When the Music Moves the Chef and the Menu
When you have as many allergies as I do food becomes a critical aspect of life. Paying attention to ingredients becomes a way of life to separate a tasty treat from spending several hours in an emergency room. There are benefits to my natural self-disaster: no corn syrup = no soda and no soda = less weight, bloating and risk of diabetes. Besides favoring certain foods music is another recurring factor in my daily existence. Music makes me focus, work harder, and changes my mood. I’m not alone either. The family behind New York City restaurant Recette has the same take on life. Perennial city beat reporter Jeff Gordinier has this to write:
Published: April 23, 2012
THINGS can get frantic at Recette. It’s one of those tiny West Village spots where the kitchen and the dining room rub up against each other like passengers in a packed subway car. But even in the pandemonium of a dinner rush, even with orders and questions pouring in from all directions, Jesse Schenker, the 29-year-old chef, manages to stay in the zone.
There’s just one thing you don’t want to interrupt.
“If a server needs something from me, and I’m in the middle of an air-guitar lick,” he said, “I’m going to finish it before I respond.”
Mr. Schenker, who has Pearl Jam lyrics tattooed along his left arm and left thigh, treats the practice of air guitar with great reverence, and a propulsive display of air drumming is such a common ritual in the kitchen at Recette that it should probably be listed as an invisible garnish for most items on the menu.
Plenty of pundits have pointed out that chefs have turned into America’s rock stars. That’s not just a metaphor: For a new generation of stove-top virtuosi, music (punk or hip-hop, classical or country) is far more than the fuel that powers them through a busy Friday night. It inspires the way they cook, and the way they live.
Music is the secret ingredient (on full blast) at Recette, and it’s not the sort you would automatically associate with a delicate presentation of, say, roasted foie gras or blue prawn crudo. At this urbane bistro, those elegant dishes ride out of the kitchen on the percussive thunderclouds of Pearl Jam, Nine Inch Nails, Alice in Chains, Metallica and Tool.
“It clears my mind and gives me a blank canvas to work from,” Mr. Schenker said as the dining room quickly filled on a Thursday in March and Metallica’s “Fade to Black” laid waste to the kitchen sound system. (The slightly more genteel Foo Fighters serenaded diners a few yards away, but the two sonic blasts tended to collide at the bar.)
“That helps me create. When it gets too hectic and overwhelming, I just turn on a tune. And I focus.”
Ask around, and you’ll hear a spate of testimonials like that. Many chefs in New York and across the country, especially those who are younger than 40, depend on music as such a pivotal part of their creative process that they would feel adrift in the kitchen without it.
“I would kill myself,” said the chef Emma Hearst, 25, who could be found with her team, one evening in March, cranking Led Zeppelin’s “Custard Pie” by the stove at Sorella, on the Lower East Side. “I wouldn’t want to work with someone who didn’t play music. I just wouldn’t be happy.”
Ms. Hearst is convinced that a good vibe on the line gives the food an ineffable quality. O.K., maybe you can’t taste Jimmy Page’s guitar licks (and as a customer, you can’t necessarily hear them, since a cowboy ballad by Neil Young may be piped into the dining room), but you may detect a trace of the camaraderie that his fretwork fosters.
“It kind of grooves better, and I think it translates into the food,” she said. “It’s an emotional thing. I’m a firm believer in energy in restaurants.”
It’s impossible to miss that energy in Baohaus, Eddie Huang’s sandwich shop on East 14th Street. Hip-hop thumps along on a perpetual loop, and there are nights when the guys behind the counter get so caught up in trading lines from various tracks that Mr. Huang refers to it as “show time.”
“Hip-hop informs my life in general,” Mr. Huang said on a March evening while the tiny dining room quaked to songs by Cam’ron and Clipse. “The only two American things that made sense to me growing up were hip-hop and barbecue.”
Both of those cultural forces contribute to the Baohaus ethos. Mr. Huang was so determined to find employees who shared his taste in music that he placed “help wanted” ads on Craigslist that hinged on cryptic snippets of lyrics. If you didn’t happen to know that “play Nintendo with Cease-a-Leo” was a nod to a Notorious B.I.G. song, well, you might not fit in.
“That’s how we hired people,” he said.