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.]

41 comments

  1. Lately I really like to cook to bittersweet, its almost hypnotic. And when I have guests over I’ll play an unobtrusive mix in the background (Elliott Smith, Snow Patrol, Jimmy Eat World, Jeff Buckley, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, etc.)

  2. I actually enjoy listening to Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne” while im in the kitchen, don’t know why really, there’s just something incredibly soothing about that song…

    /Asger

  3. for realz people—ben harper, jill scott, india.arie, maxwell, corrine bailey rae, odetta,

    les nubians, keb mo, tracy chapman, i’m just sayin….

  4. Thanks for a great article, I am an institutional cook in a nursing home and we listen to music in the kitchen daily, we all share our different tastes for music, it keeps us from falling asleep to Lawrence Welk’s version of “Tiny Bubbles” and it helps to put the love into the food. I have shared some awesome times with co workers recently we went to see one of the bands that I had seen once and knew they would be great to see again. They are called Small Town Sleeper and while they were on tour in our area I cooked them a couple of homestyle meals to ease the fast food diet they had been on. :) Marla

  5. I’ve been listening to Ryan Adams a lot lately too. Also love Les Nubians “One Step Forward”, Lauren Hill, India Arie, Ella Fitzgerald. Oh, I love to cook (or clean the kitchen) to Sublime. I save that one for when jr. is out playing or napping…

  6. I would be at home in your local coffeeshop– I’m convinced my best cooking happens when I’m listening to Cradle of Filth or Lamb of God. Marilyn Manson is hyped but has a dependably good back-beat for chopping veggies to. But I have been known to deviate with The Dresden Dolls or go really crazy and switch to Nat King Cole. Clearly, my neighbors are confused.

  7. Great post! I think a restaurant can completely change it’s atmosphere depending on the music it selects. Even the food can taste different based on the music played.

    For me, I love to cook with a little B.B. King in the background.

    ~Eddie H.

    http://oeno.blogspot.com

  8. If you don’t have a computer or laptop near you when you cook, you’re missing out!

    Whenever I cook, I have a laptop on the table behind me playing radio streams via Pandora, Slacker, and lately a new one called Jango. They’re free to use, and you can really get a good mix of music you know and music you don’t.

    That being said, I agree with the person above who said Keb’Mo’ and Tracey Chapman – they’re awesome to cook to!

  9. If you don’t have a computer or laptop near you when you cook, you’re missing out!

    Whenever I cook, I have a laptop on the table behind me playing radio streams via Pandora, Slacker, and lately a new one called Jango. They’re free to use, and you can really get a good mix of music you know and music you don’t.

    That being said, I agree with the person above who said Keb’Mo’ and Tracey Chapman – they’re awesome to cook to!

  10. I must be getting old and cranky, but I hate loud music in restaurants and what is it about sports events, like tennis, where every free moment must have some sort of music playing? I love music but, I must say, I seldom play it when cooking. I am currently enjoying the old standards by Rod Stewart and, of course, Tony Bennett.

  11. Aye, I used to use Pandora too, its really an amazing system and very inspirational too! That being said, due to copyright issues, they’ve changed their user policiy, so now only users with an IP from the US can access it, leaving us Danes (and others obviously!) out of the loop! Such a shame though, I miss it alot!

    /Asger

  12. I cancelled my cable service at the beginning of the spring because -well- there was more important things to do than watch tv. I found that I didn’t enjoy cooking as much and went weeks without throwing something together. I had to have the tv on. Having many types of visual stimulation going on around me was the only way I could focus on the task at hand. And it wasn’t good enough to play a movie or music – it had to be something random and something I could periodically look at. Incidentally – mythbusters ends up being the best.

    As for loud coffee shops/restaurants. The louder the better. I can sit there contently reading a book or typing on a laptop in the loudest most busy place on the planet and be completely focused (the more people with tattoos the better.) But if its empty with just one or two people – I find I can’t accomplish anything and end up pondering that if I only had a ferret I could really have fun with the load obnoxious girl on the cell phone sitting several tables down. Very dangerous indeed.

  13. When I’m cooking alone on a large scale, I like loud music, music I can chop and slice to. The Tea Party, A Perfect Circle, Tool. Sometimes even angry death metal of your coffee shop’s variety.

    I’ll switch to indie rock or classical if I have company, though.

  14. In my every day life, I listen to music very similar to your cooking music (Jenny Lewis, Rilo Kiley, Clem Snide, Nada Surf, Wilco), but nothing makes me happier than cooking in the fall/winter, while it is dark outside already after work, listening to Johnny Cash (San Quentin), Bob Dylan (Blood on the TRacks) or Bruce Springsteen (Nebraska). Something about those albums/artists just feels right when cooking. Like they are keeping you company, telling you a story…

  15. I tend to like classical music while I’m cooking. My all-time favorite cooking music is Beethoven symphonies, but I’ll often put on a classical radio station for some variety. In restaurants, I don’t care as much about the type of music as I do about the volume. If I’m spending a few hours dining with someone I don’t see often but have to either shout to be heard or eat without talking, I don’t care how good the food is – it’s a negative experience overall.

  16. I’m a big music fan and collector, so my tastes vary from day to day. But if I’m cooking alone (usually when my wife is on her way home from work), I often like to rock out to something intense while I work. Favourites for those days include At The Drive-In, The Pixies, The Weakerthans, LCD Soundsystem, Hot Chip, Daft Punk, Refused, The National…

    Mellower days will bring out Regina Spektor, Portishead, The Decemberists, The Beatles, etc.

  17. Consistently, for a year: Toots and the Maytals when cooking, and Erik Satie’s Gymnopedies when eating. Delightful! The CDs got so worn out from playing every night that they can hardly be used now.

  18. I have to agree with Eyeoftherabbit, having a laptop around while cooking is awesome.

    Last year, in fact, I wrote about this very subject — we have a 1902 house with a tiny kitchen, and I was cooking pasta one night while listening to iTunes playing music from the 1920s (old 78s snagged from archive.org).

    Something akin to time travel. :)

  19. Lately I’ve been blaring the Scissor Sisters while I cook. I guess some trashy-glittery-disco helps me chop! If it’s not that… it’s Johnny Cash. It’s gotta be Johnny Cash.

  20. Squirrel Nut Zippers are great for those manic cooking days when I’m trying to get a lot of dishes made and I need a pick-me-up. At the end of a long day though, I mellow out to Beck’s Sea Change album while I cook.

    Incidentally, if you’re into Ryan Adams, his old band Whiskeytown has an album that’s one of my all-time favorites for listening to while in the kitchen: Strangers Almanac.

  21. Great Post! One of the most therapeutic things for me to do is cook while listening to music and drinking a glass of wine. I tend to zone others out and focus when I’m actually cooking so I listen to Ella, Frank, Louis and old musical/movie tunes.

  22. It sort of depends on what I’m making, but I’ve found that my all-time favorite album to listen to while making pasta from scratch is “The Best of Miles Davis & John Coltrane”.

  23. Show tunes!!! I know it’s super-cheesy, but I love being able to sing along while I cook and there’s nothing so satisfying as singing along to show tunes. :)

  24. I’m also a fan of the music at Babbo – I feel like it makes younger customers feel welcome at a nice restaurant, and older customers a probably feel a little hip.

    As far as my own cooking, I find that when I’m listening to music (usually wilco, springsteen, feist, or ryan adams) while cooking it’s a truely relaxing experience. When my roommate is home and the TV is blaring as I cook, I don’t feel as relaxed. I feel rushed to get dinner on the table, even though it’s only for me. Probably because my mom was always rushing to get dinner on the table while my sister and I watched TV in the background.

    On another food/music topic, I just posted a Talk topic over at Serious Eats about what music to play during the Thanksgiving meal.

    http://www.seriouseats.com/talk/2007/11/music-to-chew-by-what-to-play-during-thanksgi.html

  25. Seems like music is a great accompaniment to just about everything! For those folks hip to online audio streams, I definitely recommend checking out: http://www.kexp.org – it’s a very cool and eclectic mix of music. Their reggae show on Saturday mornings is great, as is their blues show on Sundays – sweet brunch-making tunes… Keep on cookin’.

  26. I actually don’t like pop music at restaurants because I prefer the music to blend in. Otherwise, I feel that I just sit and listen to the music instead of enjoy the company I am with. I also usually don’t listen to music while cooking, because my husband and I live in a small apartment, and he is usually watching tv while I am cooking.

  27. I cook to whatever I am listening to that day. I go through very defined phases with my music.. Lately, I’ve been into more relaxed music; currently, my playlist consists of

    Breathe Me– Sia

    Morning Lullabies– Ingrid Michaelson

    Giving Up– Ingrid Michaelson

    You’re a Wolf– Sea Wolf

    One by One– Unkle Bob

    Almost Lover– A Fine Frenzy

    The Fear You Won’t Fall– Joshua Radin

    Everything’ll Be Alright (Will’s Lullaby)– Joshua Radin

    Magic–Colbie Caillat

    Holiday in Spain– Countring Crows

    He Said She Said– Joe Purdy

    Not Too Late– Norah Jones

    Dearly Beloved– Yoko Shimomura

    When I’m in a more energetic and/or angry mood,

    Mr. Brightside– The Killers

    Portions for Foxes– Rilo Kiley

    Breakable– Ingrid Michaelson

    Closet– Pete Yorn

    U+Me=Us (I Know My Calculus)– 2Gether (oh, I know, but I love it anyways)

    Rangers– A Fine Frenzy

    Beautiful Things– Andain

    Seven-Eleven– MSI (only for working out, though)

    Lux Aeterna– Clint Mansell

    Schmetterling– Bushido

    Heels Over Head– Boys Like Girls

    Alright, so that was unnecessarily long, but I could go on for pages… I love music.

  28. LOL! Well, I guess the deathmetal would certainly act as an adjunct to the caffeine in helping you wake up.

    My all-time classics when I’m cooking are the Best of the Eagles, because they help get me into that relaxed headspace with cooking that really revives you after a long day at work, and the opera CD “Allegro al Dente”, which makes me feel passionately creative. It’s part of a (sorry but I’m just going to cut and paste the online description as they explain it better than I can) “…boxed set comprising a beautiful bound book with 75 classic and modern Italian pasta recipes and a CD with 15 classic opera arias. Each aria is matched with a recipe, so that as you cook farfalle Mirella Freni sings from Madame Butterfly, and Luciano Pavarotti sings from La Traviata as you cook linguini.” The excellent book is by Rinaldo Di Stasio, Jill Dupleix & Terry Durack and has some lovely/innovative photos of the Australian Opera Co dressed as the opera characters, but the CD is absolutely fantastic. It’s earlier works, so for example, the Pavarotti pieces are before he started to show off a little too much and also has some of (my favorite tenor) Giuseppe Di Stefano’s best work. The set is well worth tracking down for opera-whilst-cooking fans.

  29. I used to be known for baking to Japanese metal, but now I’ve toned down a bit. Lately my cooking/baking playlists tend to be soothing or cheerful– Madeleine Peyroux, K, Chopin, Hildegard von Bingen, Nick Drake, Rufus Wainwright, Faye Wong, Sufjan Stevens, Beirut…

  30. music is not that important when i eat out as long as the music is somewhat enjoyable or easy to tune out. sometimes the music is amusing, like when you hear pop music in a korean restaurant.

    cooking at home i prefer the TV to music. if it’s a sporting event, it’s just like listening to the radio play-by-play.

  31. i like to cook to joanna newsom and the beatles. i work at a coffee shop and the beatles stuff is pretty perfect for that, though i brought in some joanna newsom and kings of leon today and even though nobody said anything i was feeling really self-conscious about it all day. don’t think i’m gonna play those again.

    i love it when customers start talking to us about the music that’s playing, though.

  32. Trying a new recipe? Play anything by Louie Armsrong. His “oh, yeahs” and his laugh seem to exude enthusiasm for what you’re doing.

    While I understand the theory behind using “fast beat” music in a restaurant to help with turnover/profits, I prefer to eat slowly and really enjoy each bite. The absolute worst music is this upcoming seasonal music. It only reminds me that I haven’t decked my halls, baked enough cookies or found that perfect gift for the pain- in-the-*ss on my gift list! Who can eat with that going through their head?

  33. I love Kate Bush, I consider it music to code by as I do at work on a daily basis. If you like that album check out The Whole Story and I also love the song “This Woman’s Work” off of the Sensual World album. When I cook though I either like something cheesy I can sing along to like a musical or something more background-y like jazz or classical.

  34. I love this topic – one that’s been on my mind a lot lately. Music can be so distracting or enhancing for either eating or cooking. I find soundtracks, or any sing-along-able tunes to be bad during prep (I lose track of the knife) but great for cleanup.

    My current favorite for cooking is Time for Three – trio of classically trained violinists and bassist. They take classics and bluegrass and absolutely tear it to pieces. So inspiring.

  35. my husband is a dj part-time (drum and bass records) and I love when he spins while I cook. you really nailed it with this: “[music] can transform a mindless chore into a spiritual exercise–a vacation from all the voices in my head that blare at me…”

    exactly. love it.

  36. Oh my god, you’ve got to be talking about Gorilla Coffee in Park Slope. It is HORRIBLE in there with the blaring death music. I love the coffee too and I want to support local roasters, but my god it is excruciating to go in there. I just buy my beans and get the hell out of there! I don’t even take the free coffee. It’s just too much effort. In fact, sometimes I buy the beans at Get Fresh down the street (fifth and fifth I believe), where they also sell it.

    p.s. The National, Beck, Wedge, and the instrumental Christopher O’Reilley plays Radiohead…beautifully done.

  37. You know…I remember a time when you went to a restaurant to eat and converse. Perhaps, at certain upscale places, there was some light chamber music or a pianist playing good but not intrusive music.

    I mean, why do I have to listen to what someone else chooses for me? If I wanted a concert I’d go to one and if I wanted to listen to music I would stay at home and play it or stick an iPOD bud in my ear, at least I wouldn’t be forcing others to put up with my taste.

    Perhaps the piped in music industry has everyone convinced that they MUST have music to complete their indended ambiance? If so then it is another example of circular reasoning.

    Others have then I must or they wouldn’t have it … Right? Wrong. Just like cigarette smoking in restaurants … smokers complained, restaurants thought the ban would drive customers away. Instead they found that business went up because folks who didn’t want smoke in their face while they ate or drank had been staying away.

    I’d rather hear the ambient noise of an eatery ( the clanking of the kitchen, the conversation around me, the street noise ) than some piece of obscure rap or top 40 rock. I admit not everyone is AS bothered as others. I am particularly sensitive to it, it really disturbs me.

    In recent years I have avoided restaurants that play loud music and if I find the volume too high where I am eating I will ask to have it lowered to an unobtrusive level. If I have a large group with me we stay away from places with ambient music.

    I would prefer it not be there at all.

    As to when I’m cooking … well by myself I listen to all kinds of things. Just to enjoy the music.

  38. The roof, the roof, the roof is one fire.. we don’t need no water let the m’er f’er burn… burn m’er f’er burn…

    Ha ha haaaa now that was THE song back in High School!! Ya know who sings it? Bloodhound Gang!!

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