It all started with a phone call.
Shortly after Adam Gold’s restaurant — Syracuse’s Funk-N-Waffles, a casual joint that offers exactly what it promises in both music and eats — was featured on the Food Network’s Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives, he got a call from the show’s host, Guy Fieri.
Fieri was driving down the highway, listening to the album he’d been given just an hour earlier by Gold. It was a record by Gold’s band, Sophistafunk, a trio from Syracuse that plays a blend of classic funk and hip-hop. One of the band’s songs is about sending someone off into the afterlife on a dragonfly. Coincidentally, Dragonfly was the nickname Fieri had for his sister, who’d recently passed away from cancer. It was an emotional moment.
“He said, ‘You guys are blowing my mind. I love this music,’ ” Gold recalls.
Then Guy Fieri dropped the bomb.
“He said, ‘I’d love to have you perform at my birthday party.’ ”
And so, this past January, Sophistafunk went to California and played Guy Fieri’s birthday party. The Village Voice caught up with Gold to chat about his experience working with Fieri, that New York Times review of Guy’s American Kitchen and Bar, and, yep, the dude’s hair.
Catch Sophistafunk tonight at Stage 48 at 8 p.m. Support their fundraiser to convert their van to run on vegetable oil here.
Tell me about the start of Funk-N-Waffles and Sophistafunk.
I went to Syracuse University. I got my bachelor’s in 2006, and in my junior year we started throwing these house parties. My band at the time, late at night, we’d just start serving waffles. We thought it was just a clever way to feed people because it was so late at night, and you never see a shitty college party have food, so we just stepped up the game a little bit at the college party.
Waffles. One of those simple things that you can do a lot with.
The band was instrumental, just keys and drum, no vocals, so it was just this deep basement-groove four-hour sesh. These shows we were playing were so long. It was like, “We need to feed these people so they’ll keep dancing.” And you’re right, waffles are very versatile, they’re like little ovens. You can bake anything you want in them.
When you opened Funk-N-Waffles, how did it move from just being a college-party thing to a real thing?
Well, after the first party, we got into the pattern of every weekend at someone’s house. It was a little catering service we were doing all over the city. And by the time we graduated we entered a business-plan competition. We did really well. We didn’t win any awards, but the judges thought it was a good idea.
We graduated in ’06 and took a road trip out to the West Coast. It was our first time on the West Coast and we wanted to get a vibe and see what it was like, with organics — local and natural. And we brought that West Coast mentality back to Syracuse, to a little coffee shop that was failing. We just took over the coffee shop and turned it into Funk-N-Waffles.
Describe Funk-N-Waffles for our readers who haven’t been there.
It basically feels like you’re walking into someone’s basement. All the furniture we picked up off the street or in a Salvation Army. Everything’s really worn in, beat in, the kind of place that like you could bring a three-year-old kid to play with his toys on the floor. You order, you pay, we serve you great food. We also spin vinyl records all day. Now that I have an iMac, with thousands of my funk records on it, there’s just funk playing all day.
Does Sophistafunk play there?
Hell, yeah, we play there. We used to have a weekly show a few years ago. Now we’re getting a little busier, we have to play bigger clubs now, just to keep the business project moving forward, but we do still play at Funk-N-Waffles.
Do other bands come in and play?
Yeah. It is a full-service music venue. We have shows five days a week.
Does it have to be funk?
No. In fact, it’s difficult to find a lot of good funk. Truth be told, I don’t listen to any demos or anything anyone sends me.
So you just let people play?
Yeah, I just let people play. I don’t even have a beer and wine license. I don’t even have any alcohol there. I’m applying for a beer and wine license, and we should have it by the fall, but that’s a new development.
So how did Guy find out about you guys?
I got a call at the restaurant, I think it was in July or something and it was like, “Hey, this is Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives and we’re scouting in Syracuse, and you seem like you might be a great fit for our TV show.” So then they eventually picked us to be on the show. There were six in Syracuse that they shot, and we were one of the six. It took a couple days of shooting, and then on the last day Guy comes, and that’s when we do the good part that you see on TV, where Guy’s with the owner and they’re chumming it up.
I remember telling the band members that we were actually able to work into the episode a little cameo of the band performing. The show thought it was kind of cute that the owner of the place played at his restaurant in a band, and they ended up using one of our songs to open and close our section of the episode. So the band itself was filmed for a bit of the episode, and I told the guys, “Hold on. Wait until Fieri shows up, and bring a bunch of XL T-shirts for him.” So we basically just gave him a care package. And he’s a busy guy — he had like five more restaurants to do. But An hour after he left, I got a call from Guy Fieri, and he’s like “I’m listening to Track 7. You guys are blowing my mind. I love this music. You know, I’d love to have you perform at my birthday party.”
That’s got to be the best phone call ever.
Yeah. I was freaking out. I was like okay, we’re playing his birthday party.
And he called you!
That’s huge, genuinely. That’s the thing. A lot of people hate on Guy, but we’re the proof in the pudding that he’s a really genuinely real dude with, like, a great love of music and, like, a really deep heart, man — and a great chef.
How much have you followed the coverage of his restaurant opening in New York City?
Oh, I’ve heard about that. I love the dude now, so I watch out for him. I read that and I was sad. Whoever at The New York Times wrote that seemed like he had something out against him. It was beyond what a bad review should’ve been. Guy is one of the most accessible people in the world. That’s the reason his show works.
What do you mean accessible? Just that he makes chicken wings instead of foie gras?
Yeah. He doesn’t make you feel bad if you don’t know how to cook very well. He’s not Bobby Flay, who’s going to do some crazy shit that you don’t understand. He makes food accessible. But more importantly, he’s harmless in the sense that he’s not going to offend anybody anytime soon, and he’s not afraid to be his own quirky self. He’s not really trying. People think he’s trying all the time, but he’s just being himself. That’s his style, you know? Late-’80s surfer dude. Let him have it. That’s the way I see it. You don’t watch the show to learn how to cook. You watch the show to see what America is making.
Tell me about Guy Fieri’s birthday party.
Well, it’s a two-part thing. We missed the bigger night when there’s, like, hundreds of Hollywood folk, from my understanding. That’s the night when it’s raging. He had us perform at the friends-and family-gathering. So we basically played for about 100 people, and it was at one of his restaurants in Santa Rosa. We went and set up our PA system, and it was really mellow. Played on a balcony. Sophistafunk plays pretty much all originals. It’s not like he hired a cover band or anything like that. He didn’t give us any direction. He just was like, do what you do.
What was the crowd like?
He has a production company, Knuckle Sandwich, that is connected to all his TV stuff, so he had some chefs that he’s met over the years. And he lives in the Santa Rosa area, so friends and family is the best way to describe it.
What kind of food was served?
His place is called Tex Wasabi Rock-N-Roll Sushi, but when the party started he had separate catering from outside chefs. I think he had friends of his bring in awesome food and prepare it there. There was definitely sushi and stuff. I don’t know if we got as many of the hors d’oeuvres, but we got to eat the Tex Wasabi aspect. Pretty funky place. It’s like pulled-pork sushi.
What’s your relationship with Guy like now?
We have since then performed for him one other time at the International Houseware Association Convention. Guy currently has a line of kitchen products for a kitchenware company called Lifetime. They make pans, cutting boards, knives, you name it. If it has Guy’s name on it, it’s produced by this company. So at this convention he was cooking and showing off his products, and at the end of the convention he had a private party in his booth, and he had us play a set right above where he was cooking, again on a balcony.
Did you feel any sort of Guy Fieri bump in popularity?
I think it’s definitely benefited us to be associated with him. He’s not historically a music-industry person, so in that sense it’s not as effective as, like, Questlove asking us to open for the Roots tour for a month. But that said, he’s a very popular dude and the majority of the world really likes him, his product, and his personality. I wouldn’t say there’s been some crazy bump in business and our value doubled or something, but he’s basically this really kind cat who’s very generous and truly loves music, loves having fun, and is not afraid to think outside the box. He was the only booth at this convention with anything interesting. I think Paula Deen was there. But he was the only dude who had entertainment. He wants to associate music and fun with his brand. He’s not afraid to be creative. We’re a funky, odd, three-piece hip-hop funk duo that you wouldn’t even think jives with his own style, and yet his appreciation for the music and the content of our lyrics and us as people is enough for him to want to associate with us. I really respect that. It seems like something you wouldn’t expect when you meet a television personality.
What about the perception you had of Guy before you met him, versus now?
When you watch the show, he’s just this hilarious dude and you’re, like, “Wow, this has got to be a fun guy.” He likes to bust people’s chops. I’m a Jewish kid from New Jersey, so I know how to bust chops, and I can take chops busting. It was interesting shooting the actual episode because he came through, and we meet on camera — I didn’t meet him before we started filming — we just went at it. The energy was really natural and he knows how to draw the entertainment out of someone.
Do you have any stories about busting chops?
At my restaurant we don’t have a real kitchen. It was pretty funny to have him come shoot an episode here when it’s like, man, I’m not even a real chef. I’m just a freakin’ college kid with a band who figured out how to make crazy waffles. He came in and he was busting me: “Oh, yeah, you got a fridge? A 30-dollar grill from Sam’s Club?” I was trying to bust him by using his words, like, “Oh, you’ve gotta use that S&P and use that fresh ground pepper!” I was trying to act like I had some sort of knowledge in the kitchen. And he totally knew I was just winging it.
Did you talk to him about The New York Times review?
Nah, I didn’t.
Yeah. Probably not something to bring up.
You know what. I don’t think he really cares, man. He does his thing and he does it well.
Tell me about the photo you got with him. You’re playing the kitchen utensils like instruments.
We were at the IHA Convention, and we were like, “Let’s get a picture.” And Guy is like, “Okay, hold on.” So he takes out a cutting board for me and gives my drummer a ladle or something, and gives the rapper a sauce pan. And he’s like, “Play these instruments.” And we were like, “What?” [Laughs.] So we’re holding these kitchen utensils and jamming on them in the air. That’s the accessibility I’m talking about. He’s not afraid to be just fun and cheesy and make people laugh. And he doesn’t really try. He’s just being himself. That’s what I respect and that’s a lot about what our band writes about and what we’re trying to do ourselves. Just say like, look, we don’t care what’s popular out there. We want to make music that we like and whether or not you like it is up to you.
Last question: What’s his hair like in real life?
I don’t know if I can comment on his hair, man. [Laughs.] I’ll say this: It’s real.