Before She Competes on MasterChef, We Talk Food With The Polyphonic Spree's Jennie Kelley

Categories: Interviews
Courtesy of FOX
The Polyphonic Spree's Jennie Kelley, as you'll soon see her on Master Chef.
Jennie Kelley has been a member of the choir in Dallas' super-happy Polyphonic Spree collective since its Beginning Stages..., but, these days, music is taking a backseat to another passion of hers. After spending the past few years touring with the Spree, Kelley decided to quit her day job in the fashion promotions industry to pursue a life in cooking. So she started a food blog, called The Perfect Last Bite, on which she posts photographs of her favorite dishes, as well as recipes and thoughts on cooking.

And her efforts have paid off: Kelley's culinary talents have landed her a spot on the second season of Gordon Ramsay's reality cooking competition show, MasterChef, which premieres on Monday, June 6.

This afternoon, in advance of the season's airing, we  caught up with Kelley to talk about about music, food, what to eat when you're out on tour and the similarities between the creative process when writing a song and preparing a dish. Check out our Q&A in full after the jump.

You're clearly pretty busy with all the MasterChef stuff going on, but let's get this right out of the way first: Are you going to be playing with The Polyphonic Spree at their free show at the Dallas Museum of Art next month?
I will be there! I've been with the Spree since the very first show. I've never missed a gig, so I will definitely be there.  We're excited! We'll be playing some new songs, some old songs.  I love the DMA, too, so I think it'll be really fresh.

Will you be cooking before or after the show?
[Laughs.] No, I won't.  Days of the show are typically really busy. We're kind of our own entourage. We joke that the choir shirts should say "choir" on the front and "crew" on the back, 'cause we'll be loading in. So I won't be doing any cooking on that day. I usually bring some treats to rehearsal, so I'll be doing that during the week, getting ready for the show.

What do you usually eat before a show?
We have a rider. We only try to eat healthy things, y'know? Hummus, vegetables, nothing too heavy. We usually eat after because we're moving around a lot every single time we perform.  We'll usually burn about 500 calories, so we'd rather not eat heavy before a show. Maybe some soup.

Did you ever cook while you were on the road?
We're on a tour bus for the most part, and the constraints, I've found, [get in the way.] On Top Chef, they had a cooking contest where they were on a tour bus, and I was laughing. It's almost impossible! Mostly, my food and culinary breaks were taken from the band, though. I was traveling so much that we were in a different city every day, and my sanity from the truck-stop fare was to find a really awesome meal within a two-mile radius of the venue, and try and go there and experience something from different cultures. Then I would come back home and try and recreate it.

Did you discover any really good restaurants while you were on the road?
Yes! Almost every city, I'd discover a new restaurant. I have a journal of [different restaurants]. When we go back to, like Pittsburgh, I'll say, "We have to go to this place!" We almost started having people come to me: "Hey, where do we go around here?" "You'd love this place -- take a left over here, you'll love it!" Being on the road is really exciting, finding new places and new culinary experiences. I would say that, at least every tour, I'd find four or five [restaurants], and come home and journal about them, then try and recreate some of those dishes. In fact, one of the dishes that I cooked for the audition for MasterChef was inspired by a dish I had at a restaurant in Philadelphia, of all places.

Do you know any other chefs who are musicians?
A lot of chefs love music! In fact, one of the judges, Graham Elliot from Chicago, he says that in their kitchen, they listen to music all the time, and they're real organic about it -- like, "We're in a heavy metal mood today," and their food comes across that way. So I think that there's a big correlation between cooking and music, but I personally don't know of other chefs in the Dallas area who are musically inclined.

What are some of the similarities between cooking and music?
I think there's a lot of spontaneity that comes with being creative with music and also being organic, as far as letting something take shape sonically or in a food environment, too.  Sometimes, on the show or even in the home kitchen, you're hungry and you're wondering, "What do I have that I can make?" Those are really fun times, when you can go through your pantry and find a new spice and work with it, and be creative and organic. And, sometimes, what you create on the plate, you have this creativity that came out of you, and you weren't even intending for that to be the case. But it's spontaneous the way a good jam session is.

Do you think that being onstage with Polyphonic Spree better prepared you for cooking in front of judges and an audience?
I would have to say no! We played Glastonbury in front of 50,000 people, but being on MasterChef, because I'm up there all alone, is scary. The good thing about the Spree is that there's a little bit of anonymity in it. Since I've been there from the beginning, a lot of people know me. But I'm also one of 18 to 22, depending on who's on the road with us at any given time. With MasterChef, it was me, solo, cooking in front of these three judges. So I would say that the only thing that being in the Spree really helped me with is being brave.

Who's the tougher boss: Gordon Ramsay or Tim DeLaughter?
[Laughs.] Definitely Gordon Ramsay! Tim DeLaughter is a sweetheart. Gordon Ramsay is a sweetheart deep down, but he can definitely be tough when the pressure's on. He doesn't let up!

How is the dynamic different between working with a band and working with a kitchen staff?
With the Spree, Tim is the lead singer, and he definitely writes the skeleton of the song and brings that to the table. There's a lot of collaboration between the musicians and the choir. It's this very organic process, real supportive as far as creativity and collaboration goes. In the kitchen, there's definitely a hierarchy. The chef is the main man, or the main woman, and then there's the sous chef, and there's a hierarchy. If you disagree with the chef, it's almost frowned upon to acknowledge that. That's something you can tell from the show: If I disagree with the judges, I know my role is to respect the chef and the judges. So that's something different between those two worlds.

Are you and the Polyphonic Spree folks planning any MasterChef watching parties?
Yeah, we are, actually. I'm planning a MasterChef viewing party on the 14th of June, which is the second week the show airs. It's gonna be at Good Records; we've got the flat screen TVs we're renting, and there will be a big screen. Chris Penn co-owns Good Records, and he talked to some people to make sure we could get FOM TV in there, and I'm working on getting some sponsors for that. It'll be a lot of fun! I'm working on getting some of the other Dallas friends to come out for that, too. We're in the beginning stages of that event. I'll figure it out and let you know more.

Who's more likely to be the harsher critic, a music fan or a foodie?
I think the foodie would be a little more harsh. I think the reason why is, with food now, there's been this evolution where they want something really good if they're going to pay for something. If you go to a rock show, you can say, "Oh, they're having a really bad night," and you'll walk away paying 20 bucks, and you'll still listen to their song. If you go to a restaurant and spend $50 to $100 on a meal, and you're disappointed, you're not likely to go back to that restaurant. So I think that maybe the foodie is the harsher critic. You might like a band, and maybe you'll go catch them live, or you might be like, "They were weird that night, but they won't be like that again." I think with food, you're putting your money down, you're there for that experience, that date or anniversary or happy hour, and if you don't like it the first time, you probably won't be back.

You said Graham Elliott plays music in the kitchen.  Do you play music while you're cooking?
Definitely, I do. It was really hard for some of the things I'm used to doing at home, that wasn't allowed to be on the show or the audition process. Like, you couldn't have music on in the background because of the copyright. FOX would need to get the approval [from the record companies]. It was really hard to not have music going in the background because I'm usually always listening to bands while I'm in the kitchen.

What's your favorite music to listen to while you're cooking?
I'm pretty current with what's going on as far as music goes. My friend's a music reviewer from Chicago, and he turns me on to all this new stuff. I like to listen to new stuff while I'm cooking because then I can be more organic about it, like, "What was that? I'll rewind it!" If I listen to old stuff, it's more background. My love goes from Neil Young to Beach House to old '60s. I'm just all over the place.

What are some of your favorite places to eat around DFW?
I'm a mad fan of Nonna. I love Julian Barsotti's food. He uses all fresh pastas. It's really cool and modern. I love Bolsa. There's a lot of stuff in Oak Cliff we like. I haven't been to Lucia yet, but I'm dying to get in there!  I live in Deep Ellum, so I go to a lot of places around here.

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So sad. Such an affectation. Pathetic.


you'd be super-happy too if you were an over-achieving and moronic.

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