Johnny Ciao’s long, strange trip 

We dish with the culinary rocker who’s fed the Grateful Dead, Michael Jackson and more.

Johnny Ciao launched his culinary career behind the scenes, but what scenes they were: gigs as backstage chef for the likes of the Grateful Dead and Carlos Santana, which led to a stint cooking for Michael Jackson at his Neverland ranch. In recent years, Ciao has taken his show on the road with the Blues and Funk Buffets, culinary concerts for which he’s partnered with such acts as Steely Dan and Yes, often using the events to raise money for charity. This weekend he hosts a Blues and Funk Buffet at Postcard Inn on the Beach for the benefit of Chi Chi Rodriguez Academy in Clearwater. A public private partnership school dedicated to children who are struggling academically and socially in grades four through eight, the academy was established in 1979 by pro golfer Juan “Chi Chi” Rodriguez, Raymond James Financial founder Bob James and educator Bill Hayes.

Saturday’s fundraiser will mark the fourth time Ciao has been involved with a Chi Chi event. Per usual, he will play his harmonica while cooking up all kinds of culinary creations, accompanied by the Culinary All-Star Band, a mix of traveling and local musicians (including local bluesman Sarasota Slim). Ciao recently shared details with me about the event, his favorite dishes and his background as the “culinary rocker.”

CL: What can attendees expect at a Johnny Ciao Blues Buffet?

Johnny Ciao: Lots of delicious and healthy foods and awesome music. I’ll be schmoozing, making conversation and sharing great stories. Four Roses bourbon will be on site sharing their products, which are included in a few of my recipes. I call these events Blues Buffets because I originally began doing them at the Original House of Blues in Cambridge, Massachusetts. St. Petersburg artist Woo will be painting live at the event. His painting will be auctioned off and its proceeds will go to Chi Chi Rodriguez Academy. Bass player Mike Griot, and other possible special guests, will be there as well.

What foods will you prepare?

I’ll prepare most of my signature dishes, newly created bourbon dishes and collaborations with Chef Henry Fiorillo of the Post Card Inn. Sometimes, I spontaneously create dishes as I prepare them, so I may do that as well. Dishes I may prepare include:

• Michael Jackson’s Fruit Boats: I created these for the King of Pop during my one-year stay at Neverland Ranch. This was one of his favorite finger food recipes. The fruit boats are Belgian endive leaves filled with a puree of fresh pears, peaches, strawberries, raspberries and other fruits, topped with crushed walnuts and gorgonzola cheese

• Willie Nelson’s Texas Stew: I created this at a Willie Nelson picnic. This Tuscan stew contains shrimp, vegetables, jalapeños and fresh herbs. It was a big hit with Willie, Merle Haggard and Linda Rondstadt

• Psychedelic Bean Salad: This is a salad of cooked black beans, raw jicama, bell peppers, red onion, jalapenos and cilantro tossed in a creamy balsamic dressing. It was a high-energy backstage salad for the Grateful Dead

• Beef Short Sliders: These are braised beef ribs in Four Roses bourbon, with a mirepoix, spices and beef stock. They are served on slider buns with mashed potatoes and crispy onion straws

Does the Culinary All-Star Band travel with you and consist of the same members, or does it change with each city where you do an event?

No, usually I assemble musicians in the areas where I am performing, but some do travel like Doug Bell. He performs with Bellevue Cadillac and does mostly swing and dance music. Sarasota Slim plays the guitar.

What kind of work did you do in the entertainment industry before you switched your focus to culinary entertainment?

I began my career by working behind the scenes in the entertainment industry. I started in radio on a rhythm and blues stations right here in Tampa Bay, promoted jazz concerts in Atlanta, Georgia, then went on to artist management, representing celebrities like Hank Aaron, Isaac Hayes, and other sports and music personalities.

What was it like cooking for Michael Jackson and living at Neverland Ranch?

It was a fantastic and worthwhile experience, despite what the general public perceives. He was a genuine, honest and appreciative human being.

Do you have anything exciting around the corner?

Most likely, I’ll be getting a national television show. It’s actually in the works at this time.

Do you do charitable events, like this Chi Chi event, often?

Yes. I do at least three to five charitable events per year.

Which areas at Chi Chi Rodriguez Academy will get to use proceeds from the Johnny Ciao Blues Buffet?

The proceeds will help rebuild the kitchen facility. Upgrades include a new stove, equipment, and perhaps a floor.

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