Chef Brian Tsao has had quite the last few years: opening the Mira Sushi & Izakaya in NYC’s Flatiron District, beating Bobby Flay on Food Network’s Beat Bobby Flay and finding an outlet for all the tension that comes with being a successful chef. Tsao used to be in a heavy-metal band in China, if you didn’t know. His anger-venting needs its own space — cleavering the hell out of some meat won’t suffice. So he picked up his guitar, brought it to the restaurant, forced a bass and a pair of drumsticks into friends’ hands (musical instruments, not food) and turned Mira into an off-hours practice and performance space.
Nowadays he’s rehearsing with the Chef Brian Tsao Band in a more official capacity, while still slinging the very best morel mushroom yakisoba, stir-fried Berkshire pork with crispy rice cakes and my personal favorite: a 10-piece sashimi appetizer, each piece with its own custom sauce. That’s pretty metal.
I know you’re a multitalented chef who has a lot going on right now, but I didn’t know you were actively pursuing music, which is also time-consuming.
It just started as an outlet from work, honestly, something that I made time for every week. I told everyone, “Don’t bother me this day; this is my music day.” I started out as a musician, actually. In Beijing, China, I was in a touring metal band. Well, we did one tour, but one tour is enough, right? It was a tough lifestyle, so I came back here and traded for another tough lifestyle. Music was always on the back burner, and I really focused on my culinary life until recently. With a lot of success comes a lot of responsibilities that maybe I wasn’t as prepared for as I thought, so music really became the outlet for me to release those frustrations. The lyrics are all inspired by my frustrations with the restaurant business.
Can you give me an example?
One of the tracks from the EP that’s coming out very soon is called “Bullshit Machine.” That particular song is about how cooks will give you their excuses for showing up late or not showing up at all or making mistakes. The chorus is just me screaming “bullshit.” Other songs also talk about if you’re not going to come to work, if you’re going to lie to me, then there’s no shifts for you. Things like that, just little injections of the food business and my frustrations with them.
Tell me how the Chef Brian Tsao Band came into existence.
I wanted to get something going, even just jamming with someone else singing and myself playing acoustic guitar. The broker for Mira, the guy who helped us find this location, actually happened to sing. He and I really like rock music, so I said, “Let’s do something,” and he said, “Yeah, why not? Let’s do something. I’ll come out for a couple of hours to the restaurant and we’ll just practice in the prep area.”
You guys practice in the prep area?
Well, that’s where it started.
How long did that go on?
Like, half a year. We’re closed from 2:30 to 4 p.m., so we would jam and do classic ’90s stuff like “Closing Time,” “Save Tonight,” and “Wonderwall” — all the good ol’ ’90s tunes.
After a few months of that, we were getting pretty decent, so we started doing an open mic here on Saturdays, and they went well. It was my first gig in years, as well as his.
Home turf advantage, too.
Yeah, we could set all the conditions that we needed. We did that for a while, then I won [Food Network’s] Beat Bobby Flay, the restaurant just went out of control, and I couldn’t do open mic here on Saturday nights. Before it was only a half-full room; now we’re completely packed.
We started going to this band-rehearsal place in Astoria because we both live in Queens. Joe took up the drums again because he used to play drums at some point. Then my cousin from California moved to New York. He didn’t really know anyone and started working here [at Mira]. I said, “Why don’t you come with us to jam?” The intention was for me to throw a bass in his hand and go “Play! Your job depends on it.” I knew he played a little guitar, so I figured he could pick up the bass pretty quickly.
The week after he started jamming with us, and keep in mind we only rehearse once a week, I got an email from someone at this blog called Asian in New York, asking me to play a fundraiser. I was like, excuse me? I have no material and you’ve never seen me play. She reminded me that I did a rock version of Pachelbel’s “Canon in D” for Thrillist on YouTube and had a lot of hits at the time. When I say a lot of hits I mean like a thousand, but that was the most I’ve ever gotten.
I vaguely remember playing it on Guitar Hero.
It’s one of those really note-fancy songs. And she said, “I saw you play on that, and I thought maybe you could perform for us.” I said, “I’m not sure. I don’t think my band is ready.” She said, “Oh, you have a band? Even better!” She wasn’t even intending for me to have a band — she just thought I was going to go on stage by myself.
I mean, no! No way. So I said I had to talk to the band first. I said, “Listen, we kind of have some material. I can rush some lyrics and throw some lyrics over it and we can perform that. It’ll be a nice warm-up gig.” They thought I was crazy as hell. Eric, the bass player, had only been playing bass for two, three weeks at that point. We did the gig, and it was definitely a really nice reintroduction back to the stage and playing shows again. We did our real first gig at Bowery Electric a few months ago, which happened totally by coincidence. Joe is the broker for the owner of Bowery Electric — that’s how we got a set. Very New York.
We just kept going at it, and I didn’t take it too seriously before. Like I said, I just wanted to get into a room, turn up my amp really loud and play as loudly as I could. But as time went on and I took up the leadership role in the band, I also took up the vocal position just ’cause no one else could play and sing at the same time.
Do you think your younger self is super-proud of you?
Oh, yeah, definitely. It’s been therapeutic to me as well, so I definitely recommend it. When I was in Beijing, China, with my metal band [called Hallow], I had thought I had reached the pinnacle of what I could achieve with music, which unfortunately, was not a lot. In mainland China, a heavy-metal band is never going to become mainstream or be able to do big tours because there’s a lot of media censorship. But I would go to restaurants and bars and people would recognize me. In the underground scene, everyone knew who I was. I came back to New York and I was an average guy again and kind of accepted that the glory days were over. Who would have ever thought this guy over here, a chef in a restaurant, is playing gigs again? I never could have imagined it, to be honest.
What was the last record you really loved?
It’s from a heavy-metal band based in D.C. called Periphery — a new genre called djent metal. Really heavy, but melodic. They just released a double album called Alpha and Omega. The guitarist, Mark Holcomb, was here to eat recently. That was another weird coincidence. I love his band, and he saw me on Beat Bobby Flay. I followed him on Instagram and 10 minutes later he left a comment on one of my pictures. I thought it was probably his PR guy. These stars have PR guys to do stuff like that. He said, “I saw you on Beat Bobby Flay. It was really cool how you beat him.” I freaked out, and that’s how we became buddies. I saw them when they were here last year, playing a show in New York City, then he came to eat.
Did he Instagram it?
Yes, he did.
What did he order?
I set him up with everything. He was here with his fiancée. I sent them everything and made sure they were completely hooked up.
Who parties harder, chefs or musicians?
Hard to say. They’re probably as crazy as one another.