BWW Interview: 'Dancing Chef' Natasha MacAller on Leaping from the Ballet Barre to the Kitchen
One of the most poignant moments in A CHORUS LINE, is when the question is asked 'If today were the day you had to stop dancing, how would you feel?' In the musical, it of course then leads into 'What I Did For Love', but in real-life, it's a question asked by dancers the world over.
I had the opportunity to chat with Natasha MacAller, dancer and former THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA cast member, who herself transitioned over from the world of dance to the world of cooking. The self-proclaimed "Dancing Chef" has a new cookbook that's now on our shelf of must-use recipe books.
We spoke about a wide variety of topics, including how she got started, where cooking and food fit into her early life, jumping from ballet to Broadway and now into the kitchen and much more. Read on below to read how her dance life and career as a chef intertwine.
Let's start at the beginning, when did you start dancing?
I started dancing when I was 6 years old... Just two weeks into taking ballet lessons I knew that's what I wanted to be.
Is that something your parents signed you up for? What was the spark?
I went to this ballet school with my best friend who had started taking ballet lessons so my mom put me there. My friend (and we're still close!) decided to try ice skating and they told her she had to give up ballet, so she went and did ice skating, and I stayed!
So, dancing was something you continued with growing up? Was it primarily ballet as a youngster, or other kinds of dance?
I was given a scholarship when I turned about 11. We had to do all types of dance: character, modern, etc. It was mostly ballet though; it's the strictest form of dance a person can do. It's the most demanding on the body in the sense that you rotate your feet, hips and arms. You get into these positions that aren't as natural [as other forms of dance]. That's the most precise form of dance, but the one I love the most.
Did you ever do any theatre growing up or was it always just dance?
I did a little bit of theatre in Junior High school but not so much, and I sang in the school choir.
My parents were singers when they met, so we had lots of music in the family. I loved playing musicals and singing along to the cast albums, especially THE SOUND OF MUSIC, but ballet was pretty much all consuming.
With good grades, I was allowed to attend high school just one week as I turned professional at 13 and dancing with a local LA company six days a week. Ballet became my life.
That's a young age to turn pro! But, evidently not so much in the world of dance vs. Broadway - Is that something your parents were supportive of?
They gave me lots of encouragement. Dad wanted me to be the a 'traditional first born', but I was completely focused on dance. I proved to my parents that I could be responsible, plus learned how to tell time at a very early age so I wouldn't be late for my ballet lessons! I used to change the clocks.... My Mother was always running late... so I would change the clocks. (Sorry Mom!)
How did you transition from that to professional companies?
As we all do, I auditioned. In the local LA company, we did performances and short tours. We were invited to perform at the iconic Delacorte Theater in Central Park; my very first trip to New York. The entire company stayed at the Empire Hotel... I think I was 13 and had my own room!. It was an extraordinary experience. A few years later, I moved to New York City as I was determined to get into ABT. Of course I didn't, so off I went to Europe. My first audition in Holland was full of dancers that I'd taken class with at David Howard's just a few days earlier! I could just get on a train and go city to city nervously clutching letters of recommendation. I got a job in a week.
And it was a twisty path before you then made your way back to New York?
I suffered a fall in a company in Belgium; I tore muscles in my back and fractured my spine. They said I'd never dance again and walk with pain for the rest of my life. I did as much rehab as I could, and I ended up going back to my home town in California. I was allowed to, under special dispensation by the director of the College of Creative Studies, go to school at UC Santa Barbara. Ironically he would host the superstars of the NYC Ballet at that time Peter Martins and Suzanne Farrell each summer. From there, I began ballet lessons again. Early each morning at UCSB, I would go to physical therapy, and slowly, but surely the pain subsided. Slowly working back to fighting form, within a year I returned to NYC, auditioned and got into the Joffrey Ballet.
I proved those doctors wrong. It made me realize how much I love ballet and how much I missed it. If you are fortunate enough to have the chance to love what you do and are passionate about it, go for it! I was fortunate to have a second chance. The joy of dance never leaves you. I'll always be a dancer even when I can only visualize what it was like to finish a perfect triple pirouette. One's passion and determination allows one to succeed.
Tell me about the Joffrey Ballet experience...
It was such an extraordinary experience. It was amazing to be accepted into such a versatile, renowned company. I was chosen by Robert Joffrey himself-what an honor. I so enjoyed dancing there and have friends to this day. And it was slightly terrifying. I still have hand written notes of the choreography.
And, what came after that?
I went to Ballet West in Salt Lake City. I danced with them for about a year and a half, then the director moved to Boston Ballet. He took two of us with him, including me.
I performed in beautiful Boston for five years. I went to New York to visit, and a friend of mine took me to a performance of PHANTOM. I watched the dancers and thought "I can do that!"
An opportunity presented itself and I auditioned. They were looking for just one dancer out of about a hundred of us there and it was the most out-of-body experience. I walked into the room and knew I had the part. That has never happened to me (before or since!). It was an extraordinary time. I went from Swan Lake in Boston Ballet to a Broadway singing butterfly ballerina in five days. It still boggles the mind, but what a life and career-changing challenge! I was so very fortunate I had that chance.
Rebecca Luker was doing Christine at that time. I was just brought in as a temporary replacement; I was in the company for four months, then transferred to the LA Company (led by Michael Crawford) where I finished the run.
Switching from ballet to Broadway in five days, what did you find the most suprising or challenging?
So many things! Singing and dancing at the same time on a staircase in 2-inch heels was challenging, but fun. The choreography was very different, and dancing on a metal stage with about 102 trap doors, you had to understand the stage quickly. There were so many things, but I loved it. I thank Sarah Brightman for insisting on great dancers in the original company because it's the perfect opportunity for a ballerina. The choreography is so demanding... It gave ballet dancers the opportunity to be on Broadway.
While doing all of these other creative things, were you always interested in food?
My parents loved to host dinner parties and both my Mom and Dad loved the entertainment. My Mom would get the kids involved, so that's always been part of me. In ballet companies, I always loved baking things. The ballet dancer has a strange relationship with food.
We would be laid off over each summer, I would supplement my unemployment by making food for baby showers, catering and parties. I was always very interested in all sorts of food. When the time came to think about doing something else with my life, I knew that it would either be physical therapy (because I love helping people), or to be a chef. Physical therapy would take another ten years of school to practice, and being a chef, not so much. So, off I went to culinary school.
Was it a long or agonizing decision to step away from dance?
You always have it in the back of your mind. Dancing, and ballet in particular, is the only art form with a 'sell by date.' Your body can't do what it needs to be able to. It's something that you always know is coming and hope you can go for as long as possible. When [PHANTOM] closed in LA, I had to really think a lot about what I wanted to do next. I tried straight acting-it was not for me. I've spent so much time gesturing without words in ballet that it's a difficult transition to think of speaking onstage. You start at such a young age that it's who you are. You don't have an identity other than being a dancer. It takes awhile.
People think, how do you go from being a ballerina to a pastry chef? It's simple to me. It's another art form. It's performance art. You're being creative and making something beautiful for the audience. A lot of dancers become Pilates trainers, or go more in the direction of physical therapy. It's difficult to go through for each and every dancer. I wish everybody strength and that they are able to find something they love to do besides dance.
Because of this passion, was there less fear of "Will I find this creatively fulfilling?"
I didn't find it terrifying. I miss the feeling of the movement. I was sad more than anything. I was excited to see if my brain still worked with other things after all those years of just ballet. The passion and excitement was there.
And this started off in the catering world?
When I was struggling in New York, I was preparing individual meals and taking them to people to put in their freezers so they'd have a week or two worth of food. I would do crazy picnics and cocktail parties. My first job in NYC was scooping ice cream with the idea I'd tire of tasting the delicious confection-it didn't work. During PHANTOM, I invited the cast and crew to the Hamptons where I had use of a friend's sailboat. I did this big party. I did all the food. My parents love for dinner parties and entertaining rubbed off on me.
Where did the idea for Vanilla Table come from?
It was inspired by this charitable New Zealand family. They wanted to help these impoverished people on this beautiful isolated island in Tonga get running water in their village. Next they began planting and growing vanilla with an island family soon creating income and self- sufficiency with what has now become award-wining vanilla. That's where the inspiration for Vanilla Table was born.
What sort of recipes can we find in the book?
Literally, soup to nuts! There's soup, nuts, and everything in between. It's vanilla soup and vanilla nuts. Half the book is savory and half the book is sweet. It is integrating vanilla, which has beautiful depths of flavor. I've got it in everything from salads to tomato soup to pasta, fish, etc. and there are also desserts of course, even a chapter called bevies and bar snacks. In addition there are 33 contributing chefs from all around the world who each donated a recipe. This book is a real passion, and it's done with love and excitement. It's spreading the vanilla joy to everyone!
What has the world's reaction been?
I'm grateful to have very positive feedback from readers and chefs. Manja's stunning full color photos make it a great coffee table book even if you're not a cook! All recipes are written in three measurements, so it can be used almost anywhere.
What skill levels is it geared toward?
There's a mixture of recipes. Depending on what the chef contributed, there are a couple of more complex recipes. There are also, very simple recipes. They are well explained, and there's a beautiful photograph of each one. It gives you ideas of how to plate it. There are lots of tips. There's also an introduction page: Vanilla 101, that tells you about all the different types of vanilla and where it comes from.
You've also become involved with an exciting new restaurant?
Yeah! It is called Sausal. It means willow in Spanish... we call it Nuevo Rancho Cuisine. The food is inspired by the Rancho that once stretched from LAX to Palos Verdes- Rancho Sausal Redondo (Round Willow Ranch) capturing the flavors of Mexican, Native American, Spanish and South American cooking. It is fire grilled fish and meat. It's five minutes from the LA airport. Everything is made from scratch. I'm doing the desserts, all hand-made from scratch.
Next for you is another book?
I'm working on my next book about spices, Manja and I are photographing everything in early 2016, to be released in October 2016, which is not far away in the book world! It will have a similar feel to Vanilla Table, a companion of sorts with contributing chefs from all around the world donating recipes to this book of all things spice.
Ok, final question -- what's your favorite show that you've seen recently?
My go to is MATILDA. I just think it's brilliant in its simplicity. Of course, AN AMERICAN IN PARIS was beautiful with its ballet, and I always love seeing PHANTOM when I can.
If cooking is an art and baking is a science, Natasha MacAller is a chef who flawlessly dances in both worlds. Her "less is more" approach to cooking, baking and pastry has made her stand out among her peers and continues to catch the attention of the Los Angeles Times, Bon Appetit, Food and Wine and NZ's Life and Leisure and Dish magazines. A former professional ballerina, Natasha brings the same diligence and precision to the kitchen as she did to dancing. She's known as the Dancing Chef. These careers may seem world's apart - from ballerina to chef - but to Natasha, or Tash as she's called, they are both performance arts, creative disciplines that demand dedication and hours of painstaking practice. As she explains, they both offer a fleeting experience, whether it's a whirl across the stage or savouring one of her decadent chocolate creations.
For more information, visit http://www.dancingchef.net