And see below for info on joining Joey Arias and many more amazing performers and food personalities at Barilla’s Big Drag Brunch, part of this year’s New York City Wine & Food Festival, Saturday, October 12!
From Inside Issue 1: What is Jarry?
Text by Daniel Isengart
Photos by Noah Fecks
Several years ago, I flew to Las Vegas to visit Joey Arias, who had moved there to star in Cirque du Soleil’s erotica show Zumanity. After the show, I joined him with the cast for a late-night supper at a Japanese restaurant. We were soon joined by Celine Dion’s gorgeous back-up dancers, and it became quite a night of mayhem. Today, Joey laughs about his Vegas years. “In the first year, we went out every night and pretty much took over the strip. ‘Uh-oh, here comes the Zumanity cast,’ they would say. Don’t ask me how we managed to do two shows a night. Eventually, I settled into a different routine and headed straight to my suite after show time to just eat a home-cooked meal and relax.” I tell him of Ethel Merman’s warning to Elaine Stritch that, to do a long run of a show, one had to “live like a nun.” He chuckles. “Well, Zumanity was a sex show, so …”
“I’ll show you my signature dish,” he promised. “It’s called
Joey and I became friends way back when I started out in New York as a cabaret baby. Since then, we’ve occasionally shared the stage—and many meals. He’s been over to my house for dinner parties and once, after one of my shows, graciously treated an entire assembly of friends and fans to a late-night dinner in a French restaurant. When my husband and I got married, Joey was our witness, and I will never forget how he, during the intimate wedding dinner at Jean-Georges with our officiant Miss Penny Arcade, kept taking stealthy bites out of a fresh jalapeño he produced from his Thierry Mugler handbag. But we had actually never cooked together. Until now. “I’ll show you my signature dish,” he promised. “It’s called Cruddy Chicken.”
And so, one muggy Sunday in May, when Joey was in town between concert engagements in England and San Francisco, we met up in the elegant, spacious kitchen at the home of a couple of well-to-do friends who had generously allowed us to use it. Joey turned out to be a very detail-oriented and meticulous cook with a calm sense of jazzy timing. I should have known—these exact qualities are also among the characteristics that make him one of the greatest entertainers alive today, a real downtown icon with a devoted international following. I don’t think I know anyone who is so completely in the moment as Joey, be it in the kitchen or on stage. His quick wit, forever mixing the profane with the profound, and his endearing charm, more mellow in private than one might assume from his sharp and highly stylized stage persona, made the precious few hours we had for this fun kitchen endeavor go by in a snap.
I got us started with an appetizer I had created in his honor: a baked wonton crisp with cucumber-jalapeño jelly, habanero-infused crème fraîche, and Uruguayan eco-farmed sturgeon caviar courtesy of my friend Graham Gaspard, the CEO of Black River Caviar.
Daniel Isengart: I know you like to have hot chilies with literally every meal. Where do you find them when you’re on tour? Do you go to local markets? I imagine it wouldn’t be easy to locate some in say, Berlin, where you often play.
Joey Arias: I travel with my own chilies. I just put them in my suitcase, both fresh and dried ones. When I run out of the fresh ones, I use the dried ones. (Sipping Champagne and tasting the caviar morsels)
DI: Tell me what you think of my little hors d’oeuvre.
JA: Hmm, this is divine. I never had caviar and chilies together. (Savoring, waiting for the heat of the habaneros and jalapeños to “hit”) I love the heat in the crème fraîche. It alters the spiciness and opens the gateways to a whole new world. And that’s what it’s all about. It’s not about burning your mouth. Even in Mexico, they don’t really do very spicy food.
DI: I think those brutally hot chilies are more common in Thai and Chinese food. You have a Mexican background, right?
JA: My father was Mexican and Swiss German. (Inspecting the assortment of fresh hot chilies I brought)
DI: I got poblanos, jalapeños, serranos, Scotch bonnets, habaneros, and Kung Pao peppers.
JA: (Takes a bite of a Kung Pao and nonchalantly proceeds to eat the whole thing) These are quite mild.
DI: I got everything ready. The chicken pieces have been marinating in Tabasco sauce and the frying oil is heating up. You tell me what to do next. I’ll be your sous chef.
JA: We have to dredge the chicken pieces with flour. I do that in a paper bag.
DI: The oil is almost ready.
JA: (Pouring flour into a large paper bag, adding chicken pieces, and shaking the bag while intonating a jazzy riff) It should be hot as hell!
DI: Tell us about the dish.
JA: It’s my variation of a classic Southern dish that my friend Tony Frere made for me years ago. I make Cruddy Chicken…oh, maybe twice a year, for special occasions. I make huge platters of it, and everybody goes crazy for it. (Gingerly places one chicken piece at a time into the sizzling oil and, to my great surprise, adds several ragged bits of moistened flour on top. He explains:) To make it extra cruddy!
DI: Wow, I’ve never seen that done before.
JA: Just trust me!
DI: Should I prepare the salad in the meantime? What do you want in it?
JA: Just greens and tomatoes. It breaks up the flavor of the main dish. Ideally, we should also have very creamy, buttery, European-style mashed potatoes to go with it. (He swoons)
DI: Uh-oh. I can’t eat like that on a hot day like today! Do you mind if I add some diced cucumber and a few sprigs of cilantro to the salad?
JA: Oh, uh…Alright…We can do it your way…
DI: Do you think it’s too much?
JA: Well, it’s all about simplicity…But I saw you had some fresh mint leaves somewhere. Let’s add some of those.
DI: Now I know you love to cook at home. When you’re on the road, how do you deal with having to eat out all the time and not being able to eat your own food? That would drive me crazy after a while. I don’t even go to restaurants in New York any more.
JA: I just order simple, light food—some fish and a salad.
DI: What’s breakfast for you?
JA: No breakfast. I only drink coffee.
DI: Like me…When is your first meal of the day?
JA: Usually at about seven o’clock at night
DI: You don’t eat anything all day?
JA: No. I am not hungry.
DI: Wow. I sometimes forget to eat all day. Once, I was booked for a voiceover. It was in the afternoon and I hadn’t had anything to eat all day, and suddenly my stomach started to rumble so loudly the microphone picked it up. I was mortified. They had to call in for something for me to eat before we could continue the session. Do you think the chicken pieces are done now?
JA: No, no, not yet.(Shaking his head, laughing) This takes time!
DI: Do you have any cravings late at night?
JA: Well, as you know, I love my kuchen [German for “cake”]! (One of the endearing rhymes Joey often greets me with on the phone is “kuchen versuchen!”—a bon mot he learned from his friend and performing partner, the late pop countertenor Klaus Nomi) I actually used to work for a Polish baker when I was still living in LA. We would make tons of different breads and cakes and sell them at the farmer’s market. Edith Head used to buy cakes from us. Of course I recognized her right away, and we’d chat. She always complimented me on my sense of style …
DI:…and years later, you created a look that many interpret as an homage to her. The dark oval glasses and the bangs. I love that look on you. It’s sooo sharp.
JA: Well, that’s the look I had in “Too Funky,” the George Michael music video that my friend Manfred T. Mugler directed. I love working with Manfred. He is a genius.
DI: And you’re his muse …
JA: He was the artistic director of Zumanity and created all the show’s incredible images and crazy characters. And he directed the big finale of the show. (The finale was a stylized communal orgasm with the audience, conducted by Joey, the show’s reigning Mistress of Seduction) It was such an amazing experience every night. And, of course, Klaus [Nomi] and I wore Mugler when we appeared with David Bowie in Saturday Night Live.
DI: Wasn’t Klaus a professional baker, too?
JA: Oh yes. His cakes were just the best. He’d sell them to restaurants in the Village and the World Trade Center. He made these tiny flourless chocolate cakes that were super intense—one little slice and you were gone.
DI: I remember you telling me that Klaus dreamed of one day singing the role of the witch in the Hänsel and Gretel opera.
JA: Well, I did see him do it! In his kitchen! (Laughs) That’s what we would do—hang out and bake and sing. I always sing while I’m cooking. That’s where I get my ideas for vocal riffs. (Let’s out a startling bebop line, his whole body instantly switching to the iconic Lady Day silhouette)
DI: You know, the Met actually did a production with a male singer in the role—tenor Philip Langridge. I think it premiered in 2007. They made him look like Julia Child. It was an amazing production, and it made me think of Klaus.
JA: (Inspects the fried chicken pieces and finally, though tentatively, fishes them out of the hot oil, one by one, and arranges them on a baking sheet) That sounds good. But Klaus’s version would have been very different—very Nomi, very sci-fi and eerie and spooky and fun! (He grabs a fine-mesh skimmer and scoops some of the “cruddy” fried flour bits out of the oil, piling them up on the crunchy chicken pieces, murmuring) I want some of the extra schmutz…
DI: Yum! What’s next?
JA: (A seductively lilting voice) I’ll show you. (He meticulously inspects my barbecue sauce assortment. Settling on one, he proceeds to pour the entire contents all over the chicken while intonating “Lady Sings the Blues.” Next, he squirts half a bottle of wildflower honey on top of it) Now this goes into a hot oven for another twenty minutes. What you want is for the sauce to get all bubbly and really soak into the chicken pieces.
DI: Joey, I have to say I just love seeing your domestic streak! People don’t know this about you, but you really have that in you.
JA: You have to! If you’re going to be wild and crazy, you have to also have a domestic side. If you’re just a free-flying kite, you never come back down. You have to have a string attached somehow that connects you to the…earth.
DI: And cooking is the earth. That’s how you stay grounded.
Twenty minutes, later, we sat down to eat. I had proposed to scatter heaps of sliced hot chili peppers and scallions all over the chicken, but Joey, ever protective of his signature dish, only let me sprinkle them around it, then cracked me up by fastidiously removing any chili pieces that touched his chicken. Then it was time to dig in, and for a moment, all you could hear was blissful moaning. ///
Joey Arias’s Cruddy Chicken
Marinate organic chicken thighs and legs, separated but with bone and skin, in enough Tabasco sauce to keep the pieces well submerged for several hours—the longer the better. Scoop a few cups of spiced flour* into a large brown paper bag and add the drained chicken pieces. Toss them around until generously coated with flour and fry them, in batches, in corn oil heated to 350° Fahrenheit until browned and completely cooked through. Drain them on paper towels before arranging them on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Pour generous amounts of BBQ sauce and honey over each piece and place the sheet pan in 400° Fahrenheit oven. Bake for about 20 minutes, until the sauce is thickened and bubbly. Ten minutes into baking time, baste the pieces with the sauce, being careful to cover them completely.
Serve hot, with buttery mashed potatoes and a simple green salad with tomatoes, dressed with a simple vinaigrette.
*Joey would not divulge his secret spice mix, encouraging readers to come up with their own. I suggest just kosher salt, powdered white pepper and chili powder—and this might be one of the extremely rare occasions where I would not bark at the use of garlic powder.
Saturday, October 12