There are few people whose bodies of work include albums released on Kill Rock Stars and Touch & Go Records and a James Beard Foundation award for Outstanding Pastry Chef, but New York’s Brooks Headley has both covered. He played drums in beloved punk bands Universal Order of Armageddon, Skull Kontrol and Wrangler Brutes, and continues to make music as one-half of the duo Oldest. He’s also a member of C.R.A.S.H., a Los Angeles-based band whose lineup includes Michelle Suarez (Mika Miko), fellow Wrangler Brutes alumnus Cundo Bermudez and No Age‘s Dean Spunt.
On top of this, Headley is the executive pastry chef at the acclaimed New York restaurant Del Posto, a role for which he received that James Beard Award. This fall, Headley will release his first cookbook, Brooks Headley’s Fancy Desserts. Contained within are recipes simple and complex, discussions of the merits of various styles of olive oil, and explorations of a variety of cooking techniques, from roasting fruit to making gelato to the days-long preparation of panna cotta. Headley also delves into his own musical history, sharing memories of eating while on tour, recalling everything from a stunning vegetarian meal in a Birmingham barbecue restaurant to accidental discoveries of meat in mapo tofu on the road with Young Pioneers. Sometimes, he cedes the floor to guest appearances by writers and musicians. Among the highlights are a forward by Steve Albini , Sam McPheeters (Born Against, Men’s Recovery Project, and Wrangler Brutes vocalist), who delves into Headley’s musical history, New York food critic Robert Sietsema expounding on the food options of the 1980s punk scene, and author Sloane Crosley discussing taste buds, chemistry and the lasting appeal of sugar.
I met with Headley at Del Posto to discuss his music and his cooking, as well as Superiority Burger, the pop-up veggie burger shop that occasionally makes appearances in the city.
When did you first realize that this is what you wanted to do?
Before I had ever set foot in a professional kitchen, I’d always been into food. Being a vegetarian in the ’90s and being in a band and being on tour, food is your life: where to find it, where to get good shit in different parts of the country — that was almost as fun as the shows.
The first job I had was as a pastry assistant, that was all [the ad] said. It was weird — I’d never, ever been in a professional kitchen, but the second I walked in, it’s like I knew right then and there. Almost — I’m not a religious person, but — a higher force sort of grabbed me and said, “You’re going to do this for the rest of your life.” So, it’s weird to think about, because it was not a plan, at all. It just happened to be the best Italian restaurant in the city at the time, which I didn’t even know about until I walked in the door of the place.
Cooking was sort of my hobby before that. It was something I did for fun, and I really got into it. Getting thrown into this professional kitchen [at Del Posto], I loved it from the first second. I still love every second about it today. Unless I’m away, it’s really, really hard for me to not be in the kitchen. It’s hard for me to take off more than one day, because I miss it. I thrive on the adrenaline and the energy and the stress and the competition of being in a kitchen, especially a super-high-end kitchen.
Being around the food, too — we’re afforded the luxury, at a place like this, to do a lot of our shopping at the greenmarket, and from farmers that deliver this pristine product that you treat like jewels and little babies until it’s time to present them to the guests. Especially this time of year: the strawberries and blackberries and peaches. I just look at it, and it’s like you’re at a record store and you see a Stalin record that you’ve always wanted just hanging on the wall. Just the joy that you get when you see it.
Do you find a parallel between the way playing music makes you feel and the way working with food makes you feel, or are they different experiences? Some of the language you used seems like it could apply to both.
I think I used to say that it was the same, but now, I don’t know. They really are different. This is something I wanted to get across in the book: My job, cooking here, is about hospitality. It’s not about challenging the guest; it’s about pleasing them. So even if it’s something that’s challenging — an ingredient or a technique — in the end, it’s dessert. The goal is to have whatever goes out on the plate be awesome and beautiful and delicious and, in the end, comforting and pleasing. There’s no other reason for it to exist.
Whereas for music, especially bands I love and music I love, a lot of it is not necessarily pleasant. Like Flipper — I absolutely love Flipper, but Flipper didn’t intend to make me happy. Flipper wanted to piss me off. In the music world I come from, it’s more like, that’s your thing, and if people like it, people like it; if people don’t like it, it’s still your thing. What’s the Flipper quote? “Flipper suffered for their music. Now it’s your turn.” Which makes me happy, but doesn’t necessarily equate to cooking.
Where did the idea to do the cookbook come from?
It started a few years ago. I never went to culinary school, so everything I’ve learned about cooking was either through working under a great pastry chef or in a great restaurant, or just reading cookbooks. Do Borders still exist anymore? Probably not.
I’ve logged so many man-hours of just sitting on the floor at Borders, spending three, four hours reading cookbooks like it was the library or something. I’m talking about 15 years ago; had I a camera-phone at that point, I’d probably have had thousands of cookbooks on my phone. Which is funny, because if I went to a store and saw someone doing that right now, I would totally be the policeman — “Don’t do that! You have to buy it!”
I love cookbooks. I wanted to do one, too, but I also wanted it to be something that was representative of who I am, and the food I try to produce. From where it started to where it ended was a long trip, but the end product, I’m pretty psyched on, because it’s not like any cookbook I’ve seen.
Do you find that people who are familiar with your work with food are also aware of your history?
It’s sort of strange. The people I know from music stuff don’t usually come to restaurants like this. Maybe once a lifetime; maybe never in a lifetime. They tend to think it’s funny: “Oh, you make food, and people really like it, and it’s kind of weird.” For them, it’s this comical thing. Whereas, in the opposite direction, the people I know food-wise don’t know anything about being in a band. They have lots of misconceptions about what it is. And I talk about it on the book, how I tried to explain touring to people, and they’d say, “God, that sounds like the most miserable thing in the world.” And I’m always like, “No, you don’t understand — it’s amazing! We all slept on the floor in this kid’s parents’ house, and then we drove 800 miles the next day and got paid $20!” That doesn’t necessarily sound awesome to someone who couldn’t have been there, you know? There’s a lot of, “Oh! You’re the pastry chef that was in a band!” It’s not like they’re going to Discogs and ordering Skull Kontrol CDs or whatever.
In the book, I pretty much presented everything as it was. It’s not a forced thing; I’m not trying to force, “I’m the rock ‘n’ roll pastry chef,” or “I’m the punk rock pastry chef,” because that’s bullshit. Those just happen to be the things that I do.
I was reading earlier this week about the veggie burger pop-up that you’ve done, Superiority Burger. How did that come about?
That’s the passion project I’ve been working on. I’ve eaten a lot of veggie burgers, and they’re usually pretty terrible. We were playing around [in the kitchen] one day a couple of years ago, and I ended up figuring out this [recipe], and tweaking it, and then feeding it to the people who worked in the kitchen — just, “Hey, try this thing I’m making in the back.” And we’re talking about in the middle of service, you know? We have a five-minute break, so you’ll throw some stuff together, throw it on some bread. It was funny, because when the meat cooks started to request veggie burgers, I knew I was onto something. The meat guys are the meat guys. They don’t eat any fucking vegetable, period. It kind of developed that way. Now it’s this fun thing I get to do every once in a while, if I can convince someone to let me take over their space. That [project] definitely is through music. I mean, I wouldn’t be into veggie burgers if it wasn’t for punk rock.
I did it a week ago. There was a line of people waiting — I couldn’t believe it — for a veggie burger. We started at 5 p.m., and by about 8:15, the line had dissipated and it became a normal thing. People walked in, had a burger and left. And it was cool. The sun went down, we put votive candles out, listened to Sam Cooke and ate veggie burgers. It was awesome.
After you started working at making food, how did you balance that with playing in bands? And how do you do that now? You talk a little bit in the book about Oldest being a band that doesn’t play any shows.
Well, C.R.A.S.H., my other thing, everyone had other shit they were doing. Michelle, the other guitarist, is in graduate school. Cundo, the singer, has about a million things he does, and Dean is other bands, too. And they all live in California. That whole band came about because I was in California, and my flight was canceled because of Hurricane Irene. I had four extra days in L.A., so we started the band, played a show, recorded a 7-inch. And wrote the songs, too. The gag was, we’re going to be the band that only exists for 72 hours. But it was too much fun; we kept doing it. It’s sporadic, and it’s whenever I can get to California, which is usually for some food-related event. I’ll schedule some extra time, and we can usually practice and record or play a show.
Not that I was ever in bands that played a lot of clubs or actual venues, but for C.R.A.S.H., at least, we have no desire to ever, ever, ever play in any sort of actual venue. Our last three shows, in consecutive order, were played in a triangle park, with extension cords stretched out from our warehouse. The set’s only 13 minutes, so the cops came, but it was done. Before that, we played in an ice cream shop, which was amazing. We just set up and played while people were buying ice cream at this legendary ice cream shop in L.A., Mashti Malone‘s. And the one before that, we played inside a dumpster with the gates shut and benches around so that people had to stand and look down. I have no desire to play in a club with a soundman asking me to check the bass drum. I have no interest in that at all.
I’ve never been able to shake or give up the band stuff. It’s always there. 1993, I was in both Born Against and UOA. I think I played a show 40 percent of the days of that year. Obviously, I have a job now — I mean, I had a job then, too, but it was different. With C.R.A.S.H., we do it for us. That’s the ultimate non-hospitality kind of band: We really don’t care at all about the audience, or if they even come. We played one show at a Chinese restaurant in San Francisco to no one. We all were like, “That’s the best show we ever played!”
During Wrangler Brutes, I was living in D.C. and they were all in L.A., so I would work 25 days straight just to get three days off. I would take the earliest flight to L.A., we would practice for three days straight, and I would take the overnight flight back to D.C. and I would go straight to work. That happened for a couple of years, and then I moved out there to do it full-time. It’s something that happens. But the funny thing is, when I talk about going to L.A. to play with C.R.A.S.H., people would say, “Why don’t you just do a band in New York?” And I don’t know anyone in New York that I jive with, music-wise. It doesn’t happen.
Every band I’ve been in has had some weird, difficult transportation thing, which I think is necessary. When I was in Born Against, I lived in Baltimore, so I would drive to Jersey City to practice. When I was in UOA, I lived in Richmond, so I’d drive three hours to Annapolis to practice. When I was in Wrangler Brutes, I lived in D.C. and they lived in L.A., so I’d have to fly to L.A. And the same thing with C.R.A.S.H. I think if things are easy, I just get bored.
In the book, you write about the fact that you can’t really listen to music when you’re making food. Is that because different parts of your brain clash when that happens?
If I’m doing production food, say, chopping — as one of our sous-chefs said, cooking is really just taking a bunch of stuff and chopping it up into little pieces and sending it out. If I’m doing that, or if I’m in the middle of service, actually making the plates and sending them out, I just can’t listen to music. If it’s something that I don’t like or am indifferent to, I can ignore it, but if it’s something I like, I just lose focus immediately and start listening to the song. My staff decided they were really into Devo this year, which is kind of a problem. If I go downstairs and they’re listening to Devo, I forget what I went downstairs for; I don’t remember what I wanted.
A lot of chefs would say, “I’ve got this awesome playlist! I crank through it, and it helps me work.” That would just drive me nuts. The only other chef that agrees with me on this is April Bloomfield.
I just love silence-slash-cooking noises. To me, it’s the most exhilarating, exciting thing. Plus, I always have music and songs playing in my head anyway. I have been known to incessantly tap on things. I have some songs that I tap when I get super-stressed. Listening to music I like — if you want me to go to zero productivity, just put on a Minor Threat record, and I won’t even be able to concentrate.
What are you listening to right now when you’re not at work that you’re enjoying?
I actually didn’t have a record player for a long time. I just got it back a year ago. I got all my records out of storage that were in my best friend’s basement — at least the ones he didn’t steal and put into his own collection. The new Chain & the Gang record — I love it, it’s totally, totally, totally awesome. Ex Hex, too — their 7-inch is amazing, and I can’t wait to hear the record. I saw them live a couple of times, and they were so, so, so awesome. They almost sound like Cock Sparrer live. To their testament, I saw them twice and I have some of their songs that aren’t on the 7-inch stuck in my head, which is pretty insane for only seeing a band twice. I can’t wait for that record to come out.
Other than that? Flipper, Sam Cooke, Ike & Tina.
You wrote in the book about taking inspiration from Man is the Bastard’s design sensibility and Black Flag’s work ethic. Are there any other artists who you draw inspiration from nowadays?
John Waters. I can just look at a photo of John Waters and, just by his expression, get inspired to do all sorts of shit, you know? John Waters, the Melvins, Maurice Sendak.