Anyone who knows me even the slightest bit is likely aware that I am a huge fan of food, Nick Cave, and the written word. So when I was recently reacquainted with Chester Hastings after a brief meeting a decade earlier, and remembered he not only has the same interests but has had involvement with all of them professionally, I knew I had to delve in deeper and put the pieces of the puzzle together.
Before I could even peel an onion he put me in the basement offices and made me read Italo Calvino, study the art of Caravaggio, and architecture of Borromini and Bernini. He took me to the opera, convinced that before I could learn how to cook the traditional foods of Italy I had to understand the culture from whence they came. We weren’t artists creating something new, we were anthropologists, keeping the ancient traditions alive!
I first met Chester through our mutual friend, Todd, at a Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds concert in 2003. The band was doing a limited five-city US tour, and I flew down to Los Angeles for the show and to catch up with Todd. Through the years, I would continue to hear little snippets about Chester whenever I spoke with Todd, but it wasn’t until last year at another Nick Cave concert in San Francisco that I would meet Chester again.
Chester has been in the food industry for all of his adult life, starting in San Francisco before doing a stint in Italy, and later spending time in London because of a chance meeting at a Nick Cave concert. Do you see the pattern here? Chester then moved back to the States, landing in Los Angeles, where he met Joan McNamara (and our mutual friend Todd) both of whom he worked with up until very recently when he decided to dedicate himself full-time to his other passion: screenwriting.
Please tell our readers a little about yourself.
Chester Hastings: I’m a forty-three year old writer, cook, husband, and father of two; originally from San Francisco Bay Area and currently living in Los Angeles. I’ve been a classically trained chef for over twenty-five years, have lived in London, cooked throughout Italy, am the author of two cookbooks, and most recently the co-author of a feature film set to begin production this summer.
How and when did you get interested in food and cooking? Was a love of food something you grew up with or discovered on your own?
Chester: I grew up on a chicken farm in a rural part of California, near the garlic capital of the world. The food I had as a child was humble, hearty, and really good. Bacon fat was saved all week long in a coffee tin and then used to make gravy on Sundays with tons of black pepper over homemade buttermilk biscuits. I was a very typical child when it came to veggies, however, and hated the massive ripe tomatoes from the garden that I would give anything for today. I didn’t actually begin thinking about cooking for a living until my late teens.
What’s your earliest kitchen experience you can recall?
Chester: I remember thinking that being a chef sounded so mysterious, like wizardry, and tried to make Crepes Suzette (the one with the chocolate ice cream and flaming brandy) with my mother when I was about eleven. We couldn’t get the brandy to flambé, and I’ll never forget my first taste of the raw brandy that ruined the dish! Years later, I would have raw single malt Scotch whisky poured over dark chocolate gelato in Rome and loved it!
Tell us about your first professional cooking gig and where life took you in those early years.
Chester: I spent some time living on the streets in Berkeley and the East Bay as a punk rocker in my late teens. After a while I was desperate to get out, and moved to San Francisco, lost the Mohawk, and was given my first food job by the amazing chef Carlo Middione. I had wandered into his famous Italian restaurant and gourmet deli Vivande Porta Via, and was immediately struck with the feeling that I was home. The traditional Southern Italian cooking he was doing would seem commonplace today, but at the time nobody was making their own pasta or sausages on the level Carlo was, and the line out the door was filled with celebrities and locals alike. But there was something so Old World about him.
He kindly put me to work behind the counter, wearing a button-down shirt and tie under my apron for the first time in my life! I learned so much about olive oils, aged vinegars, cheeses, salumi, wine, and all the amazing ingredients he sold. But my eyes kept wandering to the open kitchen, where chefs in white toques would whirl like dervishes under Carlo’s watchful eye. I bought a small pasta machine with one of my first paychecks and asked him about the pasta I was having a hard time making at home. He told me to bring my machine in, and we spent an entire evening making every kind of pasta known to man.
The next day he asked me to be his apprentice, but before I could even peel an onion he put me in the basement offices and made me read Italo Calvino, study the art of Caravaggio, and architecture of Borromini and Bernini. He took me to the opera, convinced that before I could learn how to cook the traditional foods of Italy, I had to understand the culture from whence they came. We weren’t artists creating something new, we were anthropologists, keeping the ancient traditions alive!
Eventually, I was brought into the kitchen and spent the next five years learning everything from vegetable prep, charcuterie and sausage making, sauces, pastry, and finally the hot line. At an elaborate dinner we prepared for Lorenza de Medici, I was dubbed by her l’apprendista stregone: the sorcerer’s apprentice. Carlo then sent me to Italy, where I stayed with aristocratic families like the Princess Colonna in Rome. I cooked in Sicily, Venice, and Bologna. When I returned, I was promoted to his Chef de Cuisine.
Of course, since you and I met at a Nick Cave concert, I have to ask you to tell the story about how you ended up moving to London to cook for Nick Cave.
Chester: I’d been Carlo’s Chef de Cuisine for about a year when I found myself backstage at the Fillmore in San Francisco talking to Nick’s manager at the time, Rayner Jesson. I’d been a massive fan of Nick’s music for a while, and dressed the part when I wasn’t in chef whites. After the show (I think it was Henry’s Dream tour) I just walked past security and went to the after-show bar. Rayner spotted me as the stowaway groupie, but took pity on me and introduced me to Nick. We started talking about food and I took Rayner to House of Nanking in Chinatown for a late night meal, and we hit it off.
His family came back to California after the tour, and we spent a few days hanging out. He told me that he, Nick, and a few friends wanted to go in on a restaurant in London, and perhaps I could give him some advice. A year later I was flying to London to open a restaurant, owned by Nick Cave and friends.
You were and still are a fan of his music and writing. What is it about Nick Cave that has drawn you to his music over the years?
Chester: I grew up the son of a Pentecostal-preacher-turned-cock-fighter in a very rural small town. My early childhood was tumultuous and not unlike a scene out of And the Ass Saw the Angel. The only musical influences were gospel and country like George Jones, Marty Robbins, etc. After my years involved in the hardcore punk scene later on, I stumbled upon Nick Cave and he seemed somehow like a bizarre blend of all the elements in my life. I dropped out of high school in my freshman year, but I was a voracious reader, and loved the Southern Gothic writers, like Faulkner and O’Connor. I was also really into Dostoyevsky and William T. Vollman.
Nick’s command of language is incredible, and his ability to tell stories through his music really grabs me in a profound way. When I saw him live for the first time, especially during the Henry’s Dream era, it was like when I’d watch Jimmy Swaggart as a kid on TV; his screaming and crying and pounding that Bible, the glint of the gold watch and the showmanship. Seeing Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds perform was like watching Elmer Gantry if it had been directed by David Lynch.
Are there any stories or anecdotes you can share that would give us Nick Cave fans a little behind-the-scenes insight? Did it change your feelings about the performer to see another side of him that fans typically don’t see?
Chester: They say never meet your heroes because you’ll only see how human they are, but Nick was always really gracious and kind to me. He’s the ultimate gentleman. Rayner and I were very close during that time, and I was instantly accepted as one of his family. I remember when Rayner had just signed on to manage this unheard of trio from Australia called The Dirty Three. We went to see them perform in London, and I couldn’t believe I was standing in the crowd with Nick Cave and PJ Harvey, who had just been on TV the night before singing “Henry Lee,” all of us watching the show and clapping like I had been at his shows so many times. It’s funny to think that was the beginning of Nick and Warren’s amazing journey together.
What brought you back to the States? And why LA and how did you end up at Joan’s on Third?
Chester: I got the acting bug working on a little film in London, and I was getting burnt out on the cooking. In the early ’90s, London was not the culinary mecca it is today, and I was having a little too much fun in my own little wonderland. Several random things happened that led me to LA, but it was ultimately for the same reason everyone comes here.
After realizing fairly quickly the acting thing was not going to be as charmed as the cooking thing had been, I was forced to get back into the kitchen and eat again! Ironically, I met Joan McNamara much the same way I met Carlo and Nick. I simply wandered into her catering company on Third Street and started talking. We hit it off instantly, and she talked about opening a gourmet food store and take away similar in many ways to Vivande. Not long after, I came to work for her and we started putting the shop together. Then I met her daughter, Susie, who would eventually become my incredible wife and mother of our two magical children.
Chester: Over time, we built the cheese selection at Joan’s on Third from less than a dozen hand-picked cheeses to over 100 cheeses from around the world. People love cheese, and are so excited to learn and discover new ones, but they are often so intimidated. They’ve been made to feel, like art or wine, that if they don’t know everything about it, they might as well not know anything. I hate the snob factor in anything, but especially food, and have encouraged people to just get in there with cheese, taste it, cook with it, and discover it for yourself instead of relying on someone else to tell you what’s good or not. In my experience cooking and traveling throughout Europe, where cheese is found so often in the kitchen, I have collected so many recipes for great cheeses, and I felt these books would further encourage people to get familiar with a food I love so much.
How big of an endeavor is it to write a cookbook and do you see more cookbooks in your future?
Chester: Writing cookbooks is surprisingly easy for me, mainly because I love it. I really enjoy the research, the history and anthropology of traditional recipes almost more than “inventing” or creating new combinations. The tricky part is writing out the precision of both technique and quantities.
So many of the dishes I’ve learned over the years come from the grandmothers, the fishermen, the working class people of Europe who use what’s fresh, in season, and more times than not just what’s available. How much of something? There is no right or wrong. So the recipes become more like guidelines, inspirations for people to take and run with according to their own tastes or the seasons they find themselves in. The ego of the writer is removed, and the dish can just be explored more freely.
I have several more book ideas, and am currently working on a fantastic collection of recipes for the very wide and diverse world of regional Italian flatbreads.
You are currently taking some time off from the food biz and writing screenplays. Is writing – aside from cookbooks – always something you’ve been interested in and something you’ve done before? How has living in LA influenced your drive to write?
Chester: The screenplays have been something I’ve worked on steadily on the side for years, but they have taken the front seat lately. It’s another form of writing, like the cookbooks, that I happen to really enjoy, and have done for that reason only. It’s wonderful now to have sold a couple things and have an excuse to continue. The irony of LA is that it’s not a very conducive place to write, so many distractions, and the business side of Hollywood is a real hustle.
Dean McCreary is your writing partner. How did you start working together? Do you find it easier or more challenging to write with a partner rather than on your own?
Chester: Dean and I met in San Francisco right before I left to go to London. We hit it off right away as fellow Arthurian legend buffs, and he came out to visit me in London during one Christmas. We took a few days and drove to the cliffs of Cornwall, and other sites where the King Arthur legends were said to have taken place. We had some really early studio tapes of the Murder Ballads songs that were being recorded at the time, which made the road trip that much more memorable.
We started writing scripts together over ten years ago, taking our love of history and our slightly dark palette for art and music and ran amok! We’re best friends, and the “voice” in our screenplays has become one. Writing screenplays without him not only doesn’t work, it’s just no fun!
Can you share with us some of the projects you are working on?
Chester: We just finished a screenplay for a film about The Four Days of Naples. It’s a true story about a group of street kids in Naples, Italy, in 1943, who band together and drive the Nazi’s out of town eight hours before the allies roll in to “liberate” the citizens. It’s a wonderful story; part City of God, part Stand by Me. Gabriele Muccino is directing it, and we’ve been really enjoying the process of working with someone so passionate.
We have a few other things in various states of development, including some exciting television work.
Whose writing most inspires you, regardless whether it’s writing for books, songs, or movies?
Chester: Nick Cave still inspires me. His screenplays are brilliantly written. I find myself falling into metaphors and images from his songs many times. I also still love Faulkner and Umberto Eco. I have a guilty pleasure in 19th Century Gothic novels like The Beetle by Richard Marsh. But mostly I have an unquenchable thirst for history, in particular medieval through late renaissance. The Cathar Heresy fascinates me to no end, as does the history of Italy’s Risorgimento. I’m quite literally all over the place, with several books going at once, depending on what room I’m in. And don’t get me started on cookery books, which are a huge weakness for me. Especially the rare and hard to find!
Do you think you’ll go back into a kitchen eventually?
Chester: I have visions and schemes and very specific ideas of the perfect little restaurant, one day; when I can do it because I want to, not because I have to.
I had the opportunity to briefly meet your beautiful family, including your two children. Who puts dinner on the table in your house? Have you been able to share your love of food with your kids?
Chester: I cook. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner. It’s a great perk to working from home on the writing. My kids are exposed to different foods than what I grew up with, but they’re still humble, hearty, and I think pretty good! I do make the buttermilk biscuits of my childhood every Sunday morning (without the bacon fat gravy) and my kids consider it gospel to do so.
Whether writing, cooking, or any other creative endeavor, what inspires you most for your ideas and keeps you motivated?
Chester: History. I can’t seem to get over the fact that if we can learn anything from history, it’s that we never learn from history. I love digging into the past, both my own and that of my characters, or recipes, all the various civilizations that have come and gone over time.