Breaking Bread with Brian Johnson
“What was your favorite food as a kid?” I ask Brian Johnson, whom you know better as the lead singer of AC/DC, the ’80s rock band whose legendary album Back in Black is still the seventh-best-selling album of all time. All time. Ahead of The Beatles, ahead of Fleetwood Mac, just one behind Pink Floyd’s The Wall.
That Brian Johnson, who many might assume that, like other ’80s rock phenoms, is pickled in the residual rock ’n’ roll grime of being a music maker of near mythic proportions. But it’s the exact opposite. He’s kind and courteous and soft-spoken with a slight Scottish lilt in in his otherwise deeply British accent. He’s also playful and entertaining with a slew of sharp quips that he effortlessly weaves into otherwise authentic conversation. His signature newsboy cap, a nod to the working class of northern England, and a snug black T-shirt remind you that you’re talking to a legend, but beyond that is just a cool guy who absolutely, deep in his core, loves food.
Our sunny, surfside city has been attracting outsiders for ages, so it’s no surprise when anyone with eyeballs wants to move here and make Sarasota the backdrop of his life. But, it’s all the more exciting when we reel in a big catch like Brian Johnson, who says Sarasota “just feels like home.” It made the most sense to talk turkey with Brian at Darwin Evolutionary Cuisine, the brick-and-mortar restaurant of his long-time favorite local chef, Darwin Santa Maria, who burst onto the food scene over a decade ago with a bold Peruvian fusion flair that captured the attention of many a Sarasota food lover. Brian remembers the very first time he had Darwin’s Tuna Tiradito, a culinary rebellion when it debuted, of thinly sliced rare tuna “cooked” in vibrant citrus juice paired with sweet watermelon cubes that “kisses the back of your throat, kisses your tonsils,” as Brian says. That meal became the appetizer to what would eventually become a beautiful relationship between the Johnsons and the Santa Marias built on friendship, humor, and food, glorious food. Now, years later, wherever Darwin is cooking is wherever Brian and his wife, Brenda, are eating, whether it be at the restaurant or a backyard barbecue. Darwin’s wife, Lellys, joined us to discuss her husband’s passion for cooking and why this particular friendship means so much.
So, what was his favorite food as a kid? “There was no diversity where I grew up,” says Brian. “It was after the war. The food was bland. It had to be—ration books didn’t let you get creative. Ma, being Italian, made our own pasta and she’d make these small donuts. They were so simple, she just tossed them in sugar. But the smell that went out of the house would bring all the neighbors around. All my friends would knock and ask ‘Bri, is your mom makin’ the donuts?’” he says nostalgically. “That flavor and her fresh pasta,” he sighs. “Everyone tries to overdo the simple things. It doesn’t need it.”
Amen to that. When it comes to eating, dining, cooking, or just enjoying ingredients, Brian Johnson just gets it. Here are a few more choice bits from our Q&A:
Edible Sarasota: What food do you love just a little too much?
Brian Johnson: Bread. Bread and olive oil and butter. Good olive oil, good butter. Th at matters. Every Saturday, I treat myself. I drive to C’est La Vie and buy a baguette and a couple of his gorgeous croissants and go home and fry up two big brown eggs, smear a piece of baguette with French butter and dip it in the yolk. It’s like caviar for me.
ES: Is there a food you wish you loved?
BJ: Ha, I’ll eat anything. There might be a few foreign dishes that you’ll think, “I’m not sure I want to put that it in my mouth,” but deep-fry it or add a little salt and vinegar and I bet it’s delicious. You can deep-fry the worst things on the planet ... just put some butter on it.
ES: Any food most folks find odd but you really dig?
BJ: Blood sausage or what some call black pudding. It’s the first thing I buy from the butcher when I go to England. I just fry it up for breakfast.
ES: You have to live alone on an island, but can take a few ingredients with you. What do you take?
BJ: Flour, butter, butter, more butter, some olive oil. With that I could catch fish, cook fish, and bake some bread to go with it.
ES: Why are you a fan of Darwin’s food?
BJ: He’s not pretentious. It’s nice when a chef loves to cook more than he loves being praised for it. He creates a great atmosphere which always puts you at ease, and his food is bright and fresh.
ES: What happens in the kitchen that makes Darwin’s food so special?
Lellys Santa Maria: It’s just his passion. It’s not just a meal for him, he puts his whole heart into his food and people can sense that, they can feel it, they can taste it.
ES: How does it feel to have a rock star as a valued customer?
LSM: We don’t see him as a customer anymore. It’s been so many years; it’s a friendship now built on respect and love. It’s an honor to hear that he and his wife, Brenda, love Darwin’s food. They travel and have the ability to go to the fanciest restaurants and for them to consider Darwin’s food to be good is quite an honor…
ES: What are you currently exploring in the culinary world?
BJ: Soups! When I first came to America and would ask for a bowl of soup, it was like gelatin. Making a good soup is a beautiful thing. I remember a restaurant in Lyon back in 1988—this old part of town had restaurants lined up and each one made just one thing. This one spot made French onion soup. They’d serve it in stone mixing bowls with cheese and onions hanging over the side. It was just ... (he sighs deeply). We sat there drinking some no-name wine made by some brother down the street and the cheese made by his sister and the onions grown nearby … I’d like to make soup like that.
ES: What non-culinary influence inspires you?
BJ: Great pieces of music, obviously. Music is so inspirational, whether you’re happy or sad, there’s always something to listen to. And watching fabulous race drivers doing things I long to do and can’t even get close to. I’m inspired by people who achieve the almost impossible odds of being the best in the world in anything, whether it’s music, racing, cooking, anything.
ES: What kind of food did you eat growing up?
BJ: I grew up in Newcastle, an industrial town. We never went out to dinner as a kid, my family couldn’t afford it. It was steelworks, we didn’t have the kind of place that you’d just go for a burger.
ES: And now that you can eat anywhere in the world, what’s the best restaurant you’ve ever been to?
BJ: La Closerie des Lilas (“House of the Lilacs,” a Parisian restaurant that’s been operating since 1847). Everything is done in copper pans at the table. There’s only about five things on the menu, it’s very old-fashioned. If you are looking for somewhere you can find low-fat butter, they’d say, ‘Mademoiselle, this is the wrong restaurant for you.” Isn’t it amazing that one-third of the world just found out they are lactose intolerant? Of course, George V in Paris. You gotta take a container of cash with you, but sometimes expensive things are worth every penny. Also, Scott’s London. It’s the best seafood restaurant. They serve an octopus salami, I’ve never tasted anything like it, it’s delicious, it’s strange and yet everyone wants it.
ES: What can ruin a restaurant?
BJ: Oh, lots of things, but can I say that I think mobile phones should be banned in all restaurants? It’s rude to the diners and the staff. It’s become a massive problem. (For the record, Brian owns a flip-top phone from days past. There’s not even, gasp, a touch screen or a way to connect to the internet.)
ES: What should we know about Darwin Evolutionary Cuisine?
LSM: We haven’t changed, we’re still the same couple who started so many years ago. We put passion in whatever we do and we are proud of what we do. We made something different for people to enjoy.
ES: If you could have had any other career, what would you have done?
BJ: I’d loved to have been a race car driver, that’s the truth. Or a village doctor—not a big one, just a local doctor helping people.
ES: What do you want as your last meal?
BJ: Everything. That should take me a few weeks.
Darwin Evolutionary Cuisine: 4141 S. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota; 941-260-5964; chefdarwin.com