Since his breakout appearance on "Top Chef" back in the Bravo show's fifth season, Fabio Viviani has done it all – he's opened several restaurants across the country, appeared as a headliner at national food events and festivals, written cookbooks, released his own line of wines and endorsed big brands like Bertolli olive oil. But until now, he's never cooked onstage in front of a live orchestra.
"This is a new experience for me," Viviani says of his appearance on stage with the Hartford Symphony Orchestra Saturday, March 21, as he joins music director Carolyn Kuan and three local chefs for "Playing With Food 3!" at the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts. "What we're trying to accomplish is to combine food execution, music and entertainment."
HSO's third "Playing With Food" performance, spotlighting the marriage of music and food, features live cooking demonstrations punctuated by accompanying musical performances. After tasting recipes prepared by chefs William Reardon of VIVO Seasonal Trattoria, James King of m&m Bistro at the Hartford Hilton and Steve Rosen of the Connecticut Convention Center, Kuan chose pieces inspired by the flavors, textures and presentation of each plate.
She's selected John Williams' The Cowboys Overture for Reardon's osso buco; Rimsky-Korsakov's The Tsar's Bride Overture for Rosen's smoked duck breast with honey roasted pear salad; and Leroy Anderson's Jazz Pizzicato for King's limonata Napoleon. In the first half of the performance, Kuan will chat with the Hartford chefs about their dishes, techniques and inspirations.
During the second half of the show, Viviani will cook fresh pasta with basil pesto sauce, "one of my favorite dishes," he says, as the orchestra performs. Guests will be able to purchase samples of an appetizer and dessert (arancini and ricotta cannoli, prepared according to Viviani's recipes) during an extended intermission and after the concert.
Viviani, 36, got his start in the culinary industry in his native Italy at a young age, working nights at a bakery and eventually owning and operating restaurants and nightclubs by his mid-20s. In late 2005, at age 27, he moved to California's Ventura County. It wasn't long before "Top Chef" producers came calling, but Viviani turned down the opportunity three times before he finally signed on for Season 5 in New York, he said.
"At the end of the day I think everything happens for a reason," he said. "The first time around, I didn't do it because I didn't speak English very well. The second time around, I had opened my own restaurant. The third time around, it was bad timing…they asked me the week after I got married."
Though he didn't win the ultimate prize on his season, he was voted "Fan Favorite" and went on to compete on Bravo's "Top Chef: All Stars" and co-starred in another reality series, "Life After Top Chef." These days, he's on the road about two-thirds of the year, he estimates, preparing to open two new restaurants in Chicago in 2015 and making regular national television appearances.
When he's at home in California or Chicago, though, he says he's happiest just staying in and cooking for his wife. "[We cook] classic home comfort meals," he said. "Last night she made me cook corned beef and cabbage. When I choose, I cook pasta."
While he says he's not musically inclined, "I recognize good music," Viviani said, saying he enjoys everything from classical to Italian rock. "For me, listening to music while I'm cooking is very relaxing. Cooking is something that takes a lot of attention."
The performance begins at 7:30 p.m. in the venue's Mortensen Hall. Tickets are $22.50 to $64.50. Information: hartfordsymphony.org.