By Robin Chotzinoff
Photography by Marc Brown
In his 13th year with the Austin Symphony, conductor Peter Bay hasn’t forgotten the buzz he felt when he first came to town. “I knew Austin was eclectic and hip,” he says, “but when I got here, I just went nuts. It’s a stunning place! It has big-city offerings in a small-town setting. And small-town friendliness! And record stores! I was stunned by the wide variety of things one can do, or eat.”
About that last part—Bay eats out a lot. “It’s why there’s not much in my bank account,” he says, a little sheepishly. “I don’t cook. I boil water or microwave things.” This morning, he poured cereal for his 4-year-old son Colin, but that, he realizes, doesn’t make him a cook. His wife, the soprano Mela Sarajane Dailey, has been known to bake or scramble eggs, but theirs is not a household of regular family meals. The yearly cycle of rehearsals, performances and auditions—in Austin and elsewhere, as both tour regularly and Bay directs the Britt Classical Festival in Oregon—leaves little time for that. On the bright side, not cooking frees him up for frequent dinners at the Alamo Drafthouse—"I'm a big movie music buff"—and happy hours at Uchi, just one of the many eateries he can walk to from the Long Center.
Again, Bay apologizes—he can’t offer a recipe. At one time he knew how to cook vegetarian chili with wheat germ, which tasted better than it sounds, but he hasn’t made it in years. Family recipes from his childhood in D.C.? No. “My father was from the Philippines, which meant I’d be hauled to a lot of dinners of roast pig with an apple jammed in its mouth.” Bay shudders. “The skin was crispy but you’d have to chisel off the fat underneath. And the fish sauce…it just smelled. He also cooked liver. I don’t know what kind of liver, but I still can’t stand it.” As a boy, the flavors he responded to were mostly musical. “I must have been born with a keen sensitivity to it,” he says. “My father had a tin ear, but he was a stereo buff. He had a huge hi-fi system and it played everything, from classical to Mantovani to Broadway.”
At 16, Bay sought fatherly advice from the famed conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein, who’d agreed to see him during intermission at a National Symphony Orchestra concert. “I had all his records,” Bay remembers. “He was wearing a Japanese robe and offered me a cigarette and a coffee—neither of which I took. He said ‘Why do you want to be a conductor? The world is filthy with conductors.’”
Inspired rather than discouraged, Bay went on to the University of Maryland and the Peabody Institute and from there to long-term gigs with the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra and the Erie Philharmonic, among others. Now, with a full schedule of opera, ballet and orchestra concerts, he lives, works and eats contentedly in Austin.
But unlike many other conductors, he never waits until after a performance to eat. “The clear majority do, but I don’t know where they get their energy. Conducting is aerobic exercise.” So, while other performers surrender to nerves on concert nights, Bay fuels up at Whole Foods Market, which gets more of his business than his own kitchen does. “The tagliatelle with arrabiata sauce, or a nice hunk of salmon with chipotle broccoli and mashed yams. Lots of conductors love to cook,” he decides, “but I’d rather have someone cook for me.”
PASTA WITH ARRABIATA (ANGRY) SAUCE
Courtesy of Michael Frei of Whole Foods Market
1 lb. package pasta
3 T. plus 2 t. 365 organic extra-virgin olive oil, divided
2 oz. good-quality pancetta (bacon may be substituted), diced
6 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
1 t. red chili flakes.
¾ c. dry white wine
1 28 oz. can organic diced tomatoes
1 15 oz. can organic tomato sauce
1 T. chopped fresh oregano (dried may not be substituted)
2 T. cold butter
Salt and pepper, to taste
Grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, if desired
Any good pasta will work with this sauce; pick your favorite and cook until al dente, toss with 2 teaspoons olive oil and reserve.
In a two-quart sauce pan, heat the remaining olive oil over medium-low heat until it shimmers and has the appearance of the texture of an orange peel.
Add the pancetta. When it starts to crisp, tilt the pan so that all the fat moves into the corner of the pan. Add the garlic to the oil and stir while the oil is pooled together. Spread the oil and garlic back over the surface of the pan, stirring frequently. When the garlic starts to turn golden brown, add the chili flakes. Count to 20 and add the white wine, turn the heat to high and reduce to au sec (almost dry). Reduce the heat to a simmer. Add the tomatoes, sauce and oregano and continue to stir and simmer for 15 minutes. Stir in the butter. Season with salt and pepper. At this point the sauce may be cooled, uncovered, in the refrigerator. Then it can be covered and reserved for later use in the week.
When you are ready to eat, get a large sauté pan and heat to low and add as much pasta as you wish for yourself and your dining partner. Add just enough sauce to coat the pasta, approximately 1 cup for two people. Turn the heat to medium-high and cook until the sauce and pasta are piping hot. Plate in pasta bowls and garnish with the cheese, if desired.