by Erick R. Schmidt // Spring 2011
Cody Hogan first heard the adage “performing live music is like preparing an inspired meal” from his piano teacher. One of the Conservatory of Music and Dance’s cornerstone piano teachers, the late Jo Ann Baker, urged her students to think of their recital programs’ beginnings as the appetizer, something to get the audience interested. Then move to a soup, then to the main course (like a Beethoven sonata), and finally wrap up with a light, entertaining dessert. The comparison wasn’t lost on Hogan, but he didn’t fully understand its relevance until he discovered the art of cooking.
In the years since graduation, Hogan (M.F.A. ’94) took his passion for creativity and turned it into a successful career not as a musician, but as a chef. Hogan has spent the past 12 years composing menus at Lidia Bastianich’s Kansas City, Mo., restaurant, Lidia’s. He also spends three months each year traveling with the renowned chef, filming her Emmy-nominated television show and visiting food festivals around the world. His relationship with Bastianich, whom Hogan says is always cooking “in the moment,” has allowed him the opportunity cook at the United Nations, throughout the Mediterranean, and of course, in Italy. Hogan even spent time at the end of 2010 filming a documentary series with Bastianich and Stanley Tucci about Italian-American Christmas celebrations. It’s all part of a journey that began years ago, in a quite unpredictable fashion. “I don’t know that I’ve ever really planned anything, it’s just sort of fallen into place,” Hogan says. “I just knew this was what I wanted to do.”
Hogan’s path from concert hall to kitchen began while he was studying in Germany as a Rotary Scholar during the fall of 1993. His host family was a pair of retired doctors who ushered him away from the piano on the weekends to discover the country’s many food festivals. “We’d go out to some inn in the country, then go out to a Michilen-star restaurant,” he remembers. “That’s where the direction of my life changed completely because I started falling in love with food.”
Hogan came to the realization that his love for food equaled or surpassed his love for the piano, so he returned to UMKC and sought advice from Professor Baker. She supported his move away from a master’s of performing arts to a master’s of fine arts. With the degree in hand, he was saddled with student loans—and he couldn’t afford culinary school. So he taught himself the art of cooking. “First, I started reading cookbooks—a lot of them—and I started cooking at home,” Hogan said. “I dined around Kansas City, and eventually the owner of the Classic Cup was crazy enough to hire me.”
His beginnings were modest (he started with preparing sandwiches) but knew he had stumbled into the career he’d always wanted. Soon, he was volunteering his services at The American Restaurant when guest chefs came to visit. During the summer of 1997, Hogan took a defining trip up the West Coast, armed with a stack of business cards he’d been given by those chefs, each of whom told him to drop by if he was ever in the neighborhood. He did exactly that. “Not that they really mean it. They’re just being nice, but I took all of those cards and drove out to California and started in L.A., stopping in restaurants and winding my way up to Seattle.”
The guerilla networking strategy paid off: Hogan was hired as a pastry chef at the esteemed Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Calif., where he began to study the quality of ingredients and fresh proteins he had never worked with previously. He tried to bring that emphasis to Lidia’s when she offered him the position of pastry chef.
“There’s always another ingredient, a different culture, a new cuisine. If you can get bored cooking, you’re not trying hard enough.”
Hogan said one of his favorite things about working at Lidia’s is that he gets to bring comfort to people through food. “I like so many aspects of working in a restaurant, but ultimately, what you’re doing is taking care of people. It’s nice to make people feel better,” Hogan says.
He also enjoys teaching his craft. Hogan has blended his knowledge of music and cooking by teaching classes at the Culinary Center of Kansas City in Overland Park, Kan. “Lidia taught me how to teach cooking, but I think I learned a lot about teaching from all of the piano teachers I’ve had. The great thing about a piano teacher is that one person is focused on you for half an hour or an hour, and that’s great for kids. I try to carry that over.”
He loves cooking so much that when he’s not keeping busy at the restaurant or playing the piano, he grows his own vegetables and yes, he even cooks at home. “A lot of cooks say that’s the last thing they want to do when they get home, but there’s no way I get bored with it,” Hogan says. “There’s always another ingredient, a different culture, a new cuisine. If you can get bored cooking, you’re not trying hard enough.”