Ray Chen: Virtuoso and Valentine's

Born in Taiwan and raised in Australia, Ray Chen was accepted to the Curtis Institute of Music at the age of 15, where he studied with Aaron Rosand. Playing with the 1702 “Lord Newlands” Stradivarius violin on generous loan from the Nippon Music Foundation, 23-year old Ray Chen is among the most compelling young violinists today. His premiere album Virtuoso, released worldwide on Sony Classical in 2011, won the prestigious Echo Klassik Award and in December, Ray Chen performed as the soloist at the Nobel Prize Concert in Stockholm with Maestro Christoph Eschenbach and the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra. And he's something of a major foodie...

1) You're a Taiwanese-Australian musician with a penchant for good food. Sounds close to Marcus, a Swediopian (as he likes to call himself) who is obsessed with chasing flavors. How did you get so into food?

Being born into a Taiwanese family living in an immigrant-rich country like Australia (I call myself an "Australasian"), there was an explosion of flavors to be experienced and a humungous range of different cuisines growing up. Being geographically situated in the Pacific, Australia has a ton of Asian influences in its kitchen like Japanese, Thai, Indian, Chinese, as well as heavy European and Mediterranean choices.  I am also someone who has always loved to eat.  In fact I go to the gym just so I can eat more. Luckily my mother was such a good cook so it wasn't a matter a quantity more than quality--making foods that had both Asian and European influences where one night we would dine on lamb cutlets with roasted vegetables and mashed potatoes, to another night where the family would be eating beef noodle soup where the stock of the broth was made with carrots, fresh tomatoes, and more importantly actual great slabs of beef ribs that would take an entire night to simmer and infuse.  In fact I remember being so obsessed with food that although I was one of two Asians in my elementary school and possibly risking ridicule at the "strange and different food" I was eating, I still had my mother pack Chinese lunches in my special thermo-lunchbox where I didn't even have to reheat any of the food and it came out steaming hot when I opened it.  I knew the other kids were jealous, and besides, just like the old adage that goes "You are what you eat"--I for one would like to have unique awesomeness on my plate.

2) A virtuoso at a very young age, how did you stay so focused when you were young?

Although I didn't mind practicing when I was a kid, I didn't like doing it by myself.  Just like working out, or studying, it's always more inspiring and motivational to have someone there with you.  So, as it goes, that person was my mother.  She would be in the kitchen busy making the next meal while I was in the living room practicing, and she would occasionally yell out "Intonation!" or "Repeat that section!" and I would fix whatever mistake that I had made.  Sometimes I would even test her to see if she was really listening by playing a note purposefully out of tune. Of course there were times when I didn't want to practice and at times like those my mother would say "Fine, why don't you just quit the violin?" and I have say that it always worked every time. It wasn't so successful on my sister though. She's six years younger yet has twice the temperament.  At least we were all given a free choice which is more than I can say for some kids.

3) What's your go-to meal when you're on the road?

Club sandwich.  It's on every menu of every hotel in the world--places of temporary stay which become my "home" when I am on the road.  You can't really go wrong with a club sandwich--it's an excellent basis for the rest of the food on the menu.  The best one I've ever had was at the Hotel Diplomat in Stockholm when I was making my first orchestral recording of the Mendelssohn and Tchaikovsky Violin Concertos.  After one particularly hairy session I went back to the hotel and ordered what came to be the most delicious meal between two slices of bread I've ever had.  The rules of a basic club sandwich are pretty simple: there must be turkey or chicken meat, bacon, sliced boiled egg, lettuce, tomato, and mayonnaise between two or three slices of toast and come with fries. This one however, went truly above and beyond by replacing the usual sliced bread with gorgeous thick toasted Turkish bread and had added avocado, a fried egg, and replaced the usual sliced packaged chicken with an entire chicken breast steak and there was some kind of secret sauce in addition to the mayonnaise. This was over 2 years ago and when I was back just a few months earlier for the Nobel Prize Concert, I visited the hotel (even though I was staying at a different one) and was truly devastated when I was informed that it was no longer on the menu.  I guess good things never last.

4) There was a NY Times article late last year that discussed how food replaced art as high culture. Do you agree or disagree?

While I think that food certainly deserves its place in high culture, it has not replaced it but rather joined the ranks of things we celebrate the pinnacle of civilization with.  In my opinion, art is not only the initial enjoyment of that product, but of how it provokes your thought process afterwards and maintains a relationship with that particular audience member; basically, how it affects you.  After all, anything could be perceived as art, it’s whether or not you have the time or patience and make that switch in your mind to perceive it as such.  Take for example the architecture of buildings, some people might have simply grown up in or around them and for them, they’ve never perceived it in a different way than being a home, school or church.  Yet others would come to this particular structure and claim it to be the most beautiful building in the entire world.  So basically it’s not what you eat, but how you eat it, and whether or not you appreciate it for what it is.  I’m young but I have a feeling this rule applies to all aspects of life.

5) Last dish on earth question...what would it be and who you would you have it with?

A rather dreary thought...but I suppose if I knew that if the world was ending tomorrow, my last meal would be a grand feast with dishes from all over the world.  It would be an open-air event in some tropical place on the beach and there would be great bonfires burning merrily into the night.  I would invite all my friends and family where I would proceed to, well–let’s just say that death by chocolate would not be too far from the idea.

6) Your favorite or best dish that you make.

I usually don’t have much time to cook because I’m always moving from place to place and honestly there are just so many good places to go eat at than my own recipes, but I do make a rather good spaghetti bolognese.  And by that I mean actually from scratch where I’m using fresh garlic, onions, herbs and spices, ground beef, and lots of tomatoes.  It’s a lot of fun, except the way I learned it was to make enough for multiple meals for a family of 4 and it’s rather difficult when you’re only in a city for 3 days by yourself.  I suppose I could start hosting private dinner parties where I play violin and cook for them at the same time.  Spaghetti alla Paganini!

7) If the following great violinists were a food, what would they be? 

Vivaldi: Gelato (comes in different flavors with different seasons)

Itzhak Perlman: Filet mignon (thick and juicy)

Sarah Chang: Macaroons (colorfully stylish and sweet)

Stradivari: Salt (because he wasn’t really a violinist – he was a violin maker, just like salt isn’t really a food – it’s an ingredient)

Ray Chen: Risotto Prima Vera – al dente and flavored with young flavors.

8) Marcus is known for "chasing flavors". Would you say you are known for "chasing sound?"

Definitely. The sound, the phrasing, the expression–it’s all tied in together to make music, and this music is something that’s so close to the heart that one can immediately tell what kind of a person they are by how they draw out their sound. Some people have honest, caring and quiet sounds, others have loud, boisterous and showy sounds. There’s no end to the possibilities and that’s what identifies us. In my opinion the most magical sounds will draw you in and reminisce you with memories of great joy or utter sadness, and this is something that is rare and pure.

9) Valentine's Day plans?

Having grown up in Australia where our seasons are the opposite time of year, Valentine's Day for us is less the "cute coffee shop/hot chocolate" endeavor and more the drive to a private or uninhabited stretch of white-sand beach (yes, only in Australia do places like this still exist where you can have miles of uninterrupted shoreline with relatively few people around) followed by a nice seafood meal at a local restaurant where they literally haul up the "Catch of the Day" from the water right there and then.

Therefore, here is a menu that is dedicated Valentine's Day, "The Australian Way."

Sydney Rock Oysters

-freshly shucked

Yellowtail Kingfish Ceviche

-mano, cilantro, fresh chillies

Charcoal Grilled Rock Lobster

-with seared scallops and lobster bisque sause

Mango Shaved Ice

-with condensed milk and mango flavored ice-cream

10) Ok, so we have the food. What about the sounds? 

Thanks to Spotify, here's two classic lists that I love to use:

Ray Chen Pop Playlist

Ray Chen Classical Playlist

Ray will be making his Carnegie Hall debut on the Friday after Valentines Day on 2/15 with the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic; tickets are available here.