Back in May, Chef Todd Payden could be found grilling up about 50 chicken breasts to perfection while Beck’s buses sidled up to the beer garden at the Santa Barbara Bowl. The concert venue is one in a long line of rock ’n’ roll–related cooking gigs for the 47-year-old, who shows that there’s more than one way to a backstage pass. “I started playing punk rock as a kid,” explained Payden, who sports culinary tattoos, including a sleeve of kale, radishes, beets, and more, “but my sandwiches were my ticket on the tour bus.”
Payden’s career began 30 years ago at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium under Marsha Brevitz, who helped the 17-year-old enroll in cooking school. “It was the best thing I ever did,” said Payden, explaining that it taught him the “mother sauces” and how to prepare dishes properly. “But as I traveled and watched other chefs, that was how I learned. I have credentials, but I learned so much more in the school of hard knocks.”
One such lesson came when he accidentally served sax player Clarence Clemons a raw lobster, getting himself and the whole crew fired. Replacing Payden in Santa Monica was Irene Cole, whose company, Backstage Catering, now runs food at the S.B. Bowl. “When I came to S.B. and met Irene for the job at the Bowl, she said, ‘Thank you for my kid’s college fund,’” said a grinning Payden, who is also a consulting chef at the Garden Market on Santa Claus Lane in Carpinteria, working with his wife, Sherrie Payden, to keep the menu fresh. Along the way, he’s also been on tour with, among other rock legends, Bruce Springsteen, Fleetwood Mac, and, this summer, Neil Diamond.
And in the second full-circle event on his résumé, Payden now also works as a private chef. That circle opened eight years ago, when Payden got divorced and moved into a basement in Nebraska. The owner had covered the walls with pictures of Andy Granatelli, the race-car legend who lives in Montecito, and Payden would stare at the posters, wondering about the man behind the legend. A few years later, after Granatelli’s personal cook opened a restaurant next to the Garden Market, Payden’s résumé exchanged hands. Like that, he was cooking for the legend. Said Payden, “I just feel like me and Mr. Granatelli are meant to be together right now.”