A music festival chef is almost a rock god
THERE has to be a vegan dish. Always. Even though there are only a few actual vegans attending, it’s always easier to have the dairy-deniers provided for than not provided for. (Besides which, I always have extra butter to add to my daal once the egg eschewers have eaten.) There are lots of vegetarians, though what always shocks me is the amount of chicken they get through. Welcome to Normafest. Around this time of year, I eagerly await a message from my dear friend, High Priestess of the English Folk Music scene Eliza Carthy MBE, inviting me to participate in the next festival. Folk musicians are far too egalitarian and meritocratic to have a royal family but if they did Eliza would be the next queen. Her father, Martin Carthy, remains one of the most influential of all traditional musicians, a man who changed the way music was played and heard. He inspired the likes of Bob Dylan, Paul Simon and generations thereafter. And he bakes excellent bread and brews a proper cup of tea. But we don’t gather for the first weekend in January every year to honour the king of English traditional music. The eponymous Norma, from whence the festival derives its name, is Eliza’s mum, Martin’s wife: Norma Waterson. This will be the fourth year of Normafest and the third time I’ve gladly accepted my duties as festival chef. I was reminded of how joyous this job is when I received a book through the post. Dark Side Of The Spoon, apart from having the most excellent title, is described as a “rock cookbook” of 30 recipes. Illustrated with album cover-style artwork, it’s published later this month. But in the meantime, I may well have to borrow a few recipes. Authors Joseph Inniss, Ralph Miller and Peter Stradden have certainly embraced the subject matter, with dishes like Pig Floyd, Tofu Fighters and Bachman-Turnip Overdrive. They would fit happily alongside my Chicken Korma Chameleon. The book is very funny, well put together and clearly comes from a profound love of music. That’s exactly how my involvement with Normafest began.
I owe my parents so much. I’m not sure that without our weekly piano lessons with the long-suffering Mrs Lafferty my brothers and I would have such a passionate love of music. And while my brother Sanjeev played on stage thrice with The Grand Gestures and has been forever immortalised as Synthesiser Patel in the BBC spoof science comedy Look Around You, that is the extent of the Kohli sons’ musical output.
I’ve spent my life wishing I could be that guy at the party who picks up a battered old guitar and, after a magical retuning, brings the instrument to life. As the hands of the Hillhead Hendrix glide, slide and elide up and down the fretboard, mere mortal men look on in awe, and wooed women gaze with gooey-eyed desire.
I remember thinking just this thought as I stood in the Carthy kitchen one day watching some of the finest folk musicians jamming over a wee dram. King Carthy was there, joined by his daughter on the fiddle, the brilliant Neill MacColl on guitar and the understated genius Kate St John playing any instrument she could get her hands on. We often use the phrase “jaw-dropping” but I was as wide of mouth as I was of eye.
“I wish I could play something,” I muttered as our glasses were charged and the Talisker bottle emptied.
“You can play the stoves,” one bright spark suggested.
It transpired that Normafest needed to feed the musicians; the festival isn’t a money-spinning venture. Folk come and play for expenses and the least they deserve is decent food. Eliza asked; I said yes and the rest is history. I am now the official caterer for the musicians who play Normafest. It’s one of my all-time favourite gigs even though I’m far from the stage and often alone in a hot kitchen. There’s something deeply fulfilling about mucking in with your friends, being there with them when they need you.
It’s not as if they don’t regale me with beautiful ballads and timeless tunes as I distractedly stir over a pot of bubbling lentils. One day I’ll burn the daal and be left with a burned pot and a burned spoon. My very own Dark Side Of The Spoon.