When Philip Gelb was a young music student in Tallahassee, Fla., he had an unusual friend and mentor: the great jazz musician Sam Rivers.
Rivers, who died in 2011, was known for his improvisational style, and for the gatherings he would host in the '70s at Studio Rivbea, a New York City loft where musicians would come together and just, well, jam. He wanted to create a space for artists to experiment.
Decades later, Gelb, 51, is now a professional chef, though he still teaches music. And for the past 10 years, he's been creating a culinary version of those jam sessions at his own industrial loft in West Oakland, Calif. As often as several times a month, he hosts an underground supper club called "Sound & Savor" — intimate dinner concerts for about 20 paying guests. The multi-course menu is an act of improvisation, and so too, in a sense, is the entertainment served up by top-flight musicians who often play larger venues.
Gelb plays the shakuhachi, a Japanese bamboo flute. Though he once toured with leading musicians, including trailblazing composer Pauline Oliveros, he couldn't make ends meet. "And the only other skill I had was cooking," he says. So, along with a catering business, he started the dinner and concert series, inviting his musician friends to play.
"For many of the musicians who have performed on my series, improvisation is an integral aspect of their approach to creating music," Gelb writes in his new cookbook, Notes From An Underground Restaurant. As a musician, he's always been intrigued by the idea of composing in real time. "And this interest extends to the kitchen."
The performers featured on the series over the years aren't household names, but many are innovative figures who have challenged boundaries within their genres. They include people like double bassist Mark Dresser and saxophonist Oliver Lake – who also played at Sam Rivers' Studio Rivbea sessions. Booking Lake was an act of serendipity, Gelb says.
"One time a woman was at [my] cooking class and she's like, 'Oh, my friend Oliver Lake is going to be in town. Would you like to have him play here?' My jaw just dropped."
Sometimes, the meal is directly inspired by the artist. For instance, when musician Stuart Dempster played, Gelb whipped up multi-layered dishes as an homage to the trombonist's multi-layered sound.
"When I first heard Stuart, it was one of his solo records, recorded in a big cathedral with a 13-second reverb," Gelb explains. "What he was doing on that recording was playing a note, letting it resonate and then just stacking up layers on top of it, all using layers of natural reverb. ... We had an eggplant Napoleon with five different treatments of eggplants, all stacked on top of each other."
Other times, an ingredient itself becomes Gelb's muse, such as peaches grown on the Central Valley, Calif., farm of Mas Masumoto, a pioneering figure in the organic agriculture movement who first gained fame for his eloquent defense of heirloom peaches. "I became a huge fan of him as a person ... and then I got to taste his peaches," Gelb says. Now, each summer, Gelb hosts a dinner in which each course features Masumoto's peaches – raw, roasted, grilled and served over salad, alcohol-marinated, in teas and smoothies.
At just 750 square feet, the loft is an intimate space. The dinners and music playing take place in the kitchen, so cooking becomes part of the performance. The bassist Dresser once performed a solo while apples baked in an oven right behind him, Gelb says.
Gelb is a vegan, and so are all of his locally sourced menus, which share with the entertainment the ethos of improvisation. For instance, a pistachio-matcha ice cream was born of a desire to blend two ingredients with the same beautiful green hue, he says. Then he and his sous chef tossed in some dried cherries. It's "spur of the moment ideas that I would refer to as improvisation," he says. Just as musicians aren't expected to play a certain piece the same way each time, he says, chefs should feel free to riff off recipes.
Why this approach to cooking? "Most chefs, when they're young, they're in the kitchen working with great chefs. I was on stage working with great musicians. And I went out to eat with them," says Gelb.
Gelb's vegan repertoire is wide-ranging: His cookbook runs the gamut from Mexican to Chinese to Jewish soul food. He says he approaches cuisines as he does compositions: He immerses himself in "as much tradition as I can, and then throw it out the window and go from there."
Over the years, Gelb has hosted close to 100 musicians from more than 14 countries and many different genres: from Yang Jing, a soloist on the Chinese lute (or pipa), to Japanese-American rapper Shingo Annen. Gelb estimates well over 1,000 guests have paid for the pleasure of dinner and a show at his loft. (Tickets usually go for about $60 each.)
"Underground restaurants have been around for a long time," Gelb says. "So have house concerts. The idea of blending them is relatively new, especially at the level we're doing it."
What does he hope his guests take away?
'A smile, I hope, a full heart, a full belly, a full mind. We want these experiences to be all encompassing. Of course, you have to eat to survive. But every culture has music, which says something. ... We need it. ... We're trying to feed not just the body but the spirit as well."