All in good taste

A Reno chef and musician recently published a book exploring the intersections of food and music

Photo/Brad Bynum

A “Book Release BBQ” for Anthony Scott Ashworth’s book Riff Eater will be held at The Saint, 761 S. Virginia St., at 9 p.m. on Friday, June 15. The event will feature Ashworth’s band Kanawha as well as Weight of the Tide and Blinded Youth. There will also be food prepared by Ashworth and Ritual Baking Co. baker Emily Litt (full disclosure: she also works at the RN&R). Tickets are $5.

Anthony Scott Ashworth is a local chef who has worked in some of the most acclaimed kitchens in the valley—like Campo, Liberty Food and Wine Exchange, and La Strada in the Eldorado. He helped design and launch the menus at Shawarmageddon and The Depot. He’s been a caterer and a culinary consultant. He currently works at Washoe Public House.

He’s also a musician—a guitarist who’s played in some of the better heavy music bands to come out of Reno in the last couple of decades—Young Goodman Brown, Dirt Communion, The Harvest and the Hunt, Sai’i, and his current band, Kanawha.

And now he’s an author. He recently self-published Riff Eater: The Sonic Recipe of my Life, a book that’s a combination of episodic memoir and a collection of conversational essays on various topics related to food and music—like ethical hunting and social media restaurant reviews, and Rage Against the Machine and the Lost Highway soundtrack. It also provides some behind-the-scenes peeks into some of the kitchens and rehearsal spaces of Reno.

Spinning plates

Early in the book, Ashworth writes, “As a child, I was always trying to perform in some way for my family. It isn’t much of a surprise that I became a chef and a musician—two very similar ways to perform.” Now, for most folks, who likely struggle to succeed at just one of those arts, that similarity might not be obvious. But Ashworth spends the bulk of the book forging that connection. For him, whether making a meal or writing a song, the goal is the same: to create something that challenges and rewards the palate.

He often describes food with musical terms, and music in culinary terms: “Each ingredient (guitar, bass, drums, vocals) has to fuse into an interweavement of a singular thing. If one ingredient is being used too heavily or too sparingly, the recipe for the song will be reworked until the song … sounds right.”

“When I’m training people in the kitchen, I tell them to think of it like a dance,” he said during a recent interview. This approach depends on careful setup. “Your beets are always going to be here. Your greens are always going to be here. Your bowls are always going to be here, so when you read ’beet salad,’ you know that it’s a movement forward, a movement to your right and then a swing back—so it’s a dance. … You train yourself to do motions over and over and over every night.”

The book begins with a list of songs that Ashworth suggests as a soundtrack to accompany the book. There’s one song for each chapter. The songs are also listed again before each chapter they’re meant to accompany. Many of the songs are what you might expect from a heavy metal guitarist—Slayer, Mötorhead and Black Sabbath all make welcome appearances. But Ashworth has adventurous taste and there’s a smattering of great hip-hop, R&B and post-rock in the mix as well. The theme song from Ghostbusters accompanies an early chapter about his childhood.

Ashworth grew up in West Virginia. His family was very large—his dad was one of 10, and his mother was one of six. He was the oldest grandchild on both sides.

“I’m the oldest of a ton of fucking kids on both sides of my family, so all the holiday meals—that’s when I got to see my favorite people in the world,” he said. “And it always happened over food.”

His maternal grandfather was a baker, and his paternal grandmother would always cook for the big family. In the book, he calls her “a maharishi of cuisine”:

“Each meal was usually some sprawling buffet of perfectly executed culinary prowess. Looking back on it now, she is the best catering chef I have ever worked under. As the family grew each year, so did the size of the meal. This meal was never out of a box or out of a can—fresh shucked beans, potatoes from the bin, or waffles made completely from scratch. … It would be an all-day ordeal to make one giant dinner. While she was preparing everything for that meal, she would usually pump out a large breakfast, a small lunch, and a mid-afternoon snack she referred to as supper. Then the big meal would be dinner. This was always with an attendance of well over 30 people.”

One formative early experience was hearing a man sing opera tunes at an ice cream parlor in Myrtle Beach. Ashworth describes both the ice cream and the singing in detail—and the various reactions from members of his family. His mother, for example, referred to the man as “a loon,” but Ashworth himself was entranced. And he also took careful note of the different reactions to the singing. And for Ashworth, that sets up an important distinction: Food was a way for him to connect to his large family, but music was a way for him to differentiate himself in that same large family.

All the dirt

He graduated high school in 2001, attended culinary school in Philadelphia, lived in New York for a brief spell, and then moved out to Reno in 2003, because he’d heard that the casinos were a good place for ambitious young chefs to work.

He started performing music seriously after he moved to Reno. His first band here, Young Goodman Brown, was a metal band named after a Nathaniel Hawthorne short story. His next band, Dirt Communion, achieved a fair amount of success in the local scene. And Ashworth credits a lot of that to guitar-teacher-turned-bandmate Eric Stangeland.

“I’ll never forget it,” Ashworth said. “He said, ’In order to be whatever guitar player you want to be, you have to learn everything in order to throw any of it out the window. You have to know why you’re not doing it.’”

That band was followed by The Harvest and the Hunt, a band with a name that also sounds like a trendy restaurant, and Sai’i, a band named in reference to a Paiute legend. Kanawha, Ashworth’s current project, is named after the West Virginia county where he grew up (see “Deep roots,” Musicbeat, Oct. 12, 2017).

He’s a professional chef but a proudly “amateur” musician: “When you do something as an amateur, there is still love there,” he said. “You still have passion. When it becomes your profession, it can erode your soul and distort your mind. Therefore, I like to say I am an amateur musician.”

But just as his current musical project returns to his roots, so too does his current culinary interest.

“When I was in my mid-20s, dreaming about opening a restaurant, what I really wanted to do was Asia … mixed with regional South American food, because it’s a lot of the same ingredients—a lot of cilantro, a lot of cumin—just one has a lot more sugar. But it matches really well.”

But in recent years, his interests have turned back toward Appalachian food.

“When you’re a young cook, you always want to run away from your roots,” he said. “Dudes that were born in Texas hate barbecue. You get a guy who grew up in California, and he won’t want to cook with avocado.”

He now wants to eat meals that connect back to his childhood and remind him of his grandmother’s kitchen.

“If you think you can cook better than your grandmother, you’re an idiot,” he said.