Labor of Love

Chef and entrepreneur Alan Hughes pays the bills with cooking, but music is in his heart

With Alan Hughes, chef extraordinaire and lead singer of the hard-driving band Prole, songwriting and baby-making have a lot in common. They both require some serious rocking.

"Somebody who makes songs has a cosmic duty to be wise with the [words they choose]. It's almost like human conception," says the 36-year-old Argentine transplant.

For example, "Señor Presidente," from Prole's last album, Desobediente, is an open letter criticizing how our leaders fill their coffers with the people's money, and then lecture us about how to live our lives. "Listen Mr. President the discontentment is widespread. The people don't agree with your behavior. They have calluses on their hands and the souls of their shoes are worn thin," he sings.

On the other hand, there's "Pelo de Concha," a cut from Prole's upcoming album. The title, which is Argentine slang for pubic hair, is based on a crass Latin American saying: A pubic hair pulls more weight than two cows.

The true Alan Hughes is both crass and sophisticated. He's like the restaurant venues he creates: fine dining in a relaxed, come-as-you-are atmosphere. In Miami, he is best known as a chef who has cooked for Madonna and J.Lo, and a co-founder of One Ninety Restaurant, the much-beloved bohemian restaurant in the Design District (which has moved to the Albion Hotel in South Beach). But for him, taste is a momentary pleasure, while music feeds his soul.

"I see Prole as one of those bands that's not waiting for their breakthrough because it's the process that they're most interested in. Every time we go on stage for a performance, it's like going to church. When I have a gig with Prole, I feel like I saved a year of psychoanalysis. It's like therapy," Hughes says.

Prole's audiences have been somewhat limited, since they are neither straight-up hard rockers nor one of Miami's up-and-coming fusion bands. The group has always felt happier rocking at seedy joints such as Churchill's than trying to sway the social and political consciousness of teenyboppers at Latin pop venues like Macarena. "Those places play it safe. The bands need to be neat. I'm not doing music to play it safe. I'm doing music to say what I want to say," Hughes explains.

Hughes grew up in Buenos Aires, where he would help his British mother whip up plum jam in the kitchen and then run down the street to watch his rocker cousins jam with their band Demos in the back yard cottage. "It was like hearing thunder and running towards it. It gave me this kind of chill," Hughes recalls. It was the mid-Seventies, and rock groups such as Yes, The Rolling Stones, Genesis, and Argentina's own Sui Generis embodied the defiant spirit of a generation increasingly discontented with the right-wing politics that fueled the country's military dictatorship.

By the Eighties, Hughes was working in Buenos Aires as a model, apprenticing with world-renowned chef Francis Mallmann (who now owns Mendoza in Miami), playing reggae in a band called La Zimbabwe, and falling in love. At age nineteen, he left it all to explore Europe, landing first in Madrid, where he eventually found work as a cook. While Hughes was spending peso-less nights sleeping in the Madrid metro stations, blanketed in newspapers, La Zimbabwe released its first album (in 1987) and became a huge success in Argentina.

After struggling in Spanish kitchens, Hughes went to New York to study at the French Culinary Institute, later serving as one of former New York City Mayor David Dinkins's chefs. In 1995, Hughes moved to Miami, where he opened the catering company Culinaria.

It was there that Hughes returned to his rock and roll roots by creating the band Koalición, which evolved into Prole about five years ago. "Prole is probably a reincarnation of a few groups I had," he says. "I was always the songwriter, but a few band members had to pass through before I found the right formula. Part of being a Gemini is that I'm good at starting things but not very good at finishing them." That's where the rest of the band comes in. Drummer Ricardo Mazzi, bass player Jhonattan "Negro" Campbell, and new guitarist "El Chato" Hernandez help him complete the cycle. "They are amazing musicians," says Hughes. "I come up with the concept or the idea of the song -- maybe 80 percent -- and then they end up putting in the breaks and cuts and arranging the melody."

Despite Prole's "for the love of art" mentality, goals help maintain its momentum. With the help of new manager Julie Starker, it's rehearsing to record its third independent CD in February and to tour Argentina in April. Starker has encouraged the group to record both Spanish and English versions of its forthcoming album to reach a wider audience. She has also persuaded the band to spend more time in the studio and turn its local shows into coveted events by playing just six times per year.

On December 26, Hughes held his first Il Porco (The Pig) Festival at the original One Ninety Restaurant. The lineup included Prole, Tereso, Kayak Man, Nacio, La Lacra, and Gnarly. He plans to make it a biannual event that emphasizes local music and can compete with what he terms "Mickey Mouse" festivals such as Rock en Miami, which rely heavily on foreign invites.

Hughes admits that putting food on the tables of his clients helps him do the same for his kids at home. Gourmet cooking is more lucrative than rocking out at Churchill's Pub.

"Sometimes that duality becomes a little hard. It's very interesting because I can spend sixteen hours in a kitchen, but if I don't have a little rock and roll every so often, I'm a dork. It happens the other way around as well," he says.

Hughes pauses to study the texture of the wine in his glass before nodding and declaring, "This is the life." Then Alan the rocker returns. "[Prole] has an amazing connection, a really great working relationship. There's this seriousness involved -- you're making a baby."

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