The seeds for IFC show Dinner with the Band, host Sam Mason recalls, were planted in 2006 when Mason received a phone call from "this creepy guy who asked me if I wanted to be the host of a television show." Said seeming creep was Dinner with the Band creator and director Darin Bresnitz, and Mason, a tattooed culinary hotshot and the then pastry chef of Wylie Dufresne's wd~50, was an easy sell. "We ended up having coffee, and his pitch just sounded awesome."
The show -- which debuted as a quickly popular web series in 2007 and was picked up last year by the Independent Film Channel (new episodes begin Tuesday, April 27) -- is part Julia Child, part indie rock Playboy After Dark. Musical acts, which have included Matt & Kim, Les Savy Fav, Rufus Wainwright and YACHT prepare a meal with Mason and perform live and in his sleek, vintage-wallpapered bachelor pad (a set located in an industrial South Williamsburg loft, a few blocks from Mason's actual apartment).
But Williamsburg is more than a palatably hip setting for the show. Mason cooks with local products, including meat from Brooklyn-based Heritage Food U.S.A. and greens from nearby rooftop farms Brooklyn Grange. Talent is also locally sourced. "I really don't think we could film this in another city," Greg Bresnitz, Darin's brother and a former director of events for Vice magazine, says during a recent Saturday morning taping with the band My Brightest Diamond. "A lot of artists live in Manhattan and Brooklyn. It only takes a seven dollar cab ride to get some of the world's greatest talent here."
Though Mason listens mostly to old country and music "that doesn't translate that well to TV," he speaks about his guests with the same enthusiasm as he does about food - Mason described a soon-to-be-aired performance by rootsy punk band the Devil Makes Three as "one of the most remarkable things I've ever lived to see." The process of creating a dish and creating a song, Mason believes, are closely related. "Both have several layers and variables that go into them -- like the kind of mood you're in during the creative process, what you want it to say, how you want it to be unique."
Aided by a small backstage team, Dinner with the Band eschews TV magic and features Mason cooking, for the most part, in real-time. ("I have no reference point because I don't watch TV, but I what we're doing doesn't feel contrived at all," he says). While Mason cooks, band members peel vegetables and retrieve kitchen tools as they discuss new albums, new tours, and share harrowing tales of eating on the road. (An early Dinner with the Band webisode featured Tokyo Police Club recounting a tour in which they ate nothing but hot dogs to save money). This method, however, comes with its downsides. During the taping of the My Brightest Diamond episode, Mason became increasingly irked as Darin Bresnitz asked for several re-takes before he could serve a quickly cooling pork tenderloin to the band. "It's just one of my pet peeves," Mason says of cold food. "I don't want it to be TV food. I want guests to really be able to appreciate the meal and sometimes it just doesn't work out."
In 2007, Mason left wd~50 to open SoHo restaurant Tailor, which featured an ambitious menu integrating savory and sweet dishes (Gnocchi was served with cocoa oil, pork belly in a miso butterscotch sauce). Though Tailor closed in 2009, Mason is planning a new venture in Brooklyn. "I've got the idea planned out" he says, declining to elaborate, but worrying aloud that he hopes he doesn't become too "lazy" to follow through. In the meantime, he's an investor in a bar set to open soon in Williamsburg on Leonard and Grand streets. It will not serve food. Though cooking is something Mason says he wishes he could do "eight days a week," when he's at home he usually orders take out from Lily Thai and Carmine's. "I tend to eat a lot by myself. I'll start to get really elaborate and I'm just making one plate of food. It's better when you can get a group of three or four people together and cook. That's when it gets fun."