When I first met Chef and metalhead Brian Tsao it was at his Heavy Metal Happy Hour event on Friday the 13th (fitting, right?) at the Kimoto Rooftop in Brooklyn. I stepped into an elevator at the Aloft Hotel and as the attendant pressed the button that would take us more than 20 stories high, one of her fellow employees at ground level asked, wide-eyed, “How is it up there? Is it crazy? Are They smashing guitars?”
“No, actually,” she said as the doors began to close, “it’s pretty calm.” The sliver of her coworker I could still see looked confused and a little disappointed. I myself became a little confused as the elevator doors reopened to a brightly lit, clean, modern-looking room with noise kept at conversation level. Bright in here, I thought, and certainly not what I’d expected. Upon shaking hands with Chef Brian Tsao, who co-created the event with Metal Injection co-owner Frank Godla, he told me that was exactly the point.
We got to talking and I found out some striking facts about him. A professional chef who owns well-regarded New York restaurants, has been featured on Food Network sensation Chopped, has beaten Bobby Flay in a cooking competition and contributes to the heavy music scene? I definitely hadn’t heard of anything or anyone like this before. I had to get the scoop.
So Chef Tsao and I reconvened the following week at his Manhattan restaurant, Mira Sushi, where he went into greater detail about how he marries his meals with metal music. He ordered a special vegetarian sampler menu for me and, on principle of being a music journalist, I ordered the “Imma Let You Finish” cocktail which, to my surprise (though I probably shouldn’t have been surprised at all) arrived on fire.
“For the most part,” he starts, “everyone just assumes metalheads are just a bunch of uneducated, brutish, crazy people. It certainly makes me proud when people ask me what’s my musical preference and I say metal. You know, people perceive me as this chef, this father, and when I tell them I just went to the Iron Maiden show they look at me, they perceive me differently.
“It’s kind of a little badge of honor for me,” Tsao continues. “I guess I feel like in my own way I’m breaking down peoples’ stereotypes. It’s like, we’re not quite what you thought we were and there’s many of us out there and we’re doing really cool and great things.”
He names some of his favorite bands–Metallica, Iron Maiden, Testament–and some of the shows he’s seen recently–Soilwork, Fear Factory, The Black Dahlia Murder–as his elegant asian fusion restaurant begins to fill. He tells stories of how he first became inspired to cook by watching an episode of Julia Child when he was five years old, how he was the guitar player of one of China’s first touring metal bands called Hollow, and how he came back to the U.S. to start fresh when the rockstar life became too lethal.
“I’m 32 this year,” he says, “and I came back when I was 20. I was living in mainland China—Beijing—and [now] I needed a job. I was a musician in China and I came back, no skills, no nothing. I came back and I was a dishwasher. I stuck with it and the chef must’ve liked the way I did dishes because….after about two years I became the [pastry] factory manager.”
Before launching his impressive cooking career, however, he actually had success with his China-based thrashcore band Hollow.
“Fights would break out and we got banned from a couple places,” he reminisces. “A thrashcore band that had fights all the time, that’s what we were. I played with that band for 3 years, 4 years, and we were one of the first independent metal bands to tour. There’s no culture in China where you can rent a passenger van and a trailer so we had to do everything on trains. We toured seven cities in like eight days on trains and some of these rides were like 20 hours in between [cities].”
Somewhat predictably, though, the drug culture associated with that lifestyle began to catch up with him. “When I was living in China it was also kind of the first wave of a drug epidemic,” Chef explains. “You know, there was the Opium Wars in the ancient days but China was cut off from the rest of the world so there was no pot, there was no drugs. So my generation, that’s when hash was starting to show up on the scene, then E, then little by little each year there were more drugs being introduced.
“In China was where I tried heroine,” he admits, “first and last time. And this was actually the reason why I left China. That particular day I had smoked weed, done E, did coke and then finished the night with heroine. I knew at that moment if I stayed there I would be dead.”
So he journeyed back to the States where he dropped the rockstar act and picked up a life in the restaurant business. “I came back and I kind of had to work like everyone else. I had to reintegrate into society and kind of realize, ya ain’t shit at the end of the day. I had to come back to earth.”
Since then Chef Tsao has learned that the two worlds of food and music don’t have to be kept separate. “I like to be in the scene and I like to feed bands,” he says. “I like to listen to metal and throw parties. I’m not actually a very partying type of person, it’s just that I had the opportunity to throw metal parties and I was like, fuck it, I’m gonna do it!”
Since creating the Heavy Metal Happy Hour, Tsao has had guest DJ’s John LaMacchia from Candiria and most recently, at the one I attended, Jesse Leach of Killswitch Engage. “I still have a hard time wrapping my head around it sometimes,” he confesses. “I gave food to bands in the hopes of meeting them, in the hopes of taking a picture with them; these guys that I highly regard and respect. When I was living in China, never in my fucking life did I ever think I would be in the same room, let alone having [Jesse Leach] DJ in my restaurant.”
So what is it that makes metal so important to Chef Tsao? There are a few answers to this question. “My mother’s Korean, my father’s Chinese,” he explains. “I grew up speaking English. I was never really Korean enough, I was never really Chinese enough. I never hung out with those cliques at school. The only guys that accepted me with open arms were the metal kids.
“There was a hispanic kid, there was a white kid, there was me, there was a black kid; we were all mixed and we were all there just because of our common love for this music. So I guess what I’m saying is the sense of community and the technicality [of the music] to me are beautiful things, and those things make me a better chef because it helps me think outside the box. It keeps me from looking at things just on the surface. It makes me dig a little bit more.”
His food definitely does venture outside the box. Mira’s cuisine is inventive and vibrant, from a wild take on PB&J (homemade concord grape jelly and hazelnut butter on a wasabi rice cracker) to a spicy tofu pizza (tofu blended with spicy mayo, panko breadcrumbs, eel sauce, scallions, and guacamole, on a crispy roti pancake).
But probably my favorite reason Chef gives as to what makes the heavy music community so special is what we agree to call “The Fuck It Mentality”.
“That’s another thing I loved about the metal scene,” he explains, “is there was a lot of people willing to accept consequence. Because that’s what saying ‘fuck it’ is about. You’re willing to accept whatever the hell happens. I find that most people cannot accept failure or cannot accept blame or cannot accept responsibility, and for metalheads the engrained culture is like, ‘whatever!’”
Not only does Chef Tsao throw metal parties, but he also stars in a new video segment with Metal Injection, Taste Of Metal, in which he puts bands to the test in the kitchen. “I’m just having fun doing it,” he says. “You getting this out also helps me break these stereotypes even further, as well as, I feel, help progress the scene a little bit. I hope to keep adding to the scene.”
So far, his approach has been working. His once apprehensive staff at Kimoto now excitedly anticipate the next metal party instead of fearing it. “It’s definitely a proud little moment for me to show people otherwise from what they’re expecting.”