How I Went From Being a Backstreet Boy Impersonator to a Sustainable Seafood Chef
Being a fake Backstreet Boy in 1999 meant traveling the world, playing for huge crowds, and even opening for Weird Al. But there's a reason why I gave it up for food.
I started being a Backstreet Boy impersonator in '99. I was a musician anyway, and a good friend of mine was in the band at the time. They used to have a standing gig every weekend at Canada's Wonderland, which is kind of like Disneyworld, outside of Toronto.
The band was called Backstreet's Back. There was a management company out of Toronto that basically did only tributes. Shania Twain was Shania Twin, and there was an Eagles tribute called Hotel California. They each had their own little punny name.
I was there just hanging out with my friend backstage. I didn't realize at the time that one of the guys was actually leaving the band—funny enough, he was leaving to do a Billy Joel tribute. If you saw him, you would understand why. He looked exactly like him. And obviously, when you do this kind of thing by yourself, there's a lot more money involved.
They asked if I wanted to join, and I said, "Sure, whatever, that sounds like fun." They traveled a lot, so it was a good way to get out and get an opportunity to see the world. But it turns out that it was a serious production—we literally had all the same costume changes, all the same choreography as the real Backstreet Boys. Everything was exactly the same as the original show with the exception of some of the more elaborate props.
We once opened for Weird Al in a national park in Nebraska, and it was the national conference for the Boy Scouts of America, so there were over 40,000 people there. But they were awful to us, so we took all of their food and all of their beer and left.
You have to look like your guy—that's the first and foremost thing. We used to do a lot of manipulation with makeup and stuff because you don't see anyone up close anyway. But even more importantly, you had to be able to sing their parts. I was a theater major in university, and in high school, I was the youngest member of an all-male chorus by nearly 30 years. They were very, very accomplished at harmony, and it was good for my development. Every guy in Backstreet Boys had a very unique voice, so I was basically just chosen simply because of the parts.
The band was fun for a while. You get to travel, and we got to play some really big venues. We once opened for Weird Al in a national park in Nebraska, and it was the national conference jamboree thing for the Boy Scouts of America, so there were over 40,000 people there—that was a big show. But they were awful to us, so we took all of their food and all of their beer and left.
It was so popular that they had to develop a second band so that they could shoot them around to smaller gigs, festivals and fairs and things like that. We called them the A-band and the B-band. In the A-band I played Howie, but in the B-band I played AJ. The A-band was cool because obviously the shows were much bigger, the locations were a lot cooler, massive stadiums and arenas. But I didn't really do as much singing compared to when you're one of the leads. That's the whole point—you want to sing.
It was pretty crazy, especially with the little kids. We would do an hour-and-15-minute show at Wonderland and then do hours of signing autographs—you would sign the band member's name. The other members, who were younger, got off on all that stuff, and to me it was really boring. It was very weird and it got to be too much. I was the oldest member of the band, long past the teenager stage, which is why I became uninfatuated with everything very quickly. I was only in the band for about a year.
It's a tough gig. The guys who do it well and do it long term, I give them props. It's a hard life. If you're going to do it on a high level, you have to be perfect, because people expect you to be as good as the real deal, and you're always shunned by other musicians. Everyone thinks you're a joke. It was difficult because I was trying to be my own musician at the same time but was constantly getting the shaft. That's part of the reason I left. I wanted to be my own guy, signing my own name.
I thought, I'll go back to food where I can stay in one place and still be creative and work toward that same level of being familiar to the general public based on your skill level.
I was always cooking through all of that. I met my wife—and our restaurant Flying Fish's sommelier—Rebecca in a small town just outside Toronto. She was still going to university and we met in a restaurant where we both worked. This is before she started work in a prison, as a food services officer in a correctional facility doing food budgeting and menu planning.
Whenever I was home, there was an awesome chef at the restaurant where Rebecca was the manager. He left there to run a country club and asked me to go with him, and said that I could work with him whenever I was in town. I'd take off and do music, then come back. I had to be doing something to pay the bills in between tours, and that was always a good opportunity.
I dedicated everything to food when I left music. It was eight years ago now, since we moved here. We came for "a year," and stayed. When we came to the Bahamas, it became a lot easier to get noticed here than when we were in Canada. Someone once told us, "You're not a big fish in a small pond here, you're a whale in a thimble."
My favorite restaurant in the world is Le Bernardin. I've never had a better dining experience in my life. I hold Eric Ripert in the highest regard, and a lot of the way I think about food comes from that experience. When we opened Flying Fish, we wanted to have the feeling that we got when we went to dinner there, so we sort of started in that realm.
The only thing that actual grows in the Bahamas is the seafood—crab, lobster, fish. Last week, we were diving for sea urchins. It literally is all you have to work with, but I also prefer it. I think it's more versatile than meat.
The problem here isn't a lack of product, it's a lack of knowledge and overall awareness about sustainability. Our stone crab fishery is probably the largest in the world, but the local community don't always recognize that resources are limited and need to be properly managed to ensure future supplies. People here, including the fisherman, need to feed their families; that's the reality. The stone crab should be the ultimate seafood for the future because it's truly sustainable, and it's probably my favorite seafood to work with—incredibly delicious. They're sustainable because you can take one claw, and if you leave the other claw, it can defend itself and will survive and regenerate. But if you take both claws, it becomes prey for predators. Unfortunately, most people aren't aware of that, so they take both claws. There's the same problem with lobster—some people here call juvenile lobsters "summer crabs," and will hunt them during mating season.
Lionfish has actually become increasingly harder for me to get. Right now I have a bunch of teenagers going out and spearfishing them for me. Fishermen don't want to do it. It's time-consuming and dangerous. Nobody wants to deal with them. But it's a great fish—really sweet, very delicate, the skin is really thin so it gets super crispy and has tons of flavor. It's very versatile and you can do all kinds of stuff with it. Also, we're its only predator, so it's also kind of our moral obligation to eat it. It really is decimating our commercial fisheries here.
In the Bahamas, we really focus on snapper and grouper. Those are the main species we harvest, and that is the main diet of the lionfish. It's very difficult for the fisherman here. One of our fisherman was saying that he was pulling up his grouper pods, and there were no grouper in them anymore, just lionfish.
We don't serve anything out of season in the restaurant. It's a philosophical thing. Pretty much everything we serve is line-caught, and I know all of my fishermen by name. But not everybody in the Bahamas is like that. They're very forward-thinking here on a government level here to try to protect what they have—with the exception of conch. It's a very endangered species, but because it's the national food of the Bahamas, they refuse to protect it. They talk about stopping export, but 80 percent of the conch in the world that's consumed is consumed in the Bahamas. It won't make much of a different unless you stop it at the source.
I perform every Sunday at Flying Fish, and it's become our busiest night of the week. It's just me and my acoustic guitar, and I'll play whatever I feel like playing. Usually, it's classic, old school, rock 'n' roll stuff, though Sunday nights have ended in Alice in Chains and Tool. Sometimes it gets out of hand.
I just like to play, and that's my only time to do it. Right now I'm creating a new menu and trying to prepare for the spring season. It's a lot more demanding, so music really is just my one-day escape.
As told to Hilary Pollack
This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES in April 2015.