In Many A Chef’s Kitchen Music Sets The Table


From the very first day I stepped foot into a restaurant kitchen as a prep cook music was in the air.  Big deal?  It was in 1975.  In fact it was rare.  Very rare.  I thrived on music while in HS so for me it was as necessary as air to lead a normal life.  A few kitchens I moved on to did not have radios but the majority did which for me was quite fortunate.  I was one of the lucky concert goers who saw nearly every great band that emerged from the 60’s and into the 70’s.  Ancient history?  No, but it was a foundation to my career and I was not aware of how important this was in the culinary world in which I live(d)……..

Jose Robles was the 1st chef I worked for that embraced music in the kitchen.  Hard working & hard playing at life he was on the edge!  He greatly influenced me with his approach to life in the restaurant world.  The shifts moved seamlessly from morning to close.  The music cured the blues, passed the time, lifted our spirits, established a production rhythm, helped the staff bond as a team and kept us from feeling cut off from the outside world.  I have noticed throughout my career the more imaginative, humanistic, funny and clever chefs I have met and worked with love good if not great music.  Of all varieties!  There are some hung up on specific genres like country or rap, jazz, etc.  To each their own,  We listened (here in Chicago) to WXRT which plays a wide variety of music centered around Rock.   They have been a blessing to our ears over the years. 

Since off days were always limited, and vacations few a prized source of entertainment was going to concerts.  Spending extended periods of time literally inside brick walls, metal doors, no windows or fresh air let alone sunlight and a constant rumble of ambient noises that to many people is insane.  Music is our sunlight, its our fresh air.  It is like sitting under a gentle waterfall.  Its our second love of the arts.  It motivates, focuses and stirs the soul for chefs probably as deeply and profoundly as the musicians that create what we hear.  Love of music and food is an intoxicating duo.  A universe of creativity can erupt with great music keeping the beat.  Many a time the tension of a busy day in a hot noisy kitchen is shattered when that one tune comes out of the speakers that gets the staff rolling forward in a new gear.  Motivational rhetoric is nice, David Bowie or The Black Keys are a better a choice I think……..

While interviewing prospective cooks I would ask them what kind of music they liked to listen to.  I used that question as a way to filter compatibility to the existing staff and myself.  I also found  (again my personal experience only) that chefs that did not allow music in kitchens had personalities I find incompatible to my approach.  usually the morale was not nearly as stable daily, as kitchens with music. What I saw in kitchens with music was a much lower anxiety level, less staff turnover, less bickering, more team work, fewer ego’s out of control and much more smiling.  Thankfully music in kitchens now is way more universal and widely accepted than it was not so long ago.  Time was chefs thought it disrespectful and unprofessional much too often.  Some still do thinking it’s a distraction.  If you allow it to be, it will be.  Why let that happen?  Why not use it to benefit the whole staff?  It does not cost any company a penny and its a great perk.  I find narrow music appreciation can reflect on the food where it also has a narrow field of play.  It is not necessarily a bad thing, it’s just not my thing.

I never allowed music to interfere with communication in the kitchen.  I also implemented a simple rule.  One station that plays a variety(as much as within reason) in this case it was and still is WXRT.  Playing MP3 lists and the like are fine but lacks news updates like weather, etc to actually keep us aware of what is going on outside of our “culinary cell block” as it were. 

Feeding musicians in particular is a very satisfying experience at least for me.  I grew up with friends that played some serious 3 piece music both original and cover(Queen – Joe Satriani) so I am more aware of what musicians are and do & go through than many of us know.  Added to 17 years of performing at the Chicago Air & Water Show in front of massive 6 digit audiences I find conversing with musicians second nature.  Some Chefs like Alan Lake have played professionally with very popular artists which I find to be so very damn cool.  Just as much as many chefs love good music we find most musicians love good food in return. 

This isn’t a thing just here in the States.  I serve catered meals to Polish bands flown in for the Taste of Polonia here in Chicago annually.  Sitting and talking to them no matter the style of music they play I find has a universal familiar connection.  Music is like food in so many ways.  It nourishes and energizes our body & soul.  Makes us smile and lifts our spirits.  They both spotlight moments from our past and allow us to immerse ourselves in those moments even if for only a brief time.  Both have the great cross over effect motivating us to try new things both by our own hand and by that of other professionals. 

When The Bulls were in the middle of their 2nd run of championships Eddie Vetter, Dennis Rodman, John Cusack and Carmen Electra and a few other Bulls players stumbled in for lunch after an “all nighter” on the town  After serving them items not on the menu (yes I sympathized with their emerging hangovers) we let them rest in peace and privacy.  Vetter had a hell of an evening and needed a little help leaving.  On the way out I was by the front door and pointed to him (some of this cast were regulars) and said ” Hey I know you.  You’re a famous rock singer!”  He smiled and nodded and I continued ” You’re in the Moody Blues aren’t you?”  Man the rest of the posse hammered him all the way into the limo laughing their asses off”  Vetter was also laughing knowing I was a fan with a sense of humor.

Chefs may marry their food, but our mistress is music:)


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