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<img src="http://forums.egullet.org/uploads/1158718601/gallery_29805_1195_1292.jpg" hspace="8" align="left">by Tim Hayward

I once met one of the guys who started the Hard Rock Cafe. I was keen to discover the philosophy behind that most emulated restaurant franchise. It was aimed, he explained, at young Americans on dates. He said that young people were scared of restaurants. They were terrified of snotty waiters, being made to look stupid when they couldn't understand the menu and not knowing what to say to their date. His answer was frighteningly simple: friendly staff, an idiot-proof menu, walls lined with sure conversation starters and finally, "a soundtrack of favorite tunes turned up loud enough to drown any silences.”

This has made me, understandably, nervous about the combination of food and music. I can no longer eat in restaurants with “background” music, no matter how subtle, and my ill-concealed rudeness about music at dinner parties means I'm not getting invited to so many.

I take particular issue with “The Dinner Party Album." There's one every year -- some hideous piece of facile contemporary Muzak with enough crossover appeal to offend no one but me.

I'm old enough to remember Sade's Diamond Life over student meals where a home-cooked lasagne was the height of sophistication, but since then I've sat through Diana Krall, interminable Afro Cuban All Stars, endless Air, numberless volumes of Ibiza Chill, more Diana Krall, infinite Jamie Cullum, great existential wastes of Coldplay, more sodding Diana Krall and, once, Nigel Kennedy's Four bloody Seasons on a wrist-slashingly endless loop. All melodic, devoid of challenging variety in BPM and -- apart from the Vivaldi -- inoffensive.

I'm sorry, but I'm just not going to take it any more. I mean, for the sake of politeness, I'm prepared to swallow my culinary pride and consume yet another Jamie Oliver-inspired, Middle Eastern-inflected brown bloody casserole, but doing it to the droning accompaniment of that anodyne dreck is beyond human endurance. An unchallenging mulch of well-tried ideas, warmed over by a telegenic but ultimately talent-free celebrity. Much like the food, I suppose.

Back in the kitchen, on the other hand, music is vital. If cooking is theater then the soundtrack is a vital component. I once worked between two line cooks with diametrically opposed musical tastes. In the end we had a negotiated truce over control of the kitchen boom box, which involved a paper schedule far more complex than our shift rota. If you told Bruce he was getting three extra back-to-backs next week because Kenny was taking off to go bass fishing, he'd grumble but comply. If Kenny's Bowie/Stooges/Velvet Underground CD replaced his country/zydeco/bluegrass a second earlier than the appointed hour he was liable to throw hot fat.

The only thing they could ever agree on was The Pretenders' Tattooed Love Boys when we were in the weeds.

Even in my own kitchen, I can get as fussy about the tunes as the knives. Some of it depends on what's cooking. Roast beef requires something uniquely British; Elgar or possibly Ian Dury and the Blockheads. Anything Italian moves us into Louis Prima singing Zooma Zooma or Angelina (the waitress at the pizzeria). Ragu construction can be enhanced by the soundtracks to Broadway Danny Rose or Big Night and Frankie, Sammy and Dino in jolly Neapolitan mode on Live at the Sands is almost impossible to beat while cranking a pasta machine.

With some dishes, the choice is less obvious. This weekend I'll be jugging a hare, a huge piece of game, the size of a small deer and hung, nigh unto putrefaction. It will be jointed, larded and then slow-cooked in a stock thickened with its own blood.

Where to go with this one? It's an old English dish so one's mind naturally turns to Handel's Music for the Royal Fireworks or perhaps one of the more recherché organ pieces. All that blood and hanging could take a chap of a ghoulish turn of mind down a path of plainchant or possibly Marilyn Manson. The larding process requires the laden longeurs of a Satie Gymnopedie, but all that knifeplay calls for Nine Inch Nails.

Soundtrack, you see, varies by kitchen task. There's nothing like Glenn Gould's 1981 humming version of the Goldberg Variations for precise and repetitive knifework but for a real pot-banging, flambéing coup de feu I'd probably have to opt for Iggy Pop or maybe The Pretenders, just for old time’s sake.

Someone once suggested Brian Eno's Music for Airports while rolling sushi, but I'm afraid I'd lapse into a Zen trance and have to be carried out of the kitchen to be revived with bacon sandwiches.

Playlists are changing the way we use music in the kitchen. I've already got a few on my 'pod that have been named by recipe and I'm sure it won't be long before someone brings out a recipe book with music as well as wine matching. "Seal the veal escalopes to Crosstown Traffic and segue into any Nightmares on Wax to deglaze the pan." Truly the playlist is a boon, but as with all things, there is a darker side.

Until last week, I'd not cut myself in the kitchen for as long as I could remember. Now I’m no longer paid for it, there’s no need to chop at lightning speeds. Lacking the constant practice of exacting daily prep, my knife skills have atrophied to a comfortable and relaxed competence. Consequently I was completely sanguine about julienning a bag of carrots.

I was, as early autumn sun arced through the kitchen window and the warm smell of fresh bread rose from the oven, experimenting with the ‘shuffle’ function when Noel Coward broke into Mad Dogs and Englishmen. It's a song I particularly like and one that -- such are the delights of the shuffle -- I wasn’t expecting. I launched into a particularly spirited rendition and paying too little attention, picked up the wrong knife.

It was only the tip of the thumb and a half moon section of the nail but Christ, it hurt!

Know your music when using knives. An old favorite compilation, where you’re singing the opening bars of the next track before the last has finished, is absolutely fine, but anything involving the word ‘random’ has no place in the kitchen.

And there may be worse still to come. I just read an ad for kitchen units with a “flip-down flat screen and DVD player.” A whole new world of distraction has, suddenly, to be dealt with. Okay, I’m intrigued by the idea of constructing an enormous, phallic crocquembouche while watching Dangerous Liaisons but I'll definitely be steering clear of the sharp knives and boiling fat.

Tim Hayward is a freelance writer living in London, and former host of the UK forum. He publishes the newsletter Fire & Knives. Photo by the author.

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I once did a lawn party for 300 entirely to whichever Lyle Lovett CD featured that Pony/Boat thing. Ladies were to wear hats, gentlemen morning dress, dress uniforms, or failing either, dark suit and tie. I STILL did those teaparty goodies (two days prep in my home kitchen, with a little jaunt into the vacant house next door to stash overflow in their fridge) to kickin' tunes entirely by and from the Heart of Texas. White-glove service to strings the next morning set the tone for a more refined partaking of the dainties than the preparation had exhibited.

Wow to your list---as a lady of a certain age, I'm totally ignorant of and oblivious to the greater percentage of your choices, but I DO love some rowdy music in the kitchen.

And wow to your exposition of it; the telling resounds, as well. And is anodyne dreck the cause for feelin' no pain? It's usually the activity WITH the music which brings that result, but I've been bored into a coma by an etude or two, myself.

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I once catered an outdoor wedding, which featured a blues band - the old white guy kind of blues. They played a long, long version of that Doors "Woke up this mornin', had myself a beer" song, which I hate anyway. This version was seriously, like 25 minutes long. While it was playing I was grilling bruschetta, and to this day I can't make bruschetta on the grill. It brings back too many bad memories.


"A culture's appetite always springs from its poor" - John Thorne

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When it comes to kitchen soundtracks, I'm with Eno all the way - "Cooking is a way of listening to the radio." Especially Totally Wired on a Sunday evening.

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I like something with a good beat for cooking, especially the kind of cooking that requires lots of chopping. For that I go for De La Soul, Aesop Rock, The Roots, maybe even Jay-Z's The Blueprint, so I can use a spatula as a microphone and sing along with "Girls, Girls, Girls." MIA is good, too ("dash your curry like you're not in a hurry").

For a daunting task, or something that involves innards or bacon or very high heat, you need something that would blow the average person's ears off: The Hospitals, the Coachwhips, Die Monitr Bats, Cop Shoot Cop.

For making desserts, you've got to go with something sexy: Portishead, Massive Attack, Tricky (especially that last track on Maxinquaye), Diplo.


Edited by phlox (log)

"An appetite for destruction, but I scrape the plate."

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Your article reminded me of how much music is a lifeline in a kitchen. The right music can sail you over the weeds or weight your waders in the muck. Calling dupes, pushing food through my window, and listening at just the right level to Motown would get me to the end of a shift any night.

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The cult vegan/punk recipe book, "Soy not Oi!" offers music pairings to play while cooking. Sabbath while making tofu casserole, Bad Brains during vegetable stir fry and such.

Ah nolstalgia.

Nice piece, Tim. As a restaurant floor person, I'm hyper-aware of bad ambient restaurant music: My first job, at age 14 was at a place called "The Tiki Bar:" four nights a week of Jimmy Buffett. It's hardly gotten better from there.


Drink maker, heart taker!

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More restaurants should have local DJs produce mixes for the dining room. I'm sure there are many that will be willing to do it at little to no cost simply to get the publicity.

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I have acquaintences who have been offered exactly that job.

Where I work now, we use the ipods of the staff, who for the most part are up on new & interesting/old & rare stuff. Especially important in Williamsburg.


Drink maker, heart taker!

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Brilliant writing, sir, thank you.

I am now deeply ashamed of the number of Diana Krall songs on the main iTunes playlist I use when people come over for dinner. But surely any girl who'll have sex with Elvis Costello can't be all bad. He seems to need it so much, and I want him to be happy.

iTunes has changed everything. All my stuff is on a computer linked up to speakers in my kitchen/living room. I can now easily spend more time selecting music for a particular recipe than it takes to actually prepare the dish, but there are some real benefits. If it wasn't for cooking, I don't think I'd ever hear Patti Smith again.

I also need a lot of Django Reinhardt/Stefane Grapelli, and I am totally with you on the Goldberg Variations, though I have the Murray Perahia version. And Yo Yo Ma on the cello suites, particularly if you're making a stew.

I wouldn't be so afraid of the kitchen VCR as you; like millions of people (well, Americans, actually) I can easily see the TV from my position at the stove. I can't cook and watch dramas or basketball, but baseball is another story, unless the Red Sox are playing the Yankees.

I just can't have a knife in my hand when I see Johnny Damon come to the plate wearing pinstripes, though I guess it would be safe to rice potatoes.

Actually, my best and latest cooking background music isn't music at all - it's podcasts of Tim Gunn's comments after each episode of Project Runway - though you'd have to be a fellow addict to understand. Not as involved or amusing as New Boots and Panties, much less Mad Dogs and Englishmen, but it's easy to mince to.

As Father Tim says, whatever you listen to, Make It Work.

Thanks again for a great article,

--L. Rap


Blog and recipes at: Eating Away

Let the lamp affix its beam.

The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.

--Wallace Stevens

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I am now deeply ashamed of the number of Diana Krall songs on the main iTunes playlist I use when people come over for dinner.  But surely any girl who'll have sex with Elvis Costello can't be all bad. He seems to need it so much, and I want him to be happy.

I love this response as much as the original posting, thank you both!

Actually, I enjoy well chosen music as backdrop to a dinner party. It definitely provides insight into the tastes of one's host that you might not get otherwise.



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It seems in most kitchens I have worked there seems to be a fight between heavy metal and rap. Now however, reggaeton seems to have popped up and is very popular with a lot of the hispanics. I don't mind the beat, but it gets very repetitive. We have seem to come to a general agreement that everyone likes Zepplin and Floyd, through in some Doors and a little more old classic rock that everyone knows and we can seem to get through the night. As soon as the best cook/dishwasher leaves though, the control of the raido seems to switch at an almost godlike speed to whoever gets to it next.

Also, it is understood that once someone has claimed a station, it can not be changed till that person leaves or gives permission (or the big guy shows up again).

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'Twas ever thus. Your post made me laugh aloud. I had the dubious honor of closing and opening a bar/restaurant for quite some time and the bickering over the music began at 6am and didn't stop until 4am -- 22 solid hours of someone whining louder than someone else singing along. If only there had been iPods (or any personal stereos) back then, I would have probably bought every employee one just to keep the peace and sanity. I'm surprised people haven't taken to listening to their own tunes during prep. I think the kitchen needs to be on the same musical page and rhythm during service but, during the zen-like prep, it seems almost anyone would benefit from whatever helps them concentrate and do their best.

I still chuckle whenever I hear a Billy Joel song and think of Bourdain's only hard-and-fast kitchen rule :biggrin:


Judy Jones aka "moosnsqrl"

Sharing food with another human being is an intimate act that should not be indulged in lightly.

M.F.K. Fisher

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Whe I am in the weeds, I like the Ramones or Iggy Pop.

I shuck oysters at an incredible rate to "Rockaway Beach."

Keep on shucking

Oyster GuY


"Why then, the world is mine oyster, which I with sword, shall open."

William Shakespeare-The Merry Wives of Windsor

"An oyster is a French Kiss that goes all the way." Rodney Clark

"Oyster shuckers are the rock stars of the shellfish industry." Jason Woodside

"Obviously, if you don't love life, you can't enjoy an oyster."

Eleanor Clark

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I also need a lot of Django Reinhardt/Stefane Grapelli,

That's so weird. I just spent the morning making puff pastry to Django then segueing seamlessly into Hot Club of Cowtown for the assembly of crab pasties. (For our American friends, this is a small, semi-circular pie, not something a crustacean pole-dancer glues on to her nipples).

Last night I came over all nerdy and started compiling a playlist of all the songs on my pod that mentioned food and cooking. So far it looks like this...

A Chicken Ain't Nothin' But a Bird. Cab Calloway

All That Meat & No Potatoes. Fats Waller

Banana Split for My Baby. Louis Prima

Beans & Cornbread. Louis Jordan

Boogie Woogie Blue Plate. Louis Jordan

Cake. B-52s

Chicken. The Cramps

Chop Suey, Chow Mein. Louis Prima & Keely Smith

Do Fries Go With That Shake? George Clinton

Downstairs at Danny's All Star Joint. Rickie Lee Jones

Everybody Eats when they come to My House. Cab Calloway

Feed Me. Lambert, Hendricks and Ross

Frim Fram Sauce. Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong

Gimme a Pigfoot. Bessie Smith

Green Onions. Booker T & the Mgs

Hot Tamale Baby. Clifton Chenier

I Need A Little Sugar in My Bowl. Bessie Smith

Java Jive. The Ink Spots

Mashed Potato, USA. James Brown

Matzoh Balls. Slim Gaillard

Memphis Soul Stew. King Curtis

Quiche Lorraine. The B-52's

Red Beans and Rice. Booker T & the Mgs

Saturday Night Fish Fry. Louis Jordan

Seafood Mama. The Andrews Sisters

That Chick's Too Young to Fry. Louis Jordan

Watermelon Man. Lambert, Hendricks and Bavan

Can you suggest anything I should add to my collection?


Tim Hayward

"Anyone who wants to write about food would do well to stay away from

similes and metaphors, because if you're not careful, expressions like

'light as a feather' make their way into your sentences and then where are you?"

Nora Ephron

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That's a great list, chef. I think the 30s and 40s were the golden age of songs about food, though Bubble Gub music in the 70s was a genre all to itself.

Quick check of my hard drive at work turned up:

Ufo Tofu Bela Fleck & the Flecktones

Cheeseballs in Cowtown Bela Fleck & the Flecktones

Frim Fram Sauce Diana Krall

Catifsh Blues Eddie Cusic

I'm Putting All my Eggs in One Basket Ella Fitzgerald

Slow Like Honey Fiona Apple

Big Rock Candy Mountain Harry McClintock

Spoonful Howlin Wolf

Fruit Tree Nick Drake

Taste Phish

Sweet Potato Pie Ray Charles & James Taylor

Breadcrumb Trail Slint

40 Oz. to Freedom Sublime

Steal the Crumbs Uncle Tupelo

Ball and Biscuit White Stripes

Candy Floss Wilco

Pickles Yo-Yo Ma, Mark O'Connor & Edgar Meyer

But the one I immediately thought of was one I don't have - Salt Peanuts, by Duke Ellington. Great song, perfect lyrics.

--L. Rap


Blog and recipes at: Eating Away

Let the lamp affix its beam.

The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.

--Wallace Stevens

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I also need a lot of Django Reinhardt/Stefane Grapelli,

That's so weird. I just spent the morning making puff pastry to Django then segueing seamlessly into Hot Club of Cowtown for the assembly of crab pasties. (For our American friends, this is a small, semi-circular pie, not something a crustacean pole-dancer glues on to her nipples).

Last night I came over all nerdy and started compiling a playlist of all the songs on my pod that mentioned food and cooking. So far it looks like this...

A Chicken Ain't Nothin' But a Bird. Cab Calloway

All That Meat & No Potatoes. Fats Waller

Banana Split for My Baby. Louis Prima

Beans & Cornbread. Louis Jordan

Boogie Woogie Blue Plate. Louis Jordan

Cake. B-52s

Chicken. The Cramps

Chop Suey, Chow Mein. Louis Prima & Keely Smith

Do Fries Go With That Shake? George Clinton

Downstairs at Danny's All Star Joint. Rickie Lee Jones

Everybody Eats when they come to My House. Cab Calloway

Feed Me. Lambert, Hendricks and Ross

Frim Fram Sauce. Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong

Gimme a Pigfoot. Bessie Smith

Green Onions. Booker T & the Mgs

Hot Tamale Baby. Clifton Chenier

I Need A Little Sugar in My Bowl. Bessie Smith

Java Jive. The Ink Spots

Mashed Potato, USA. James Brown

Matzoh Balls. Slim Gaillard

Memphis Soul Stew. King Curtis

Quiche Lorraine. The B-52's

Red Beans and Rice. Booker T & the Mgs

Saturday Night Fish Fry. Louis Jordan

Seafood Mama. The Andrews Sisters

That Chick's Too Young to Fry. Louis Jordan

Watermelon Man. Lambert, Hendricks and Bavan

Can you suggest anything I should add to my collection?

Really spiffy list. And it brought back memories for me. I am in Memphis, home of Booker T and the MG's. Saw them in action a couple of years ago and have a picture of me - in my cups - chatting with Steve Cropper (the guitar player.) Also, I am from New Orleans and my dad was a bud of Louis Prima. He used to take me to a place called Prima's Fountain Lounge, owned by Louis' brother. There was a trio that played regularly there, part of a larger group and the piano player, Roy Zimmerman, was one of my dad's best buds. You might check this link out...oh, yeah, Roy was the piano player for the Basin Street Six...

http://louisianamusicfactory.com/showonepr...?ProductID=5091


Edited by ChefCarey (log)

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Fun!!!

I know, I know. Diane Krall may snuggle up to Easy Listening once in awhile, but I got to say her rendition of "Peel Me a Grape" is a very sexy tease.

On the cake stand just outside the kitchen: Nelly May, Harry Belafonte ("Step in the Line" is good for washing dishes), Lorraine Hunt Lieberson ("My Heart Swims in Blood" might keep one mindful when using sharp knives), The Temptations (yes, okay, so Murphy Brown lives on) and Hillary Hahn playing Barber and Meyer. I find it's not just the dish being made that determines the music, but the amount of time one has before the meal is supposed to be ready and whether you've swept and cleaned the bathroom yet.

As for heavy metal and rap: another reason to be glad I didn't apply to the CIA years ago. I could not do what Buford did at Babbo.


"Viciousness in the kitchen.

The potatoes hiss." --Sylvia Plath

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uh, dear hearts, "spoonful" is not about food.

how about that old country song "if i don't love you, grits ain't groceries".

my kitchen music tends to stuff that gets me sailing: songs by friends mostly ... lyle lovett's "this old house" album (not lovett, the songwriters), jimmie dale gilmore, joe ely, lucinda williams, etc.

dinner parties are a little tougher. sometimes i'll program two sets of shuffles. when folks arrive, i like stuff like sarah vaughn, miles (oooh, sketches of spain makes me hungry), dusty springfield. if the night reaches a certain ... pitch, then i'll switch to stuff that's a little more jumping ... professor longhair, los lobos, etc. then when it's time for everyone to settle down and go home, there's nothing like al green.

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Makin' and eatin' chile rellenos to Jimi and a cold Tecate!


"I drink to make other people interesting".

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My dinner party playlist has veered toward the more downtempo, groovy side. Thievery Corporation, Massive Attack, Zero 7, etc. I sprinkle that with a little samba, because Bebel Gilberto just sounds so sexy.

I wouldn't listen to Coldplay or Air normally. Why would I play them when I'm trying to entertain?

I understand the notion that it distracts away from the food, but keep in mind that people go to restaurants and dinner party not just for the food, but also for the environment. If they were there just for the food, cafeterias would be popular and buffet lines would be all the rage.

Instead, people are looking for ambiance, specifically to allow them to have a good time with (and forgive me for saying so) their friends, not the staff. Of course, with a dinner party, their friends ARE the staff, so it works out.

The other aspect of it is to create an atmosphere in which there's a base level of noise to help distract away from any lack of conversation. I don't like taking first dates anywhere that's too quiet. No echo chambers, no matter how good the agnolotti is.

I love the sound of a busy restaurant; the chatter, the clink of glass, the clang of the grill, the sizzle of oil and the whoosh of fire. Ah, the sweet music of an industrious crew.

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