As he inspected a near-empty charcuterie plate, cellist Joe Kwon exhaled and said how much he enjoys the dish: toasted bread, Toscano salami, head cheese, chicken liver pate, mustard and red wine-glazed onions.
“I’d eat that every day if my doctor would let me,” he quipped.
While his livelihood is playing the cello for the Avett Brothers, a North Carolina-based hybrid folk band, Kwon has an equal passion for food – both eating and preparing it. Adventures in cooking, Kwon says, are another form of creativity for him. The experience is deeply rooted in his life.
Kwon recently sat down with The Courier at Alobar in Long Island City to discuss music, food, touring and everything in between. He had played the Governor’s Ball on nearby Randall’s Island the night before and was looking forward to going home to North Carolina for a week’s rest.
“I love coming here,” he said. “It’s one of those places where it’s so easy to get caught up in the New York lifestyle of going out, eating amazing food.”
Kwon runs a food blog while he’s on the road, “Taste, on Tour,” in which he’ll normally document his meals, but does not review them.
It’s a personal documentation that he can one day look back on to remember his travels.
The band – comprised of brothers Seth and Scott Avett and bassist Bob Crawford – normally tours on a bus without a kitchen, but that doesn’t stop them from preparing meals on smaller equipment.
“If there had to be one [chef], it would be me,” Kwon said, adding he’ll normally prepare dishes like guacamole as a post-show snack.
Kwon’s love affair with food goes deep into his roots of growing up in a large Korean immigrant family, where every weekend featured a family reunion sized meal. He grew up watching his mother and both grandmothers preparing these mega feasts.
As he went off to boarding school and then college, Kwon’s food budget shrunk, but his impromptu recipes blossomed. He got creative with Ramen noodles, adding easily accessible ingredients like cilantro and lime. Finding easy-to-make but enjoyable recipes has carried over to his tour life.
When he comes to town, wherever that may be, he said he dives where he can find a fair-priced meal that’s surprisingly well made. He recounted recently going to a place in SoHo he heard about that was essentially a hole-in-the-wall. He got a beer and a dozen top-notch oysters for roughly $12.
Other times, he enjoys meals that are so well assembled and so decadent that he’s left with a sense of guilt afterward.
Kwon said he recently ate at Per Se, in Manhattan, and described the experience as hard to categorize compared to other food he’s eaten.
He said he was shocked by the cost and fine quality.
“There was just a lot of thought put into the food,” he said. “You wonder how many people get to eat like this. How many people will ever get to eat like this? A lot of guilt goes into it.”
Kwon holds home-cooked meals near and dear to his heart. Even as he looks forward to his next trip to the beaches of eastern North Carolina, food is the top priority.
“I don’t even think about the beach so much as the seafood I’m going to make,” he said.
Kwon joined the Avett Brothers about six years ago, thanks to what he calls a dumb-luck meeting with Crawford, the bassist. He first recorded with them on the band’s 2007 album “Emotionalism” and was drawn to the energy both Avetts exhibited while performing.
Kwon’s signature feature among fans is his on-stage cello performance standing up, constantly moving and displaying the same amount of energy on stage. Kwon said playing cello while standing has proven to be difficult, citing callouses on his neck and shoulder from resting the cello. But he cannot sit with the band’s energy.
“The first time I ever played a show with the Avetts, I played sitting down for a total of like 20 seconds,” he said. “Then I was like, ‘Yup, there’s way too much energy going on right now. I can’t play sitting down.’”
As he sliced off another piece of head cheese, laid it on one side of the bread and smeared chicken pate on the other, Kwon recounted how he would be home the next morning.
The concept of home is something that runs deep with all the band members, in both their music and lyrics. Kwon, who doesn’t think of himself as famous, mentioned he hopes he never will be as he recounted the things he had to do when he got home.
There are bills to pay and housework, plenty of cooking and quality time with his girlfriend to get in.
“All those things, they’re creature comforts we don’t have on tour,” he said. “There’s something about having a glass of wine, sitting on the couch, watching our shows together. It’s a romanticized view in my head. I can’t wait to get back to it.”
As eager as he is to go home, thinking about being there is something he puts off until he arrives. Kwon said he tries to organize his life based on how many shows he has left. Otherwise he is home before he gets there, and his performing suffers as a result.
“That happens a lot at the end of the year when you’re thinking: two more shows, two more shows. Which is a terrible way to think about it, cause it’s like, ‘Well what if you die tonight?’ You never know,” he said. “Maybe this is the last show. Obviously, that’s a very dark and farfetched way to look at it, it’s just kind of one of those ways of dealing with that. Don’t think about getting home. Just think about what you have to do next. Home will come. It’ll be here soon.”
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