Joe Kwon is the high octane cellist (eat your heart out, Yo-Yo Ma) for the Avett Brothers, a North Carolina-based band that has steadily grown its reputation and commercial success over the past few years. It is perhaps no coincidence that the Avetts reached new levels of success following Kwon joining the band in 2007 for a tour and album called Emotionalism. When he is not on stage, you’ll find Kwon settling in at restaurant tables across the United States, a foodie hobby he chronicles on his well-written and even better photographed blog, Taste on Tour. A resident of Durham, Kwon agreed to an interview with me after I saw an article in the Independent Weekly about him eating barbecue at nearby restaurant, The Pig. Read on to see Kwon discuss why kimchi would pair well with a BBQ sandwich, life on the road with the Avett Brothers, and the importance of supporting local agriculture. If you’d prefer to download a .pdf of this interview, click here.
BBQJew: Tell me about your upbringing. Where did you grow up and what brought you to North Carolina?
Joe Kwon: I was born in Inchon, South Korea and moved to Archdale, NC back in 1981. Archdale, NC is practically in the middle of nowhere but it was near my extended family, in particular my aunt. It was her convincing that brought my family to the states. Growing up, we had weekly family dinners with over 20 extended family members eating traditional Korean food and just playing around with other family members. I had several cousins near my age and this was a time for all of us to get together and be close. Those family dinners were definitely the starting point of my love for food.
BBQJew: What specific role did food play in your childhood? What about music? Do you see any parallels between the two
JK: As I mentioned above about the role of food, it was always around for family dinners. We ate so much food at these dinners because they were almost always potluck style and each family would bring at least two dishes. It was almost as if you knew who had the best of each dish as well. I remember one of my aunts always making the egg rolls and the tonkatsu (fried pork cutlets) and my mom making all sorts of kimchis and sweet and sour pork (Korean style). There was always a plethora of food to be eaten and sampled.
My parents were both musicians. My sisters both played piano, and I was going to play music no matter what. I really didn’t have a choice in the matter. When I was 3 my mom tried to teach me piano. I probably was too ADD to sit still at that age because she didn’t press it hard enough for me to continue playing. When I turned 9 though I showed up at my first cello lesson and it’s all history from there.
I guess the biggest parallel is that music soothes the soul just the same way food does. As a classical musician you work really hard to get a piece right. You work on your technique and you practice. Then one day you perform the piece and the success of the piece depended on how much fun I had. There was a definitely feeling of gratification. With food when I’m cooking for someone, the part of preparing the food is like practice. My head’s in the game of chopping, frying, grilling, and then when it comes to meal time the gratification is the food on your fingertips and the full belly. It’s so much about having fun.
BBQJew: You’ve lived in barbecue country for a long time. Do you remember your first taste of North Carolina BBQ? What did you think of it then and has your opinion changed over the years?
JK: I can’t remember the first time I had BBQ but i can tell you that I definitely loved it from the start. When I was young I had my short struggle with childhood obesity. I was not just a little big, I was rotund and being rotund at a young age makes me think I had my fair share of BBQ. As for today, I still love BBQ and especially eastern style BBQ because it’s got more porky flavor because it’s utilizes the whole pig. That’s not to say I wouldn’t gladly take a plate of western BBQ when handed to me.
BBQJew: You may be the first person I’ve interviewed who has taken a position on one style of NC BBQ over the other, good for you. Moving on… Many people know you as a member of the Avett Brothers. I’m willing to bet a large BBQ tray that significantly fewer people are aware of your passion for food. Tell me about your Taste on Tour blog: what inspired it, how do you decide what to blog about, and where did you learn to take such good photos?
JK: Well I suppose I started the blog as an ode to my childhood in a lot of ways. I grew up around food so my love for food runs deep. I felt like tasteontour.com was a great way to get people excited about the tradition of food as well. Growing up, food wasn’t about just getting full. It wasn’t about a quick bite to eat, it was about family and spending time with loved ones. We do these weekly supper clubs now that really remind me of the weekly gatherings we had growing up. I feel like food culture lately has moved away from all of that, and my hopes are that this blog will bring people back into the community of food as well as get people excited about different kinds of food.
As far as photography, my dad always loved taking pictures and taught me how to use a manual camera at an early age. I try to portray my love of food in the photos that I take. I just take a look at the food and see what angle looks the nicest and gets the most out of the dish. Sometimes, it’s difficult though and requires some trickery in post-production. Restaurants are dark after all.
BBQJew: How much thought goes into selecting where you want to eat, and how do you find out about good places to try when on tour?
JK: I probably spend too much time deciding on what to eat. Most of the time I have an agenda in mind or a style of food I’ve been craving. It’s much harder to get food on the road than you would expect. I don’t have a car, and I’m always a little nervous about venturing too far away from the bus/band. In bigger cities like NYC it’s much easier because the borough you’re in is probably saturated with great cuisine. Most, when I’m in a region I try to go with the regional fare. New Orleans I go Cajun, Memphis I go BBQ, Kansas City also BBQ. I get a lot of help from fans who write in and point me in the right direction. When we were abroad I’d just ask my barista at a coffee shop where they like to eat. You’d be amazed at how much more the local service industry folk know than food critics.
BBQJew: Back to your music persona: Describe a typical day on tour with the Avetts, including when and where you guys eat.
JK: I’ll start with where we eat. Breakfast is usually on the bus and consists of granola, yogurt with honey, and fresh fruit. It’s simple, it’s delicious. For lunch we usually go out on our own or I order something easy for everyone. Dinner is a bit trickier, but lately we’ve been getting a lot of catering as the venue sizes have increased. I like looking for dinner for everyone but at times it’s difficult to please everyone.
Everyone in the Avett Brothers is a hard worker. We wake up and often will start the morning with whatever pleases us. Lately, I’ve been getting into running so if it’s possible I’ll do that or work on a post. Once the venue opens up for us to load in the crew will get loaded in and the stage set up. This is when I’m out looking for lunch. Afterwards, we sound check and work on new songs, or old new songs, or old songs. Sometimes, this process can take an hour and sometimes it’s three depending on how much time we have and how smoothly things are going with equipment.
After that, we usually take a short break before dinner and we eat as early as possible. Most of the time it’s between 5 and 6 p.m. so we can get the energy we need for the show but still have it be somewhat digested. There is NOTHING worse than being on stage and feeling food in the back of your throat. It’s enough to throw you out of the moment of the show and get you worried that you will taste your dinner twice. After a few hours of down time, or a short nap it’s usually show time and we get on stage and just try to play our hearts out. Once off stage the normal routine is wind down and get in bed. As we tour more and more, the benefit of a good night sleep is more and more important to us.
That would outline a day for us, throw in any sort of press that we may have to do, and all of that routine goes out the door and is replaced with shuttle pick-ups and Starbucks meals. That being said, each and every day seems different for us on that road which may be what keeps it so fresh for us.
BBQJew: Not exactly the hotel-trashing lifestyle of rock’n’roll legend, eh? Are the other members of the Avetts as
interested in food as you are, or do you lead the way? I’m assuming the brothers themselves have eaten a good deal of barbecue given their North Carolina roots.
JK: Everyone loves food, but I am definitely the only one who cares enough to write a whole blog about it. For most of us food is about getting the nutrients we need to stay healthy. For me it’s that and much more.
BBQJew: Speaking of caring about food, I was excited to hear about the recent show the Avett Brothers played in support of the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association (CFSA). How did that show come about?
JK: We had done a great impromptu show last year in Portland, OR to benefit Terra Nova school. Terra Nova is a great school that gets kids hands on knowledge of farming and production of food in general. It was such a great success, when we had the chance to play a surprise show in NC I asked if I could help find a similar foundation in the area and stumbled across CFSA. There are so many good things that happen in this area for food that it wasn’t too difficult though. It seems as though people in this area are definitely all about local and sustainable farming practices, so a foundation like this seemed almost obvious. We’re so lucky to be able to do things like support CFSA doing what we do and I’m sure those opportunities will happen again.
BBQJew: I understand you like to cook as well as eat. What are some of your favorite meals to prepare when you are back home in between tour dates?
JK: That definitely changes. Recently, I’ve been trying to get into realms of food that challenge me in ways that make me learn new techniques. I’ve never done any sort of meat curing, or preparing patés, or working with wild game so I’ve been trying to do more of that. Some of my standbys for home cooking are definitely the comfort foods that I grew up with. There is nothing like a big bowl of kimchi fried rice to make me feel at home.
BBQJew: As with many cuisines, pork plays a significant role in Korean food. Are there any pork-based Korean recipes you’d recommend for BBQJew.com readers? (I really enjoy the classic Korean dish bibimbap but have only seen it with beef.)
JK: Bibimbap can be any meat or no meat at all. There is no real recipe in fact for bibimbap. The literal translation is “mixed up rice” so anything your imagination can think of can be in it. There are some great pork recipes though and I would highly recommend herb steamed pork belly (bo ssam) or pork galbi. Pork is traditionally prepared with spicier foods in Korean culture to mask it’s “dirty” flavor. One of my favorite dishes however, is a sweet and sour pork (tang soo yook).
BBQJew: Dirty flavor? Nonsense! Speaking of Korean food, I’d bet kimchi would taste terrific on a barbecue sandwich. The spicy heat and crunchiness of the kimchi would complement unadorned chopped pork nicely. Just a thought, feel free to take that idea and run with it… “Joe Kwon’s Kim-’cue” or something like that.
JK: The bo ssam I mention above is just that. It’s pork belly with fresh kimchi, and garnished with sesame leaves and onions. It’s divine so yes you are right about kimchi being great with BBQ. I may be a little biased but I think kimchi goes great with almost anything.
BBQJew: What’s next for you and the Avetts? What about the Taste on Tour blog?
JK: Well up next for the Avett Brothers is a new album in the works and a lot of tour dates for the summer. For tasteontour.com,
I’m working on a post for The Fearrington House and I want to do an all-inclusive review of the food trucks in the Triangle area.