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Harold Haff: Performing in the Kitchen

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Eating three massive meals a day, all with dessert, was how a young Harold Haff spent his summers on his grandmother’s farm in northern New Jersey. Everything was fresh and homemade (on lucky days there was a meatloaf), and from an early age, Haff was passionate about food. However, it wouldn’t be until after earning a bachelor’s in music education from Montclair State University and a master’s in trombone from Juilliard in 1972 that Haff would return to his love for food and ultimately become a chef instructor at Le Cordon Bleu in Atlanta. 

Several years after graduating from Juilliard, trombonist Harold Haff, shown here demonstrating cake decorating, pursued another passion: his love of food.

(Photo by Charles Crisman)

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Eating three massive meals a day, all with dessert, was how a young Harold Haff spent his summers on his grandmother’s farm in northern New Jersey. Everything was fresh and homemade (on lucky days there was a meatloaf), and from an early age, Haff was passionate about food. However, it wouldn’t be until after earning a bachelor’s in music education from Montclair State University and a master’s in trombone from Juilliard in 1972 that Haff would return to his love for food and ultimately become a chef instructor at Le Cordon Bleu in Atlanta. 

In 1969, while on tour with a Broadway show, Haff watched on television from a hotel room as Juilliard moved into its next home at the shiny new Lincoln Center. “I thought to myself, man, that’s where I gotta be!” Haff said in a recent interview. Sure enough, a few months later he was accepted into the studio of Ed Herman, then the principal trombonist of the New York Philharmonic. It’s this type of go-getter personality that led Haff to success in the culinary world, as well. Haff loved every bit of being at Juilliard, from subbing with the Philharmonic to playing brass quintets with Phil Smith (B.M. ’74, M.M. ’76, trumpet), now principal trumpet of the New York Philharmonic, to discussing Freud with conductor James Conlon (B.M. ’72, orchestral conducting). He remembers long days when everything was about music and that he always wanted to play, even when it did blow through most of his hearing. But, as a foodie at heart, did he take advantage of all of New York’s great restaurants in his free time? “We were more into the places that had cheap pitchers of beer,” Haff, 62, said. 

Upon graduating from Juilliard, Haff dabbled a bit in freelancing and private teaching, but after a few years of this he decided that it was time for something different. “I was so involved in being a musician that it really took me two years of talking to myself every day, of coming to the realization that I needed to make a change,” he recalled. “I got up one day and I said, ‘It’s time.’” And what better change to make than to go back to his love of food? So, in 1977, Haff applied to the Culinary Institute of America, where the instructors are as accomplished in their fields as the teachers at Juilliard. Think ear training teacher Mary Anthony Cox in chef whites, demonstrating cake decorating. 

After studying at the C.I.A., Haff worked for two years in Zurich, where he pursued his career in the food industry by working in baking and pastry, and was also able to see various opera and orchestral performances. After a few more food industry jobs in Europe, Haff returned to New York City to be a chef. He held a variety of positions, cooking in a private club near the Stock Exchange, as well as working in food manufacturing. He eventually left the city and worked as a sous chef at the Hannover Inn in New Hampshire, opened a bakery in Vermont, and, with his wife, started a specialty food company, which sold early American foods. 

Then, six years ago, he pursued another love: teaching, and landed his current job as a chef instructor. “Standing up in front of a classroom is how I ended up fulfilling my desire to be a performer,” said Haff, as he went on to describe the many parallels between being a chef instructor and a musician. Every day when he goes to work, he strives to achieve that same level of communication with his students that an orchestra works to attain with an audience. And sometimes, students in a classroom emit the same energy level as that of an audience that has to sit through the same old Haydn symphony before they can hear the new Christopher Rouse piece that they really came for. “After a good class, yeah, you get really pumped. You really get a buzz on when everything goes the way it should have gone,” said Haff, describing a feeling familiar to any performer. 

When he’s not cooking or teaching, Haff is drinking and writing (not at the same time). He is a wine enthusiast, and is currently working on a diploma from the International Wine Center. He’s also in the process of writing a book, due out early next year, on the founders of American Cuisine. 

 

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