A MUSICIAN IN THE VEGAN KITCHEN
Book review by Cheryl Angelina Koehler
Notes from an Underground Restaurant:
Improvisations Through Food and Music
By Phil Gelb
Underground restaurants were a hot phenomenon in 2007 when I first attended one of Phil Gelb’s dinner and live music events, which he holds once or twice monthly in West Oakland and other locations. It was a sublime and unusual evening: Renowned experimental composer/performer Pauline Oliveros conducted one of her “deep listening” encounters for diners seated around the communal tables while Gelb (plus collaborators) worked deep vegan magic in the open kitchen right behind the small performance area.
A decade into this venture, which he now calls Sound and Savor, Gelb has come up with a collection of recipes for which I imagine his many dinner guests and catering clients pester him at the close of each event. Newly self-published, Notes from an Underground Restaurant is a generous offering that illuminates this chef’s unique approach to the vegan kitchen. Recipes traverse world food traditions and linger on favorite comfort foods of Gelb’s New York Jewish upbringing. But front and center are Gelb’s devotions to the growing seasons and to the community of his local foodshed. Just as he conducts his work in the performance realm, Gelb regards his local food producers as collaborators in the art.
Gelb’s long involvement in music centers on the shakuhachi, a Japanese wooden flute on which he performs and also teaches. He says that while studying the instrument in Japan, he became deeply intrigued by Japanese culinary traditions. Bringing those entwined experiences home, he continued to thread them through his work: “Japanese music is so much about color and texture! The sound within the pitch. … The same way I try to use shakuhachi in a contemporary context, rather than focus on performing music from a tradition I am not directly a part of, I also try to use Japanese ingredients in non-traditional ways.”
The book’s introductory essay describes a dinner concert with trombonist Stuart Dempster, who Gelb says “literally wrote the book on avant-garde trombone techniques. … When I first heard Stuart’s solo music, he was playing with a 45-second natural reverb. So he would play a note and let it resonate and then layer notes and textures on top of another.” So for Dempster’s appearance at the dinner series, the chef sought to emulate the layers in the music with layers of texture and flavor in the food.
“The salad that night had socca crêpes layered with fava bean spread, roasted corn and peppers, olive tapenade. The entrée was layered from bottom to top: roasted eggplant slice, smoked eggplant spread, smoked tempeh, homemade almond ricotta, cornmeal crusted fried eggplant slice, basil pesto, roasted cherry tomato sauce, pine nuts. Dessert had three layers of kanten [a Japanese dessert thickener]: a first of blueberry juice molded with fresh peaches, a second of cherry juice molded with fresh blueberries, and the top was coconut milk molded with fresh blackberries.”
Improvisation is integral for many performers at Gelb’s events. “Composing without an eraser in real time is an approach to music I have always found intriguing as a listener and as a performer. And this interest extends to the kitchen,” writes Gelb, who describes the alterations chefs make to planned-out menus when they get to the market and see ingredients “that look stunning” or don’t find things they were hoping for. He describes improvisation as a cooking “method.” “Recipes are rarely followed to an exact point on purpose, the same way the musicians are not expected to play the same compositions the same way every time. The focus is more on technique and inspiration, using the basics to explore from….”
Gelb asks his readers to “look at the recipes as an improviser would. Of course, you can make things as written and get wonderful results but play with it, try to go inside of the ‘score.’ As a music teacher I stress to my students that the written notes are simply the surface of the piece and we must go inside of the score to find the actual music! … Learn and study your basics—scales, long tones, knife work, various cooking techniques—, learn basic and traditional compositions—recipes—and then it is time to fly!”
Phil Gelb’s Notes from an Underground Restaurant can be purchased at many local independent bookstores. Learn more at
Phil Gelb’s Socca with Hummus and Julienned Vegetables
Yield: about 1 dozen crêpes
This chickpea flatbread from Southern France is one of the most popular finger foods on my catering menus. We serve this at practically every catering event, varying the toppings based on the season. The combination of the hot crisp crêpe with the different textured toppings is always a hit with any audience!
This is best cooked in a cast iron pan or a crêpe pan. Keep the batter thin for best texture and flavor. If baked, make them a maximum of ⅛-inch thick.
2 cups chickpea flour
2 cups water
¼ cup olive oil, plus more for coating the pan
2 teaspoons sea salt
1 tablespoon dried sage
1 tablespoon dried rosemary
½ teaspoon black pepper
In a bowl, whisk together all the ingredients. Cover and let rest for 2 hours.
Over medium heat, warm up the cast iron pan or crêpe pan for 10 minutes. Coat the pan with olive oil. Whisk the chickpea flour mixture well and then ladle about ⅓ cup of the mixture in the center, making a circle, extending outwards till the batter thinly coats the crêpe pan. Cook over medium heat till it starts to bubble. Turn only once and cook on the other side for about 1 minute.
Remove from pan, cut into 4 to 8 sections, like a pizza, and cover with toppings. Best served hot and crisp!
Spring Season Toppings
In summer, replace the asparagus with the kernels cut from two ears of corn. In fall and winter, replace asparagus with thinly julienned kabocha or cubes of butternut squash.
1 tablespoon olive oil
¼ red onion, cut into half moons
1 carrot, julienned
10 snow peas, julienned
10 pieces asparagus, julienned
½ teaspoon sea salt
Dash black pepper
¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes
2 tablespoons pine nuts
2 teaspoons lemon juice
In a hot skillet, add olive oil. Add red onion, carrot, snow peas, and asparagus and sauté for 3 minutes. Add sea salt, black pepper, red pepper flakes, and pine nuts and sauté for 2 more minutes. Add lemon juice and mix well.
Dot the socca with the prepared vegetables and serve hot or warm. This can also work at room temperature.
Note: In spring and winter, I put a layer of bean dip on the socca and place the vegetables on top of the dip. In summer, I always put my Smoked Eggplant Dip (recipe in book) on the socca and then add the vegetables on top.
The roasted garlic adds a beautiful creaminess along with the delightful garlicky flavor.
1 cup dried garbanzos, soaked overnight, then drained and rinsed
1 bay leaf
1 head garlic
⅓ cup lemon juice
½ cup high-quality olive oil
⅓ cup tahini
1 teaspoon cumin
½ teaspoon coriander
½ teaspoon black pepper
1 teaspoon sea salt
1 cucumber, sliced thin, for garnish
1 carrot, grated, for garnish
½ cup alfalfa or radish sprouts, for garnish
Place soaked, rinsed garbanzos in a pot, cover with 1 quart of water and the bay leaf and cover. Bring to a boil, lower heat, and simmer for 45 minutes or till beans are soft. Drain and remove bay leaf.
Meanwhile, roast the head of garlic by placing in a roasting pan, and roast covered at 300° for 2 hours. Remove from oven, and remove cloves from their skins.
In a food processor place the cooked beans, roasted garlic, and the rest of the ingredients except for the garnishes, and puree till very smooth.