a few leaves of kale and collard greens and put them into a sauté pan with some olive oil, garlic, soy sauce, chili powder, honey, and vinegar. Then he pulled out the dish’s star: a dried salted plum, which would release flavor as the greens simmered and would be removed before eating.
“You can treat it like a little bingo card,” he said, “like if you end up with the plum on your plate you have to do the dishes or something. But yeah, it’s just a flavoring component.”
Next it was on to a bulgur farrotto. He explained that a farrotto was like a risotto with a different grain — in this case, bulgur wheat, which is small and round like couscous. He was meticulous about toasting the grains and adding liquid at the right pace to get a good final consistency. We heard a lot about how starch works, how to get denatured wheat granules, and how to avoid ending up with a gluey mess. This farrotto had broccoli in it, and he showed us how to cut and boil the stalks and shock them in ice water. He told us he just had an ice maker installed in his kitchen and that “it’s a super crazy luxury that I really love so I can do stuff like this all the time.”
He also got really excited about seasoning his farrotto cooking water. For this, he started with the water he used to boil the broccoli and then seasoned it with salt and rosemary sprigs. Then he added it to the farrotto until it reached the right consistency, specifying that, “You don’t want individual dry pieces, like in a rice pilaf. You could say that a rice pilaf is like a salad, and farrotto or risotto is like a soup.”
Then came the hanger steaks. For those he used a package of the Midyett Rub that he has gushed about in public before. Made by Silkworm and Bottomless Pit bassist Tim Midyett, it contains sea salt, black pepper, ground coffee, garlic powder, cocoa powder, and — the key ingredient — sumac.
Albini said he likes his meat rare and will sear a hanger steak and then let it sit to cook in its own juices. “I think pretty much all red meat is better rare, or on the rare side,” he told us, “so that’s the way I’m gonna make these. If you guys prefer medium or well done, I apologize, but you can just eat the outside.” He sliced open his steak, let the blood run free, and added a red wine reduction sauce.
When asked what kind of wine he uses, he said he doesn’t drink and doesn’t know anything about wine, so he buys it according to his own weird rules. “One thing I won’t do,” he said, “is buy a wine with a clever title. You know, like, Rusty Nail or Smelly Ass or whatever. Wines that are lame and gimmicky like that, where you know it’s someone who came into money and decided to make wine. I don’t buy them because I want them to fail. I mean, I know they will fail eventually, but I don’t want to be a part of it.”
He also won’t buy celebrity wines, and joked that the Dave Matthews Band’s Dreaming Tree wines are “too jammy” and that “the finish takes too long.”
When it came time for plating, he said he makes things that can fit on one plate because he and his wife don’t like doing dishes. He plated each individual dish himself, and soon we were all sitting at long tables eating his food.
I won’t go all Yelp on him and pick apart the meal, but suffice to say the steak seasoning was out of this world, the greens were complex and hearty, and the farroto was perfectly done. The biggest “pinch me” moment was when he came up to me and said, “Hey, here’s some fleur de sel if you want to sprinkle some on the farroto to enhance the flavor.”
The coolest thing about this whole experience was that Albini obviously loves to cook and he was really excited to share a meal with some strangers. You could tell that the same attention to detail that makes him a legendary producer is present in his cooking, even if he would claim otherwise. His wife is a lucky woman, and so is anyone else who gets the opportunity to try his food.
Dude Incredible is out now via Touch & Go.