Ever wonder what chefs do in the limited spare time they have? Welcome to Counter Balance, a new weekly Voracious column dedicated to the sans-kitchen interests of local chefs. Whether it's fundraising for a personal cause, playing in a rock band, or collecting fingernail clippings for collages, this column will unveil the many talents that our favorite tastemakers foster when they're not contributing to our meals.
Just another day walking down the street, playing the viola. Nothing to see here.
This week, we look to Icon Grill's corporate executive chef, Nick Musser, to set the tempo. When he's not conducting his kitchen, he's probably jamming with his chamber music buddies--or at least wishing he was. He's a classically trained violist who might have made the mistake of majoring in music, had it not been for Star Trek.
Tell me about this talent of yours?
I've cooked since I was about 15-years old. When I was in school, and when I went into college, my actual intention was to become a classical conductor. When I went to college I was a music major and I studied in viola performance and conducting. I was going to school at Boise State University and realized Boise wasn't exactly the cultural hub of the northwest, so I decided I needed to move to a larger metropolitan area to get more exposure and better training. My parents had just moved to Seattle when I was 18, so they had been there for almost two years. I made the decision to move back in with mom and dad and go to school at the University of Washington. Because I didn't want to pay out of state tuition, I decided I was going to work for a year and then start school after that. While I was living with my folks, I was making dinner every night and doing all these things and about a month later I told them I was moving out and they're like, "Wait. What? You don't have to go!"
I was just working and living in Seattle, a year went by and I applied to the University of Washington and registered for school. I had to go in as a liberal arts major until I could audition and jump through all these hoops to get into the School of Music. The interesting thing is, because I play viola, it puts me in a unique situation because of the way the orchestra is constructed. There are two sections of violins, cellos, and bass--that's the string section. Then, obviously, there's wind and horns and all that kind of stuff. The violas are kind of in between the violins and cellos and they're the alto voice of the orchestra. There aren't as many of them. There tends to be about 20 to 30 violins and a dozen cellos. Violas you might have just eight to 10 and it's just kind of this middle voice. We jokingly refer to them as the red-headed step-children of the orchestra. In fact, there are entire websites dedicated to viola jokes. But because nobody wants to play the viola, it sort of leaves those who do play it in a pretty prime position. If you play the viola, you can get a gig just about anywhere because there are so few of them and everyone needs one, especially if you're reasonably sufficient at what you do.
What's the difference between a violin and a viola?
It's still held parallel, but it's bigger and it's got a string that goes lower and it doesn't have the super high E-string that a violin has.
Why did you want to play it?
Because I didn't know what it was! In fourth grade, I signed up for orchestra and I got to pick from the violin and cello and I picked the violin. I played it for the year and didn't mind it. My mom was a little tentative because her brother had played it and he was horrific. In the fifth grade, my music teacher introduced us to two new instruments--the viola and the bass. I knew what the bass was but I had no idea what the viola was, so I chose that one. I started playing it and, once again, loved it and was good at it and played it with the same teacher, ironically, all the way until I was a senior in high school. He was great at encouraging people who were really into what they were doing in the orchestra and really nurturing their ability.
Do you still talk to him?
I haven't talked to him in years. Later in college when I was going to school, I was playing in the Boise Philharmonic and he was playing in it too. He was the principal bass player and I was, of course, in the viola section. It was funny because several of the other orchestra members had actually been taught by him as well.
Did you ever get into the School of Music?
When I came here, even though I wasn't a music major, they pulled me in and I was able to play with the University symphony and string quartets. I was able to do the full-gamut of a music major without actually being matriculated as a music major. The funny story is the day I showed up to sign up for classes and all that stuff. I'm in the music school building, I think it was 1987, I'm in the office getting papers, I had to get them signed. I'm told I couldn't take private lessons from the viola instructor because I wasn't a music major. I was told I had to take lessons from the assistant violin instructor. Once again, treated like a red-headed step-child. They told me to go up to his office on the third floor. So, I get in the elevator and this older gentleman gets in there with me so we're both in the elevator. We're both standing there. Me and this guy. The guy looks at my larger-than-normal viola case and says, "Is that a trombone?" I said, "No. It's a viola." I told him the story of how I was trying to get into the School of Music and planning to take lessons from the assistant violin instructor. He says, 'Well, I'm the viola instructor. I'm Milton Katims." Now, that might mean nothing to you, but--I would say even arguably now even more so--back then, Milton Katims was a huge guy in the music industry.
The ironic part is he is one of the music editors for a lot of viola music. And so what that means is, just like a book editor, sheet music has to have an editor. What the editors do is go through and adjust or correct or maybe interpret from the original manuscript of whatever piece of music they're dealing with what maybe that composer intended. A lot of times composers will get sloppy or use shorthand or for whatever reason it's hard to figure out what they were trying to say. So, when we read sheet music, we're not reading a copy of what Beethoven wrote. What we're reading usually is something that an editor has taken from the manuscript and kind of interpreted and adjusted slightly, in some cases. Milton was one of the biggest viola manuscript editors in the world at that time. He was the viola instructor of residence which is probably why they didn't let just any viola player come in and take lessons from him. He was a pretty big deal. Anyway, he says to me, "Why don't you come play for me?" And I'm thinking to myself, "Oh my God, this is Milton Katims." We walk into this room, I pull out my music, and I played for him--a piece that he had edited. His name was at the bottom. Afterward he says, "I'll teach you. Give me your paper. I'll sign this." That was huge for me, that I was going to be able to take lessons from Milton Katims. And he was such a nice man. He's since passed away. He was in his 70s back then.
Musser without viola = no strings attached?
I have a definitive point in my education. It was an evening where I was going to school and so I had--are you a Star Trek fan?
Well, Star Trek: The Next Generation was just starting and I'm a huge Star Trek fan so I knew about this and I was so excited. It was a Sunday night and I had school the next day, so I was going to cook my dinner, I was going to watch Star Trek: The Next Generation, and then I was going to practice my viola the rest of the night. I made my dinner, I watched Star Trek, I went and got my viola out, I looked down at it and I said, "I can't do this."
What was the reason? I blame Star Trek.
I've been married before, before [my current wife] Erin. We had just gone through tough times at that point. She was off doing whatever and I was kind of waiting. I was really frustrated because I didn't know what I should be doing. Should I move on with my life? Should I wait? And I was talking with my mom one day and told her I felt like a decision needed to be made but I didn't know what the decision should be. She said, "At the moment you'll know." She was totally correct. One day, I was just standing in the kitchen and I just stopped and said, "I'm done." I walked over to the phone and called my wife and I said, "You need to come here now" and she did and I let her know I was moving on. It was this huge relief.
Fast-forward a year later. I got out my viola and looked down at it and just said, "I can't do this." I was kidding myself thinking that was the career path that was going to make me successful and happy. I put the viola away, withdrew from school the next day, and didn't touch it for five years--after I had come to terms with our separation and realized I missed it. I found an orchestra here-and-there to sporadically play with, but about 10 years ago I found an orchestra to play with regularly--the Lake Union Civic Orchestra. I played with them for about five seasons and then my son Xander was born and with Erin's disabilities (ed note: Erin was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis in the late 90s) it became hard to do all of these extra-curricular things so I put it on hold, but I made so many great friends there that I continued to dabble when I could. The one thing I continue to do, even though I haven't played with them in quite a few years, is play chamber music with all the people I met in the orchestra. We always say chamber music is more for the players than the audience. It's like a jam session. You get with three or four other people and you play together.
Have you ever played at Icon?
I played on Valentine's Day. Just myself one year.
As in, going around to all of the tables?
Yes! I was thinking it would be a great way to bring my two passions together: playing music and being in the restaurant. I had my chef's coat on and my sous chef was in the kitchen so I didn't need to be. I thought, "Wow. People are going to think this is so cool." People were weirded out! They did not know what to do! I'd walk up and say, "Hey, folks! How are you doing tonight? I'd love to play a little love song--something a little fun for the evening." So, I'm playing and really trying to set the mood and they'd just look at me, totally uncomfortable. It was very awkward. I've never done that since.
After you had that 'I can't do this' moment with your viola, was that when you started cooking?
Yes. I had been cooking [at The Rusty Pelican on Lake Union] to pay the bills at that point, and since I wasn't focused on music anymore, I went back to my job and basically put all my energy into it and it was at that point where I started working my way up. I found success there and there was no reason not to continue to pursue it because I was enjoying what I was doing and I seemed pretty good at it and people seemed to like what I did and I was making a living. This was in my twenties. I was working at The Rusty Pelican until it closed in 1990. From there, I went to McCormick and Schmick's, Yarrow Bay Grill and Flying Fish.
Making food, making food for people, managing people, running a business--if you think about it, it's kind of like conducting an orchestra.