Whiteland grad pens rock star cookbook to benefit autism group

Playing with and writing songs for Ozzy Osborne, Vince Neil and Billy Idol is one way to solidify a reputation.

Phil Sousson has proven that he can shred with some of heavy metal’s heaviest. But just as impressive as his musical talent might be his skill in the kitchen.

His Mediterranean pan-seared branzino with anise zucchini and mini grains is a gourmet-level recipe that blends distinct flavors together into a savory dish.

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Sousson is one of dozens of rock stars to contribute to a project Whiteland native Kenny Wilkerson is putting together. The longtime musician and bassist for the hair-metal band Nova Rex has compiled a cookbook with recipes from more than 70 rockers, including members of bands such as Quiet Riot, Poison, Stone Sour and Twisted Sister.

The idea behind the project is to share dinner with your favorite rock star. But Wilkerson also wants to use the book to raise awareness of autism, as well as raise money for programs aimed at families dealing with the condition.

“Who doesn’t want to see what your favorite rock stars make? Not all of them are cooks, but everyone can cook something,” Wilkerson said.

“Rockin’ Recipes for Autism: Volume I” will hopefully be out in early 2019, with proceeds going to the nonprofit We Rock for Autism.

Autism awareness is a subject that Wilkerson cares deeply about. His 17-year-old son, Gunnar, is on the autism spectrum, having been diagnosed with Asperger syndrome.

Though his son is high functioning, he understands how the condition can impact families at all levels. In the dedication to the book, he writes about how perplexing it was when Gunnar seemed to be behind developmentally as a child, would have outbursts in school and had trouble socializing.

When doctor’s diagnosed Gunnar with Asperger syndrome, it presented a completely new challenge.

“I was happy we had an answer, but there was also grief, exhaustion, anger, hopelessness, anxiety and fear that accompany this condition,” he wrote in the dedication. “I wondered how life would be for him, for me and for the family. I had my work cut out for me. I had to learn about the autism spectrum and Asperger.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control, 1 in 59 children has an autism spectrum disorder. The condition impacts children from every racial, ethnic and socioeconomic background.

“You see all these things with autism now. You hear about it all the time. Everybody has been affected by it. People don’t know how to interact with (those who have it), so that’s why awareness is so important,” Wilkerson said.

This is where the rock star cookbook comes in.

For Wilkerson, tapping into connections within the music industry was easy. His roots in rock run deep. After he graduated from Whiteland Community High School in 1985, Wilkerson moved to Florida and formed Nova Rex. The band rode the popularity of the hair metal wave of the mid-1980s, in the thick of the scene that birthed Motley Crue, L.A. Guns and Guns N’ Roses.

In recent years, Wilkerson has helped resurrect the band. They were featured in a comedic documentary, “Nova Rex: Ain’t Easy Being Cheesy,” which is featured on the Documentary Channel and Netflix. They were ranked as one of the top 50 greatest hair metal bands of the ‘80s by VH1, and a reworked lineup has led to Nova Rex concerts and new music.

Wilkerson also hosted a radio show in Florida. During the run of his show, he would often have musicians and rockers on as guests.

“I was basically interviewing my buddies. I was talking with one guy, and he was from New Orleans. He said he had a gumbo recipe that his grandmother passed down, so I got the recipe from him,” Wilkerson said. “It was great.”

In passing, Wilkerson would mention the recipe to other guests and musical friends, and they’d get excited with their own dishes and recipes they wanted to give him.

At first, he just kept them for his own personal use, but he kept gaining more and more. Guys that he never would have imagined as foodies had given up their hard-living rock lifestyle and focused on good, clean food.

“It’s funny, you’d see all of these 50-year-old rockers who used to be into drugs, and now they’ve gone vegan,” he said. “But all these guys were into food. Some of the ones I reached out already had cookbooks, or owned restaurants, or were doing something else with food.”

Wilkerson started aggressively reaching out to all of his rock contacts, asking for recipes. A surprising number of people were happy to comply.

Frankie Banali, the drummer for Quiet Riot, made a mean pumpkin ravioli with gorgonzola sauce di francesco. Poison drummer Rikki Rocket offered up his black bean burger sliders with sriracha aioli. Stone Sour drummer Roy Mayorga provided instructions on making ki-lua hash, a hearty pasta casserole.

Those recipes could make up the heart of the book, Wilkerson said.

“I see it as a coffee table book, the kind of thing you could put out and people will talk about,” he said.

But at the same time, the collection would help support a worthy cause as well. Because of his experience with autism, Wilkerson reached out to We Rock for Autism and expressed interest in supporting their work.

We Rock for Autism is a non-profit organization based in Florida that focuses on increasing acceptance and understanding of autism. The organization provides music therapy for autistic children, which research has shown can promote relatedness, relaxation, learning and self-expression, as well as addressing multiple developmental issues.

The group also organizes events and concerts specifically catered to families and individuals with special sensory needs.

Partnering with Wilkerson has been an exciting project.

“Seeing the work and dedication is he putting into this cookbook is very inspiring. We Rock for Autism is honored that he chose our origination to benefit from this project and are 100 percent behind the idea,” said Chris Wilson, president of We Rock for Autism. “Our primary focus is providing music therapy to children with autism, so having a book full of rock star recipes was the prefect fit.

“Promoting autism awareness is always appreciated and we really think this book is going to bring awareness to a larger audience.”

Putting together a book has been a challenge for Wilkerson, compared to his past endeavors making music and films. He’s been assembling the recipes, setting type, getting photographs and images of the rockers taking part, and putting it all together.

But the hope is to have it ready to go to press in the next few months, he said.

“I’m committed. When I’m committed to something, it’s going to happen,” he said.

To help raise awareness in his hometown, Wilkerson will be hosting an event Dec. 20 at Planetary Brewing Co. in Greenwood. The meet-and-greet will help promote the cookbook, which people can pre-order, and Wilkerson will be signing autographs and hosting rock trivia.

“We’re just having a fun night that night to get the word out about the book,” he said. “

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Kenny Wilkerson rock ‘n’ roll trivia

What: A meet-and-greet featuring Wilkerson, a Whiteland native and bassist of the hair metal band Nova Rex, to raise awareness of his upcoming cookbook of rock star recipes, "Rockin’ Recipes for Autism: Volume I." Fans can meet Wilkerson, play trivia and preorder the book, which will be released in 2019.

When: 7 to 9 p.m. Dec. 20

Where: Planetary Brewing Co., 188 S. Madison St., Greenwood

Learn more about the book: RockinRecipesforAutism.com