Tuesday, November 23, 2010

F&C Rewind: Let There Be Music!

(originally posted on 12/9/09)
It's really hard for a chef to post at this time of year.  But, when it's in ya, ya gotta get it out.   And so, I want to talk about an important part of dining (to me anyway), and while I'm at it, I'll try to tie it into the season.

I have yet to speak openly about my absolute passion for music.  No- I'm not running out of ideas for posts early on in the game.  But, I'm so devoted to music- my music- that like food, when it is in short supply, I grow cranky.  I need food, I need wine with my food, and I need music with my food and wine.  Period.

I am that guy.  I bring my Ipod to dinner parties.  I "suggest" music when it's not there.  When it's bad- I change it.  When it's soft, I turn it up.  When it's off topic, I steer back.  See- somewhere along the line, the same way that we integrate food into our memories, I've skipped a rail or two and now the three- food, wine and music- are inseparable, interchangeable, indispensable.  Some of you may think this is hype- I assure you, it is not.  

This "merging of the passions" got serious with the advent of the Ipod and digital music.  Not that my front of house experience kept me from getting my fingers sticky.  But, when it became possible to create a playlist, without building a 90-minute mixed tape, without having to stick to 80 minutes of CD time, without any limitations on what plays, in what order and for how long- well- it's ON.  

You have to get, first, that I link the culture of music to the culture of food.  For example, as cheesy as it may be, when I'm at a real Japanese restaurant, I wanna hear music that makes me think of Japan.  I don't want to hear classic rock.  I don't want to hear house and trance.  There is so much awesome music out there, that, yes- I actually do have music that is both culturally correct and cool to quaf sake and slurp sashimi to.  That said, I like to hear music when I'm eating that at least equals the rate at which I am chewing, and doesn't exceed it.  There are all kinds of statistics I could give you about intensity of music volume and even brightness of lighting in restaurants that directly affect the rate at which you eat.  But, I don't wanna ruin it for you.

Then, there's Pandora.  The space-age, intelligent music service that is the closest thing we have to a free-thinking, non-sentient DJ.  It is nothing short of brilliant.  Once you get past the novelty of typing in a song or artist and hearing what comes out, then try to really challenge it;  add other artists, limit content, give it encouragement and reprimand it for being bad, and you've got the closest thing to a musical clone of you possible.  It's one step better than having someone take over your Itunes, because it resources music you don't necessarily have access to.  But, I digress.

Can there really be a more quintessential holiday musical compilation than "A Charlie Brown Christmas?"  I argue, not.

This incidental collection of music from the TV special is one of dozens of albums produced by the great pianist Vince Guaraldi.  He also has solo albums, he's recorded with his quintet, with an obscure, but ultra-talented Brazilian guitarist, Bole Sete- and of course, his trio.  But, no matter what recording, we all know the sound of the bubbling beat that begins the Charlie Brown theme.  We can picture Chuck and Linus hoofing through the snow to buy a tree while the trio lazily laments to O' Tannenbaum.  And of course, the chain of characters catching snow flakes on their tongues and sliding about the ice to Skating.  

The lazy melancholy we can all connect to at this time of year is captured in every bar of every song.  But it's not all a downer.  Just like the holidays, we relate to the highs and lows we experience in a time that is charged with emotions, memory and life.  

This is the cultural connection I'm talking about.  They're musically indelled images from memory.  It's hard, therefore, to be in a bustling bistro where classic French country cuisine is the fare, and they're playing the Gypsy Kings.  But, forget my cranky complaints- how much more ENJOYABLE would it be to hear some gypsy swing or Charles Trenet and Josephine Baker while finishing off a steak frites and a Stella Artois or carafe of beaujolais?  

When you sit down to crack a bushel of crabs open and sip some frosty longnecks- do you pop in the Carpenters anthology, or do you work in a thoughtful playlist of Bruce Springstein, Blues, Nina Simone, 70's pop and the Stones?  I think I've made it clear which I'd choose.

Yes, for those who know me well, this is for serious.  I'm willing to bet that for each of you out there who can name their top three restaurants ever, the one that is #1, you can also tell me about the music they play.  Even if you don't know the artists, you could say for certain there is a recognition.  Now, what about the rest?  *Come on- think aout it.*  See?

Funny thing is, when you dine in Europe, the lights are turned up and there is no music.  WTF?  Where did all these dimly lit, cozy restaurant images come from in our heads with romantic period music lilting in the background? I'll tell you where:  AMERICAN CINEMA.  Because, sitting in a real, classic Italian pizzeria in Verona or a boisterous brasserie in Paris, there simply is no music- and the lights are like the DMV.  

One of the more surprising recommendations from Thomas Keller's recent cookbook, Ad Hoc at Home, is to make sure music is a part of your kitchen experience.  Chef Charlie Trotter is also an avid fan of music- he likes everything from Portishead to John Coltrane- and even modeled one of his cookbooks after the concept of the jazz improvisations of trumpeter extraordinaire Miles Davis.  What more appropriate way to describe a menu that changes daily, relies on the classics, but provides combinations that are artful, modern and thought-provoking?  Self-indulgent? Yes.  Accurate?  Absolutely.
So, get in touch with your inner DJ.  Poke around the internet.  And, when  you hear music at a restaurant you like, someone has made great strides for you to notice, even if you don't notice.  Ask what it is.  Search engines these days, like the ones from Pandora, Amazon and Itunes are so advanced, you're bound to find music you enjoy while dining, cooking or just throwing back some cocktails.  Now I like the sound of that.

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