Hershey Felder: A master entertainer’s food journeys

Master entertainer and virtuoso pianist Hershey Felder returns to Berkeley Rep with his popular and critically acclaimed one man show Hershey Felder as Leonard Bernstein in Maestro. Photo courtesy of kevinberne.com
Master entertainer and virtuoso pianist Hershey Felder is currently at the Berkeley Rep with his one-man show Hershey Felder as Leonard Bernstein in Maestro. Photo: kevinberne.com

By Aleta George

Hershey Felder’s hands are small considering what he asks of them. In his one-man show, Hershey Felder as Leonard Bernstein in Maestro, now playing at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, they glide across the keys of a baby grand, conduct an orchestra with grace, and accentuate Bernstein’s father’s scorn.

Felder uses his hands just as ably offstage, especially in the kitchen. He’s known for his cooking, a passion that he inherited from his mother, Eva, while growing up in Montreal.

“My mother was a foodie of sorts,” says Felder. “She loved to prepare a beautiful table and make a beautiful warm home. I was there as a kid over her shoulder and learned to have a great deal of love for food.”


Pierogi:
The meals Felder prepares while doing a show are often based on his character’s country — so for George Gershwin Alone, he made pierogi among other dishes. Photo: Eugene Wei

Felder gained experience cooking for large groups at the Canadian consulate in Los Angeles when his wife, Kim Campbell, was Canada’s Prime Minister. These days he cooks, entertains, rehearses, and has readings at his and Campbell’s New York, Paris, and San Diego homes, which Felder has decorated with tapestries, faux marble, and paintings he made with his own hands.

“I don’t think Hershey has come across anything he doesn’t have an aptitude for,” says Trevor Hay, Felder’s associate director who also loves to cook.

“Food is a unifier for all of us,” says Hay of the creative team that is Felder’s production company, Eighty-Eight Entertainment. “We all have a place in the kitchen and that is indicative of how the company works.”

Felder likes to cook for others when he’s on the road. I know because as a house manager at the Berkeley Rep I was invited to eat one of his meals last summer when he cooked a meal for Berkeley Rep staff and crew between the matinée and evening performances of George Gershwin Alone. I arrived in the green room on the final Saturday of the run to find a spread of borscht, beef stroganoff, pierogi, and couilibiac.

The meals he prepares while doing a show are often based on his character’s country of origin, and this one was no exception. For Gershwin he cooked Russian-American food. For Chopin, he would create a Polish meal. While performing Abe Lincoln’s Piano, directed by Hay, they re-created an entire menu based on Lincoln’s inaugural dinner.

“It’s fun,” says Felder. “My work is so demanding that cooking is a kind of relief.”

Cheesecake, a rare indulgence, may not make it back to Felder's hotel room. Photo:
Cheesecake, a rare indulgence, may not make it back to Felder’s hotel room. Photo: Robyn Lee

Felder’s comfort food is fried cabbage, a Hungarian dish he grew up with. It’s easy, he says. Fry one head of grated (or chopped fine) cabbage in one-half pound of butter slowly. Give it about an hour to caramelize. Add ground pepper and half a cup of sugar. Boil flat noodles and mix it all together.

“It is simple and incredible,” he says. “If it’s the only thing I could eat for the rest of my life I would be very happy.”

But the truth is he hardly ever gets to eat them, because when Felder performs he doesn’t eat pasta, cook for himself, or go out to restaurants. His job is physically demanding and requires him to fit into tight costumes. He eats light and early. His meals consist of a protein, a vegetable, and a salad, which he buys ready-made from Whole Foods or other markets. For a treat he may eat a big bowl of steel-cut oats with cinnamon and chocolate, and only occasionally does he indulge in cakes and other sweets, such as a piece of cheesecake that never makes it back to the hotel.

Maestro closes on July 3, but Felder will be back to the Thrust stage to play Monsieur Chopin in late July. In Felder’s Paris home on the Rue de Conde, he looks out his kitchen window and into the kitchen of a house where George Sand cooked her meals more than 160 years ago after she broke up with Chopin.

I asked Felder via email what Sand might have cooked in her kitchen back then. “Maybe trouble,” he replied with a smiley face. “Who knows?”

Related:
Hershey Felder reaches new depths in Maestro at the Rep (06.10.14)

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