When it comes to cooking, Galveston Symphony conductor is a virtuoso
Large, sharp knives skillfully employed by a talented chef are a wonder to behold, but when the person wielding those pointy objects is none other than award-winning violinist and Galveston Symphony Orchestra Conductor Trond Saeverud, the experience approaches truly awe-inspiring.
“I like big tools — small ones scare me,” said Saeverud, as he authoritatively chopped his way through a colorful assortment of fresh produce in his Clear Lake-area kitchen.
As mushrooms and whole carrots find themselves being swiftly reduced to bite-size pieces, the virtuoso musician’s level of concentration is steady — he is as intensely focused on the vegetables before him as he is on the musicians he regularly directs during a concert.
“I tend to focus tightly on whatever actual action I am performing,” he said. “If I am doing something — cooking, conducting or performing — then that’s all that’s in my head.”
Quickly moving back and forth from countertop to stove as he prepared a gourmet-style omelet, Saeverud was nonetheless demonstrating that he’s as skilled in the culinary arts as in the performing arts.
The omelet he was creating in his sleek, no-nonsense kitchen will be the main course for a meal he considers the most important of the day — breakfast.
“I often don’t have time to eat during the day,” said Saeverud, who also organizes the island’s Moody Mansion recitals, and, during the summer months, serves as conductor of the Passamaquoddy Bay Symphony Orchestra in Maine. His schedule is non-stop, and dinner, if it happens at all, tends to be very early and very light, making this first meal of the day especially important, he said.
Saeverud’s interest in cooking began around the age of 10 in his native Norway, he said. Dinner was always a large family meal, typically served about 4 p.m., and included many vegetables and seasonal fruits, with berries being a particular favorite.
“These were true homemade meals with lots of good healthy foods, and nothing was processed,” he said.
Today, with his children now grown, Saeverud continues that tradition of healthy eating in his role of chef-in-residence for himself and his wife, the internationally acclaimed artist Joan Burger Siem.
Nutritional values figure highly in Saeverud’s choosing what to cook, and although he doesn’t use standard measures or recipes, quality ingredients are essential, he said.
“I use organic produce and very little processed food — and I avoid anything that claims to be ‘free’ of something,” Saeverud said. “These so-called replacement products worry me much more than the effects of salt, sugar and fat, so I use real butter, honey, heavy cream, whole milk and yogurt for which nothing has been removed or added.”
To further enhance flavors, he also uses assorted herbs plucked fresh from pots near the kitchen, plus traditional favorites such as garlic, lemon and chili peppers.
“I love hot food,” he said. “I can drink Cholula sauce just as it comes out of the bottle.”
The one ingredient that is essential in his cooking, however, is a high polyphenol olive oil he orders in 10-liter quantities several times a year from Fiore Artisan Olive Oils and Vinegars, a supplier in Bar Harbor, Maine.
“With a polyphenol component of around 700 ppm, this oil provides superior health benefits and an entirely different flavor when compared to the oils you find in stores,” he said.
So important is this oil, it has its own special urn-style dispenser in the Saeverud kitchen. Equipped with a small spigot that allows the oil to be drawn out in desired amounts, it can be operated with a touch of a finger. The device is one of the few special purpose items in their kitchen area that otherwise features unencumbered surfaces of steel and stone, next to which Siem’s art provides magical dashes of whimsy and color. Even the large blackboard that serves as a backsplash for the stove is functional and indicative of the couple’s busy lifestyle, with its various chalk-rendered reminders of “must-do” tasks and events.
As Saeverud chopped his way through the omelet’s ingredients, adding each at its assigned time to a sizzling skillet, it was obvious he doesn’t use recipes. Much like a musician who plays “by ear,” he measures and cooks by sight, smell and feel. Not surprisingly, his shopping style is similar.
“I don’t use a list — I usually lose it anyway — and I just pick up food that looks good to me,” he said. “I do keep a watch out for wild-caught fish, however, and it doesn’t bother me if it has been frozen. I don’t understand the big deal about that, and some Norwegian dishes actually require that you freeze the fish first.”
His more natural approach extends to his kitchen equipment, including his well-used wooden cutting board.
“I work a lot with wood — in other things, too,” he said, referencing the many orchestral instruments containing wood and especially the J. B. Guadagnini violin he’ll be using in a solo performance at The Grand 1894 Opera House in downtown Galveston.
“I have had the great fortune of using this instrument since 1984,” Saeverud said of the rare violin, built in Milan in 1751 and owned by Norway’s DNB Bank as part of a loan program in which the bank supports virtuoso soloists by letting them use its instruments.
As the last of the ingredients were being added to the maestro’s super-charged omelet, the conversation drifted to cooking as a social activity, and Saeverud shared that he prefers a solo role in the kitchen. For a man whose life is lived largely in public view, his take on sharing culinary duties is emphatic.
“Cooking with others? Never — I don’t want company in the kitchen!”
OMELET A LA SAEVERUD
These directions take a “cadenza,” or improvised approach to the preparation of this dish, so ingredients and proportions can be varied according to personal preference. As a guideline, however, Saeverud uses four eggs to serve two people.
Salt, to taste
Portabello mushrooms, sliced
Herbs, as desired
Mexican-style fresh cheese, chopped (Saeverud prefers the La Vaquita brand)
Asparagus, ends trimmed and remaining portions halved so tip ends remain intact
Baby spinach, chopped
Eggs, separated and beaten
Cayenne pepper, to taste
Over medium heat, combine a small amount of oil, butter and a pinch of salt in a large skillet. Add mushrooms and herbs and sauté for 10 to 15 minutes. Add Mexican cheese and continue sautéing until cheese starts to brown.
Turn mushroom mixture with spatula and add carrots along with the thicker part of the asparagus stems and apples. Sauté a few minutes, then add a mixture of kale and baby spinach.
Pre-rinse two small bowls, and separate egg yolk and egg white into separate bowls. Note: Using wet bowls helps egg mixture slide out more easily, thereby preventing loss of too much egg from its sticking to the sides of the bowl.
Once spinach begins to wilt, add egg whites. Cover skillet and continue cooking with the lid on until the white is set. Add asparagus tips around edge of pan to hold in the egg yolks, then spoon the beaten egg yolks over the mixture inside the asparagus.
Cover and cook just until yolks are just slightly set. Season with cayenne, if desired. Turn out on large serving plate and accompany with Wasa brand crisp-bread and olive oil as a dipping sauce.