Music While You Eat, Music While You Cook

Mario Batali has a video on Serious Eats (click here) in which he talks about the music at his restaurants: he says that during the day he plays opera to keep things relaxed; at night he plays pop music to keep tables moving. This immediately made me think of my local coffee shop.

My local coffee shop (where I go quite often because it’s convenient) is what some might call “hardcore.” The staff is heavily tattooed and the music they play is often so loud and grating and angry and assertive that sometimes I’m scared to go in. Literally, the other day I walked in the door and they were playing some kind of death metal album with smashing drums and a screaming lead singer who implored the listener to “BURN MOTHER F*CKER BURN.” I wondered if it would be possible to play music any less welcoming; if you had to construct an album that would scare customers away, wouldn’t this be it?

And yet every table was full. Every seat at every table was full. The coffee at my local coffee shop is fantastic, and I think that must have something to do with it. But maybe this music creates a community, maybe fans of death metal need a place to congregate? Or, more likely, maybe people just don’t care? I certainly have grown used to it as I pop in there day after day; at a certain point I can tune out the sentinels of death and focus on my coffee and my work.

Can you do the same? How important is music when you eat out? Frank Bruni marked Mario Batali down in his review of Babbo for the blaring rock music. I personally enjoy the music at Babbo–I’m a fan of Radiohead and R.E.M. and I find it comforting to hear music I like while I eat; it makes the experience more accessible, less intimidating, more welcoming to younger customers. (That’s probably how Babbo stays so hip.)

When I’m in my own kitchen cooking, I find music essential. The right music while I’m chopping, slicing and stirring can transform a mindless chore into a spiritual exercise–a vacation from all the voices in my head that blare at me throughout the day to “call your mother,” to “finish that novel,” to “send money to those children you sired on that trip to Indonesia.”

I have an absolute favorite album to cook to lately, even though the album is anything but new. It’s Kate Bush’s “The Kick Inside” and I have my friend Ricky to thank for turning me on to Kate Bush. I must have listened to this album 8 million times at this point: I think it’s magical. Other albums I’ve been cooking to lately: Ryan Adams’s “Easy Tiger,” Regina Spektor’s “Begin to Hope” and “Soviet Kitsch,” Jenny Lewis’s “Rabbit Fur Coat,” Wilco’s “Sky Blue Sky,” and the ultra peppy “Life in Cartoon Motion” by Mika. (I better be careful, with a list like this I’ll be called a racist.)

What have you been listening to lately while you cook? How important is music to your cooking process? Do you have an all-time classic that’s always good to cook to? (Mine might be the soundtrack to “Stop Making Sense” and the Original Cast Recording of “Evita.”) Who knows–maybe you’ll turn other readers on to some good cooking music in the comments.

[Musical Endnote: Through The Situation List I received opening night tickets to Tom Stoppard’s Rock N’ Roll (don’t hate me.) It’s a deeply challenging play–it left Craig a bit cold–but I was really excited by its scope and its intelligence and mostly the love that Tom Stoppard shows for his characters. If you like Tom Stoppard and you have the chance to see this play, I highly recommend it. Just don’t eat while you watch it–that would be rude.]

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