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Backyard Paella Party

In South Austin, an album wrap party is celebrated with a sangria-spiked feast, and dessert happens when the guitars come out.

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Musician Adam Ahrens is apron-clad in his backyard, carefully placing seasoned quail onto a hot grill and talking about temperature inversion. He’s referring to the paella- in-progress that’s simmering in a large, shallow pan alongside the sizzling birds. “It’s all about the transfer of heat,” he explains between sips of sangria, “when the cooking stock meets the temperature of the sautéed rice. Choosing a fuel that can burn for the appropriate cook time at a low to medium temperature for large or small pans is crucial.” His preferred fuel, he says, is oak lump, because it’s “petroleum free and easier to control.”

It’s not the type of obsessive food talk that you’d expect from a casual barbecue alongside a gleaming Airstream (a.k.a. song-writing space, man cave, and occasional guest room) with colorful plastic Mexican banners dancing in the late-summer breeze. But Ahrens takes his cooking seriously. As a result, he and his wife, Rose Reyes, have become known for parties like this one—casual backyard fetes for musician friends, where the food is restaurant-worthy and the night ends in a song circle. “Food is central to Adam’s parties,” photographer Jody Horton tells me. “He’s an accomplished chef and has truly mastered a handful of dishes. Most, including hoisin ribs, barbecue chicken, and paella, rely on his considerable ability at the grill. His ribeye is nothing short of perfection.”

Tonight they’re celebrating the release of Ahrens latest CD, Black Pepper Corn, an instrumental mix of original and cover songs and his fourth studio album, as well as the end of a summer residency at Lamberts Downtown Barbecue (residency co-hosts Jazz Mills and Dan Dyer are among the guests). Black Pepper Corn features a mix of roots music influences: the acoustic fingerstyle playing and Hawaiian slack key that have amassed a loyal fan base in Austin, along with the additional sounds of accordion, ukulele, and the 10-string tiple. The diverse range suggests that Ahrens’s passion for exploring various cultures and perfecting a range of techniques has migrated from the studio to the kitchen.

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Adam and Rose met in 2003 through their mutual friend JT Van Zandt (son of Townes, the legendary Texas troubadour). Rose has two daughters, Noel (who’s married to Will Bridges, the co-owner of Lamberts) and Carmen Stricklen, and a son, Sam Stricklen.

Rose is chief operating officer at Giant Noise, but she has serious chops in the music industry. She’s managed artist Tish Hinojosa, produced the annual Folk Masters (including a Freddy Fender tribute concert) series at the Paramount, and worked as director of music marketing at the Austin Convention and Visitors Bureau, where she promoted the Austin music industry to the world. This is clearly a house devoted to music: vintage album covers are framed on the walls, alongside concert posters of their friend JT and other musicians. An impressive collection of LP's and vintage guitars share space with metro shelves piled with cookbooks.

Adam got into serious cooking when he was living near Asti, eating there several times a week, and became friends with chef/owner Emmett Fox. Dinners at Fino—and dinner parties at the chef’s house—were the gateway for a paella obsession (a dish Ahrens calls “a lifetime pursuit”).

His food mentors inspire tonight's menu: Emmett and Lisa Fox are guests, along with Daniel Olivella, the chef of Barlata. He’s got a strong dugout, but the chefs are not hovering around the grill—they’re sipping Rose’s boozy sangria (red wine, brandy, fresh citrus juice, and a splash of cava) in lawn chairs, nibbling prosciutto-wrapped melon, and dipping squares of Emmett’s Spanish frittata in romesco sauce. Olivella's two-year-old, Gael, drags a small toy suitcase around the living room. “Adam and Rose’s parties are so great because they love cooking for us, which isn’t always the case being chefs,” Emmett says.

When the paella has rested for a few minutes, allowing the rice to absorb any remaining pan juices, guests file through the tiny kitchen to serve themselves. Dinner is eaten on the back porch, with plates perched on laps or a picnic table topped with ceramic pitchers of mexican marigolds. The paella is perfectly cooked, and it’s nice to be with a Texas crowd happy to eat quail with their fingers and help themselves to seconds.

Eventually the conversation gravitates to growing Austin, and the disappearance (and uncertain future) of time-honored music shrines like the Broken Spoke. It’s a debate where nostalgia usually rules, but Mills optimistically contends that the people who make music will still be here, they will simply find new venues. "People will always gather together to hear songs,"she says. Rose’s daughter Noel puts their backyard feasts in the same category. “If Rose and Adam moved, I would be devastated, but we’d still have all the memories of the good times we’ve had here,” she says.

Before the fresh blackberry cobbler is finished, the guitars start to come out. Dan Dyer sings a song about Marfa, and asks if anyone else has had car trouble on the long drive out west (several hands shoot up). Adam plays the slack key (which features a sticker of a hula girl) and sings a Hawaiian-influenced song and Jazz's sweet, old-fashioned drawl joins in. As their voices meld seamlessly and rise into the night sky, you can’t help but think every once in a while Austin lives up to its fabled myth, and you’re lucky if you’re there to hear it. Especially when cobbler is involved.

Credits

Photography by Alysha Rainwaters

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