Rufus Wainwright is grating parsnips.
Judging from the way he is making faces and the way the elegant ring Elton John gave the singer-songwriter as a gift is clanging against the box grater, it's clear he doesn't do this very often.
"I start to black out when I'm in the kitchen," Wainwright jokes. "I get so scared."
Wainwright is trying to make New York sauerkraut, a delicacy created by chef Sam Mason to go with rabbit schnitzel at last and Zebulon spaetzle for the new IFC show "Dinner With the Band," which debuts Tuesday.
For Wainwright, the appearance is part of the promotional tour for his new "All Days Are Nights: Songs for Lulu" (Decca) album, which arrived in stores last week, and his new opera, "Prima Donna." It's also part of a relatively new connection between musicians and chefs that IFC is tapping into with the series, but is starting to make its mark throughout the culture.
Rachael Ray of hope
It goes beyond the longtime friendship of chef Mario Batali and R.E.M.'s front man Michael Stipe or the way rockers The Bravery were recently judging food on "Top Chef Masters."
Last month, the Feedback Festival, sponsored by Rachael Ray and her musician-husband, John Cusimano, was one of the hottest parties at the South by Southwest Music Conference, featuring great food and indie-pop darlings She & Him, singer-songwriters Jakob Dylan and Bob Schneider, the hard-rocking Street Sweeper Social Club and, of course, Cusimano's band, The Cringe.
"Some people enjoy songwriting, and they're always writing down lyrics or new song ideas; I enjoy writing recipes," Ray explained recently to an audience at her talk show. "This is what I do and how I do it."
Mason says it's the creative process that naturally brings chefs and musicians together.
"We both start with a final product in our heads," he says. "As it starts to develop, it starts to take on its own organic identity, and it can end up being really different products. That goes for writing a song or cooking a meal. You create this thing that can be very intimate, and people could laugh at you. You set yourself up for criticism, and that brings a certain vulnerability."
After hearing about the last meal Wainwright made - a combination, inspired by feeling homesick, of sausages, couscous, blue cheese and Brussels sprouts all mixed together - and a cooking segment on "The Martha Stewart Show" with his mother, Kate McGarrigle, and sister, Martha Wainwright, that was so disastrous, Stewart made him "abandon his station," you would think Mason would take it easy on Wainwright.
It turns out, though, that watching Wainwright look uncomfortable is part of the fun.
"I'm a pro . . . musician," Wainwright says playfully in the makeshift kitchen studio of a Williamsburg warehouse loft. "I know how to mix . . . an album."
And Mason doesn't give up, having Wainwright pound some rabbit cutlets.
"Now, you have to crack four eggs," Mason says.
"Oh, God," Wainwright replies.
Interaction is the key ingredient
After all, the Brooklyn-based Mason says "Dinner With the Band" - which will include everyone from Lightspeed Champion to Andrew W.K. in its 16-episode first season - works whether the guests have any cooking experience or not.
"It's about the interaction," Mason says. "I just want it to feel like we're kinda hanging out. It makes for better TV. This isn't a tutorial. We try to pass on information, but people aren't sitting at home writing down this recipe. As long as whatever is happening behind that stove is making for good conversation, it works."
And with Wainwright, there's always good conversation.
Whether he was playfully flirting with Mason, dubbing him "a hot man with a hot pan" or joking how he never learned to cook because he was playing piano while his mother and sisters were in the kitchen - "I would play and, depending on how good I was, I would get fed," he says - Wainwright was as quick-witted as ever.
"There's no off-switch on Rufus," Mason says.
Wainwright is far more comfortable behind the piano, where he performed three songs for a small group of fans huddled around him. After he plays "Who Are You, New York?" he lets out a sigh of relief. "This is the first time I'm playing this for an audience," Wainwright says, though clearly the recent death of his mother is also weighing on him.
The show's director instructs the crowd to look happy for the cameras, adding, "Smiles translate to happiness."
"But this is a very sad song," Wainwright says, before launching into "Zebulon," the story of the drowning death of a boy he had a childhood crush on, as well as one of his mother's favorite songs from the new album.
Of course, Wainwright knows when to lighten the mood, offering some personal revelations ("I'm actually not a very good pianist, I've developed my own style out of laziness," he says) and some jokes.
And then he brings it back to the food, wrapping up his musical set with a plea.
"Sam, I'm hungry," he says. "I might die."
Luckily, the rabbit schnitzel, spaetzle and those parsnips were there to save him.
Guest chefs 'Dinner' has on the back burner
Chef Sam Mason, host of IFC's "Dinner With the Band," is also a part-time DJ at The Woods in Williamsburg on Sundays, focusing on what he says is "cool country from the '40s, '50s and '60s."
That familiarity made it easy for him and the show's producers to come up with a wish list of artists to cook with.
So, who's still on the list?
"I've always thought he was a fascinating human being," Mason says of the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer, who has conquered everything from new wave to country to chamber music. "I hung out with him once at a George Jones concert. And by 'hung out,' I mean 'sat next to him.' "
"They're just awesome," Mason says of the prog-metal heroes, who had a banner year last year, thanks to their "Crack the Skye" album. "They wanted to do it, but they were on tour."
Another heavy-metal act, with an emphasis on the heavy and a love of the mythology, is working on the follow-up to 2008's "Gods of the Earth."
The alt-country rockers from Memphis made their major-label debut last year with "1372 Overton Park" and probably would fit in best in one of Mason's DJ sets.