Juno Award-winning pianist Michael Kaeshammer riffs with musician pals on his CHEK-TV cooking show.
BY DAVID LENNAM
“We don’t have a TV.”
That came out at the very end of our interview. Bit of a bombshell. Victoria’s celebrated boogie-woogie pianist Michael Kaeshammer and his partner-slash-manager Josephine Neumann do not own a television.
But here they are, making television.
The first six episodes of CHEK TV’s Kaeshammer’s Kitchen have just wrapped and the irony is a nice coda to the series.
The series features the eternally youthful Kaeshammer and musical guests — including Randy Bachman, Andy Kim, Jim Byrnes and blues rock vocalist Curtis Salgado — simmering over a hot stove, swapping stories, then simmering through a hot jam session trading licks.
The 46-year-old Kaeshammer probably has no time to watch the tube. Since rebounding from the put-it-all-on-hold of the pandemic, the virtuoso jazz/blues pianist and vocalist has resumed recording, touring internationally … and cooking.
Turns out, one was the impetus for the other.
“There’s just a lot of bad food on the road,” he says. “A lot of processed food, especially when you go to a smaller town and there’s nowhere to get food after the show. And that’s how I got into cooking.”
He adds: “In my early 20s, I don’t think food was really important. You eat something and you think, ‘Oh, that’s a good sandwich,’ but I wasn’t thinking what kind of greens are in there or how it’s made. The way I think about food now, I can’t really relate to that anymore.”
From Scratch Everything
Kaeshammer and Neumann (who admits she’s prep cook to her beau’s top chef) are all about farm-to-table as simply as possible, an eighth note of passion and 12 bars of dedication. “When we have friends over,” says Neumann, “they can’t believe how good his cooking is — the sauces, he makes everything from scratch. I mean, he uses orange juice in his Bolognese. He has all these secret ingredients that make it special. They way he’s creative with music, it’s the same in the kitchen.”
Like ingredients in a good recipe, a few things came together at once. Kaeshammer’s Kitchen was a slow boil that really began years ago with mentions in interviews about one day hosting a cooking show — though it was never solidly conceived. Maybe the timing was off. Kaeshammer was in demand, had just released his 13th album and was the star of a PBS special that promised a lengthy U.S. tour.
But, as work evaporated during the pandemic, he and Neumann spent their stay-at-home time over the stove, sharing their love of good food made well.
“We cooked every day, played some tunes, the piano’s close to the kitchen. It was just kind of this back and forth. Then we thought, we should get a camera in here. This is a show. We wanted to do something with food anyway. So we said, ‘Let’s do this, for real.’ ”
“Because he always talked about it,” interjects Neumann. “Why not just do it?”
Wynton Marsalis once said, “Jazz clears away the cobwebs of everyday life.” As does cooking, notes Kaeshammer. And, like jazz, it’s improvisational. But for him it’s also relaxing, grounding and puts one squarely in the moment.
“Also, you don’t need more than a cutting board, a knife and a pan. With those three things you can make anything. The best food has the fewest ingredients.”
There’s an obvious correlation to the music he performs. The enjoyment, the creation, the tasty results.
Canadian jazz singer Laila Biali once wrote that good cooking is a fully sensual experience, the same way we make, or listen to, jazz. And hey, we do use “cooking” to describe a jazz band in full flight.
Kaeshammer’s guests were making their own kitchen melodies: Bolognese with Bachman, schnitzel with Byrnes and a surprise from Kim.
A week before their taping, Kaeshammer was in Stratford, Ont., hanging out with singer-songwriter Ron Sexsmith, who happens to be close friends with Kim.
“Ron says to me, ‘So, Andy’s coming to your house next week, but I gotta tell you the best hummus I ever had in my life is from Andy Kim.’ ” According to Kaeshammer, Sexsmith is no foodie (“His favourite meal is Frosted Flakes”) so it was taken with a grain of salt. An entire shaker, in fact. A week later, Kim’s in Victoria for the taping and, coincidentally, the meal picked for him to prepare was shakshuka with homemade pita bread and hummus.
“[Kim’s] mom is from Lebanon so that’s where he gets this recipe and it was literally the best hummus of my life,” says Kaeshammer. “And hummus is not that hard to do. Really, what can you do to make it amazing? He didn’t even have a recipe. He just threw stuff together.”
Neumann was equally amazed. “He put maple syrup into the tahini and made candy out of it.”
A Signature Style
The German-born Kaeshammer was already a bit of a prodigy when his family moved him to Victoria in his late teens. He’d been playing festivals in Europe and immediately began gigging at clubs here, like Hermann’s, before releasing his debut album, Blue Keys, at age 19.
Kaeshammer started adding soulful Harry Connick Jr.-style vocals to his fast fingers early on, but showcased his voice with 2003’s Strut, confidently covering standards. Since then he’s matured as a singer and lyricist, winning the 2008 Juno Award for Vocal Jazz Album of the Year with Days Like These.
A signature style blending classical, jazz, blues, boogie-woogie, stride and a kind of piano pop has had him perform at three Olympic Games, release 15 albums (and counting) and tour China nine times.
Outside of the kitchen, Kaeshammer’s working on a new album that replaces one he ended up shelving during the pandemic. The new disc, which includes a cover of Queen’s “Crazy Little Thing Called Love,” will come out in the spring.
There’s also a book about his experiences in China. Written, but not yet pitched, it’s a collection of stories and observations that go far beyond Beijing, Shanghai and the Great Wall. Kaeshammer has returned there this month, after last playing a concert in Wuhan in November 2019 (and we all know what happened after that).
Could a cookbook be far behind? Sure, says Kaeshammer, just not stuffed with German recipes.
“I actually love German food, but there are only so many pork knuckles one can eat.”
Skyr Gnocchi with Homemade Pesto
Michael Kaeshammer made this dish on a recent episode of Kaeshammer’s Kitchen on CHEK-TV, when his guest was jazz vocalist and BC Entertainment Hall of Fame inductee Dee Daniels. “I think it’s a great one for people to make at home,” he says.
• ¾ cup all-purpose flour; more if needed
• ½ cup semolina flour
• 1 tsp salt, or to taste
• ½ tsp pepper, or to taste
• 1 ½ cups skyr (see note)
• 2 egg yolks
• 1 garlic clove
• ¼ cup pine nuts
• ¼ cup olive oil
• 3 Tbsp lemon juice
• 2 packed cups fresh basil leaves
• ¼ cup water, or as needed
• ½ cup grated Parmesan cheese
• Pinch of salt
• About 1 Tbsp salt (for pasta water)
• 8 to 12 small balls of bocconcini cheese, halved
• 1 pint cherry tomatoes, halved
• Optional: Prosciutto, fried in non-stick pan and broken into small bits
• Freshly grated Parmesan cheese• Fresh basil leaves
Make the gnocchi: In a large bowl, mix flour, semolina, salt and pepper together. Stir in skyr, then add the egg yolks. You should have a slightly sticky dough; use more flour if the dough is too wet.
Cover and let rest in fridge for 30 minutes.
Using a handful of dough at a time, roll it on a floured surface to create thin ropes (about 1-inch thick). Cut them into pieces about 1 ½ inches long. Roll each piece over a fork to press dough tighter. Set aside on a baking sheet dusted with semolina.
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil.
Meanwhile, make the pesto: In a blender or food processor, blend the garlic, pine nuts, olive oil and lemon juice. Add basil leaves and a little water, and continue processing until you have a rough paste. Blend in the Parmesan. Sample the pesto, and add salt to taste. If the mixture is too thick, add water or more lemon juice.
When the water comes to a boil, add the gnocchi and cook just until they bob to the surface. This should only take a couple of minutes; set some of the salted pasta water aside.
Heat 1 to 2 Tbsp olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat and, using a slotted spoon or spider, remove the gnocchi from the pasta water and add to the fry pan. Cook for a few minutes, turning once or twice, until lightly golden.
Remove from heat. Add pesto and a tablespoon of pasta water until consistency is right. Add bocconcini and cherry tomatoes, and stir until bocconcini is melted.
Plate and sprinkle with prosciutto (if using), freshly grated Parmesan and shredded basil.
Note: Skyr is a tangy fresh cheese, sort of a mashup between yogurt, ricotta and sour cream, popular in the Netherlands, Germany and Russia.