May 25, 2014

STRANGER: Daniel Lelchuk
LOCATION: Tujague’s, 823 Decatur Street, New Orleans
THEME: Luncheon with a cellist

Cellist Daniel Lelchuk didn’t plan on living in New Orleans, but the food-loving musician couldn’t have found a better city make his new home. When he’s not performing classical music with the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra, he can be found exploring the Big Easy’s many excellent restaurants.

“Although I never thought I’d live here, the adjustment has been fine,” said Daniel during lunch in the French Quarter. Born and raised in the colder climate of New Hampshire, the 25-year-old is enjoying life in the often hot and humid Crescent City. “This really is a great city. I love it. There’s so much beyond just Bourbon Street.”

At his suggestion, we met at Tujague’s, which is a few blocks from Bourbon Street. Established in 1856, it’s the second-oldest restaurant in the city. That gives it historic bragging rights alongside the other grand old dining venues such as Antoine’s, Arnaud’s, Commander’s Palace and Galatoire’s — four old-fashioned places where I’ve had a couple of highly enjoyable meals.

But I’d never tried Tujague’s, so was happy to give it a whirl.

The entrance leads into a long, narrow bar which at midday on a Sunday was filled with a mix of tourists in t-shirts and shorts, and locals dressed in button-down shirts and ties, waiting to be seated. I had a minimal wait before being led by the friendly host in to the front dining room. It’s a welcoming space: black-and-white tiled floors, mirrors lining the walls to make it appear roomier, and above the mirrors are cases featuring hundreds of miniature alcohol bottles from the restaurant’s history.

As we sat down at our table, Daniel told me that the place had recently been renovated. The room in which we were seated was once decked out in dark wood paneling. I can’t imagine how dark it must have been, but nowadays it’s a light and welcoming dining room. And it was already packed for lunch, yet the noise levels from the other tables were tolerable.

That made it easy to hear Daniel’s responses as I quizzed him about his life as a cellist, and the road that led him from New England to New Orleans.

His father is from Brooklyn and his mother is from Connecticut, giving Daniel an accent that’s unique in that it sounds Northeastern but with almost a European twist. He grew up in the Granite State, and his love for the cello started young. Very young.

He was around two years old when his mother took him to a science museum to see a demonstration about how sound transfers in sound-waves. There was a cellist showing how sound was created when he drew the bow across the string of the instrument. Afterward, he invited the children watching to touch the cello.

“That was it,” said Daniel. “I said I wanted to play cello.”

His parents weren’t musicians, but they instilled a love of music in him — particularly classical music. At the age of four-and-a-half, he picked up the cello for the first time. And he’s been playing it ever since. “The cello was never a novelty item to me, it was never something that was going to get replaced in a few months,” he said. “I knew I wanted to be a professional musician. It wasn’t even a decision that I got to make. It just had to happen.”

He “tinkered” with the piano and guitar as alternatives to playing the cello, but they didn’t appeal as much. The cello won his vote because of its range, he said. “Its range is closest to that of the human voice. It’s very sonorous and has a very special, earthy quality that appeals to me very much.”

After high school, Daniel went to university in Bloomington, Indiana — another location with a climate far different from New Orleans, and without the same reputation as a dining town.

New Orleans’ reputation was upheld when our amiable waiter brought out a starter of shrimp remoulade: boiled shrimp served over Romaine lettuce with red remoulade sauce. This was a big dish for a starter.

A large bed of lettuce topped with four or five substantial and fresh shrimp, finished with a hefty dollop of tangy, delicious remoulade. It was a fair mouthful, enough to stave off my hunger for my main course but not enough to make me full.

As we dove into our starters, Daniel again remarked on the benefit of being able to enjoy great food like our first course while he lives down in the Big Easy.

I guess it’s a far cry from his meals during his college days studying music in Bloomington. When he enrolled at university he had already been playing cello for more than a decade, never giving up after starting on the instrument during his infancy. At college, he studied music theory, musicology and some general education. “It was a great course at a great university,” he said. When he graduated after four years, he received a bachelor of music with a major in cello.

Then he studied for a one-year graduate degree known as a performance diploma, though he noted that “degrees in our field aren’t so important” — what matters is someone’s musical skill.

After university, Daniel was eager to put his playing ability to the test by auditioning for a philharmonic orchestra. Indianapolis, near Bloomington, had an orchestra but no vacancies. “Openings aren’t that often,” he said. “You have to jump when there is one and prepare your best.”

He learned that the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra had an opening for assistant principal cello, as the existing holder of that position was planning to retire after 45 years.

Daniel headed to New Orleans on his own dime, as the orchestra doesn’t fund the flights or accommodation for the many people that come to audition. Trying out is a high-stakes day. Hopefuls can be cut after playing for just five minutes, and their big chance is over.

For the first round of the audition Daniel had to sit behind a screen separating him from the interviewing committee, a forced anonymity to focus attention on how the musician is playing. “They know very quickly if they want to hear more of this person or don’t want to hear any more,” he said. Thankfully for him, he won a place in the second round.

For the audition he had to perform a range of excerpts of classical music, including a concerto from Dvořák, a suite from Bach, snippets from Beethoven, Brahms, Mendelssohn, Mozart, Verdi and more. It’s a comprehensive list. The auditioning committee “wants to know that you can recognize and dive right into a composer’s style, not just how to play cello,” Daniel said.

I expressed my layman’s ignorance about being able to distinguish different ways of playing classical pieces, but Daniel reassured me I’d know — even if I couldn’t articulate it.

“You don’t need to know a lot about music to be able to hear the different styles,” he said with a smile. “You might not be able to express it exactly, but you’d still be able to say that one sounded a little more metallic, or that one had a quieter sound.”

After performing more pieces in round two of the audition, Daniel won a spot in the final alongside three other competitors. For the third and final round the screen between the committee and the auditioning musicians was lifted. “That was nice, because you feel more freedom when you can see the people,” Daniel said. “It’s awkward playing to a wall.”

Once all four finalists had performed they had to wait in a nearby room. Eventually the committee came to break the news: Daniel beat the other three.

He was understandably ecstatic, and in October last year started his new life in New Orleans as the assistant principal cello for the orchestra. What’s the difference between assistant and principal cello? “He sits in the first chair and I sit in the second,” said Daniel with a grin.

Joking aside, he said his role is to act as a liaison between the principal and the rest of the cello section, which numbers seven in total including the principal and assistant. For example, if the principal changes something in the music, it’s Daniel’s responsibility to make sure the rest of the section gets it and keeps up. And he also keeps tab on what the conductor is telling the cello section. “I’m always there with a pencil ready to mark things from the conductor. The principal doesn’t usually mark what the conductor says,” he said. His goal working with the principal is simple: “I try to make his life as comfortable as possible.”

Life with the orchestra keeps Daniel in the city for a good chunk of the year, as it plays a 36-week season from September to June. That reduces his travel and holiday options, though this year he’s playing the Castleton Festival of opera and classical music in Virginia. It runs from late June to July, and is one of the only chances he’ll get this year to leave his adopted hometown.

Yet he doesn’t mind the restricted travel, because he’s fallen in love with New Orleans. The city is well-known for being musical, predominately for the jazz that seems to permanently float along the streets of the French Quarter. But Daniel said there’s a big fan base for classical music too. “People like to support their local orchestra, they see it as essential to the city’s culture,” he said.

Living in the Big Easy also allows Daniel to indulge his love of food. He’s an avid cook, but also enjoys experiencing all manner of restaurants that the city has to offer.

His taste for high quality food can be traced in part to the year he spent living in Rome when he was younger, when his mother took a professorial position at the city’s university. “The food standards there are very high,” he said. “It’s the best food in the world. You can stop on the side of the highway at a little cafe and get a pasta dish better than 99 percent of the things you get here.”

Tujague’s however must fall in that 1 percent, because our lunch was great.

I went for the classic New Orleans dish of red beans and rice.

Served with smoked sausage, this was a huge portion, with the thick and tasty sauce ladled on so generously that it almost spilled over the sides. A good lunch dish.

Daniel went for the house specialty of boiled brisket.

Served with horseradish sauce, potatoes and vegetables, it’s apparently a dish for which Tujague’s is famous. After taking Daniel up on the offer of a sample of the food, it’s easy to see why. The tender brisket is perfectly cooked, and excellent with a dab of horseradish.

The food is wonderful at Tujague’s but the portions are enormous. Too much for us to finish. But we gave it a good try, and picked at our food for quite a while.

While we ate, I told Daniel of my appreciation for restaurants like Tujague’s that might be seen by some as old-fashioned. I’m tired with the small plates obsession that seems to have my adopted home of Washington, DC, in a choke-hold. I miss dining by the course. So it was nice to see a traditional menu in a venue that shows it prefers substance over style.

“New Orleans keeps in mind that food should taste good,” said Daniel. “There’s nothing wrong with brisket and potatoes. It’s not outdated. It tastes great.”

As a lover of food, Daniel often listens to the radio show of New Orleans-based food critic Tom Fitzmorris. In fact, he found out about my website after doing a Google search on Tom and finding my interview with him from August 2013. The two men know each other socially, sharing similar interests in both dining and classical music, and Daniel sometimes calls into the show when has the chance.

Living down in the Crescent City gives Daniel the best of both worlds: He can indulge his love of food while also developing his professional career with his love of cello.

Although I’m not sophisticated in the ways of classical music (some friends would say I’m not sophisticated in many ways), Daniel and I were able to find common ground talking about our enjoyment of dining out in New Orleans, and various other topics. He’s an intelligent fellow with a knack for keeping conversation going, and although we were at Tujague’s for almost two hours, the time seemed to zip by.

As we wrapped up our lunch, Daniel told me that he might not stay down South forever. He said that at some point in his future he would like to live back in the Northeast, because he’s still fond of that area and his family is there.

But for now, he’s content to be in New Orleans, enjoying the best that the city has to offer while making a living with his favorite instrument.

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