Before plopping down for a meal of heaps of pulled pork, homemade andouille sausage and sprouts-n-shrooms, he shakes hands with owner Sam Suchoff. Confusion lingers on their faces until they realize they were both on the fencing team as UNC-Chapel Hill undergrads. Kwon recently rocked the Grammys stage with the Avetts, Mumford and Sons and Bob Dylan to a down-home rendition of "Maggie's Farm," but here he's just another famous local—one whose obsession with food is second only to his passion for music.
You may find him at one of his favorite local nosh spots, his eyes framed by round tortoiseshell glasses, peering into a steaming bowl of noodle soup through a camera lens. And then you'll probably find the experience documented on his blog, Taste on Tour.
For lunch at The Pig, his trademark shoulder-length locks are pulled back into a low, neat mess, a stark contrast to his famous head-banging coif in motion. While waving around a fresh-fried crackling pork rind, the High Point native-turned-Durham resident shares homegrown memories of his Korean family's table, his love for pork and why he won't eat "bad meat."
INDEPENDENT WEEKLY: You joined The Avett Brothers for the 2007 album Emotionalism. Music obviously invokes all sorts of emotion. Does food do the same for you?
JOE KWON: There is a ton of emotion behind food. We don't give food enough credit in the busy lives we live. I understand the merits of fast food, I get it, but it cheapens the whole eating experience. It takes all the goodness and all the love out of the preparation of food and turns it into just sustenance. In terms of emotion, I can remember some of my earliest meals with my whole family getting together Friday night. In America, family reunions are done once a year. In my family, we do them once a week. And we always used to have these huge spreads.
What kind of food?
Korean. These were all things that my grandmother on my mother's side was very adamant about. She wanted to make sure we ate together, prepared the food together. It was a very important part of our lives. So, to this day, we still eat together.
Why did you start a food blog?
One of the fears, I guess, in being a performer is getting lost. You don't want to become just a cellist for The Avett Brothers. I identify myself as a food lover, while playing cello. I [also] take so many pictures of food. This is a way to put them up somewhere for people to see them, in hopes of extending their boundaries on what they eat on a normal basis.
The one post I really like is about Gourmet Kingdom in Chapel Hill, because to me that food is so foreign. And the comments are great, people saying they've explored something new.
I've eaten at some restaurants that serve traditional fare and weird things. A lot of people aren't willing to take it that far. But me, I'll take it to something really weird, like this Japanese root called mountain root. It's the most heinous consistency, like you chewed it up, sneezed into your mouth, chewed it up again and swallowed it. That's about as far as I'll take my personal taste. Just a mess texturally, and I have trouble eating it.
What's it taste like?
It's more of the stuff that's around it. Because your first bit is crispy, like an Asian pear. But then you chew it and think, "Oh God, I'm gonna be sick to my stomach." It's like you have a loogie in your mouth.
INDY PHOTOGRAPHER D.L. ANDERSON: That doesn't sound appealing at all, man.
But then you have all these flavors, like the brininess of the seaweed that comes with it, or the different types of seafood they put on it. I guess together it all makes sense and it tastes good ... There's a chef at Kanki in Chapel Hill named Masa. He would know if they have it in the area. If you ever have a chance, go to Kanki and have Masa make you stuff. He's super talented.
You have a riveting stage presence, thrashing on the cello. Is there something you all eat on tour to fuel that energy?
Oh yeah, we're very conscious eaters on the road. To put it bluntly, the last thing you wanna do is feel sick onstage, because it will ruin a show. We'll eat something that's high in protein that'll give us a good push. We do jump around a lot, we're very active. We don't drink on the road because we consider the road to be a job. I couldn't drink if I worked IT at a company; how could I go out on tour and drink a beer? To me, it's the same thing. It alters your performance on your job, so you shouldn't do it.
Any favorite dishes in town that you crave on the road?
Mekrab ladna at Thai China buffet. Deep-fried egg noodles, with gravy, fresh vegetables and choice of protein. It's down the road from my house, and I always order it, no matter what. Anything my mom makes. I love the fries at Sandwhich. I crave the falafel sandwich at Mediterranean Deli, the noodle soup at Thai Palace, the chicken at Mami Nora's ... ohhhh, so good. And their sides, like the fried yucca, delicious. But I mostly crave Asian food on the road.
But you picked a Southern lunch spot today.
I would say if I had to be personified as an animal, it'd be a pig. I love pig. My favorite meat by far. I think I've tried almost every part of it.
How often to you eat pork?
More often than I'd probably like to admit. I have 1.5 pounds of pork belly in my freezer right now, just waiting to be cooked. I make this kimchi stew that, if you put pork belly in it, is heaven.
Are you a "throw something together" kind of cook?
Yes. That's why my recipe section on the blog is so haphazard. I look at the bottom of the pan and pour until I think it's enough.
What's your take on the nose-to-tail concept?
I would love to be able to learn how to prep a pig, nose to tail. From making headcheese to braised hog feet. It's an extremely eco-conscious way of cooking, and I love that ... I have a hard time with roadkill, so I'm not sure how I'd deal with seeing the slaughter of an animal, but I think I need to do it. I stopped eating pork for a while after I read that Rolling Stone article on the Smithfield CAFOs [Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations]. I don't eat bad meat anymore, meat that's not ethically raised.
You once said on the blog that Linda's cheese fries are "the best thing on Franklin Street." Still true?
The best thing to eat after 1 a.m., yes.
Trumps Cosmic Cantina?
Oh yes, by far. I don't even consider Cosmic in my late-night dining. It's too healthy. If I'm out drinking at 1 a.m., why am I going to try to make it better by eating a healthy burrito? I go all out: Linda's cheese fries. They're processed, nasty French fries out of a bag, then fried and topped with cheese, bacon and scallions and then microwaved. It's like, "Uhh, awesome." Linda's cheese fries were college, my youth. I eat them now and feel young again.
The Avett Brothers played a Carolina Farm Stewardship Association benefit show. How'd that happen?
When the opportunity for a fundraiser show came up in North Carolina, I came up with CFSA. It's very close to what we believe in terms of sustainability. I'm very against large farms in more ways than one. They don't properly use the land. And with genetically modified seeds, there's no long-term studies on the effects of what we put in our bodies. Ten years is considered long-term. That's not a lifetime, is it? So CFSA, in my opinion, is doing the right thing, educating people in the right way.
What do you think about the national press for our local food scene?
I always get a sense of pride. On the road, I tell people they gotta check out Durham. You have to dig, too. It's not like the Durham food scene is in your face. You gotta look for it and find the right people, almost, to show you the ropes. That's part of the food culture, too. Finding out about these hot spots.
You write a lot of haikus on your blog. Can you think of one about pig on the spot?
Sure! Let me write this down. Counting syllables is tough.
The beauty of pig
An extension of my heart
Pork belly come here.
Corrections (March 9, 2011): Sam Suchoff's last name was incorrect. Also, the comment about the Gourmet Kingdom blog post was by the writer, not Joe Kwon.