Heard over lunch with Joshua Bell

Los Angeles Times

Joshua Bell is such a poster boy for his generation of classical musicians that fans tend to know pretty much everything about him: His background as a violin prodigy. His youthful good looks and floppy brown hair. His penchant for boundary breaking — recording movie soundtracks and playing with jazz and even bluegrass artists. His $4-million Stradivarius.

Here’s one thing that might surprise them, though: The dude can eat. And not in the fueling, eat-to-live kind of way. Watching him work through a tasting menu like the one served last week at lunch at the Bazaar by José Andrés was to see someone in full thrall of the pleasure of dining.

“After music, I think food is my life,” Bell says. “I think I pretty much live from one meal to the next, and during each meal I’m planning the next if I haven’t planned it already. I think it’s true of most musicians. I don’t know why; maybe it’s the sensual part of art and being an artist, and food is such a sensual thing.”

Bell is in Southern California serving as the artistic director of the Laguna Beach Music Festival, from Monday through Feb. 12. He’ll also be performing at Walt Disney Concert Hall on Tuesday in a program based in part on his newest recording, “French Impressions,” which entered the Billboard Classical Traditional Chart at No. 1 in the January issue. He’ll be back this summer for two headlining dates at the Hollywood Bowl.

Heady stuff to be sure, but none of those topics came up during the two-hour, 14-course lunch at the Bazaar. Bell was too busy eating. And enjoying. And occasionally popping out of his seat to record a dish for posterity with the camera on his smartphone, like any other good foodie presented with such a meal.

Bell grew up in Indiana in a family that was intensely musical but didn’t pay a lot of attention to food. The turning point, which he can pinpoint vividly, was a trip to Europe in 1982 when he was 14. He had won a competition to attend a master class in Switzerland. His parents accompanied him and as a treat took him on a side trip to France, where they dined at La Pyramide, the venerable three-star restaurant regarded as the cradle of modern French cuisine.

“I’d never had food like that,” he says. “I grew up in a kitchen with food that was good but quite simple. There were not a lot of fancy restaurants when I was growing up in Indiana. I remember the foie gras; I’d never had that before. And the cheeses — never, ever had anything like that. It changed my life. There were so many courses I don’t remember that much about the specifics. I just remember it was the best time ever. Just the three of us. My first great meal.”

At Bazaar, the meal (prepared by another Joshua — chef de cuisine Joshua Whigham) alternated between playful modernist twists and heartfelt examples of traditional Spanish cooking. Organized Caesar — salad components presented like perfect sushi rolls — in one course, then wide, buttery sheets of jamón Ibérico and a couple of house-canned seafood specialties in the next.

When Andrés’ famous Caprese appeared — spheres of mozzarella and tomato served on a pungent basil and garlic sauce — Bell picked them up and ate them in one bite as instructed. And then threw back his head and groaned audibly as the flavors exploded.

“Oh, my God!” he says. “Wow. Wow. That’s just … that sauce. Oh, wow. That’s an amazing dish. It’s just so outrageous.”

Oddly enough for someone who enjoys food so much, Bell doesn’t cook for himself. Partly that’s a matter of practicality. As he puts it, traveling 200 days out of the year, he’s either just getting home or just leaving. And then there’s the whole New York thing: His apartment is a block from Gramercy Tavern and a block from Eleven Madison Park. And Mario Batali and Joseph Bastianich’s new Italian food emporium Eataly is right outside his door.

But there’s something more: For a driven perfectionist, starting at square one to learn to cook seems so daunting. What if he makes a mistake?

“It’s like: I love salsa dancing,” he says. “Or I love watching people salsa dance and I love the music and I want to do it and I’ve even taken some lessons privately because I would love to be able to do that so much. But for me to just get up there and look like an amateur, that would be very hard for me, when I’m used to doing something that I’m good at. I look at people who just get up there and throw caution to the wind and do it badly, and I just cringe.”

Then, the long lunch completed, he stepped into the Bazaar kitchen, where the staff was already assembled, preparing for dinner. After thanking them for the memorable lunch, he pulled out his Stradivarius and poured himself into an equally memorable impromptu performance of the Chaconne from Bach’s Violin Sonata No. 2, a roiling bravura piece that left the staff open-mouthed in wonder.