It’s common knowledge that music can uplift our moods, refocus our energy and increase our happiness, yet exactly why that happens is a bit of a mystery. The precise effect listening to music has on our brains and even our muscles is fascinating enough to have been studied by such eminent authors as the neurologist Oliver Sacks and psychologist Anthony Storr. In his book “Music and the Mind,” Storr documents how each society around the world uses music to bring and bind people together to create a shared communal experience.
Anyone who’s ever worked pre-opening in a restaurant kitchen has experienced this first-hand. Things may start off slowly, as people drift in for their different shifts and scatter to work their individual stations. Different conversations happen; someone may be listening to a game on the radio. Then, about an hour before opening, when it’s time to get everyone moving at the same faster pace and focus in the same energetic way, the chef puts on a favorite album and plays it. Loud. Usually, it works.
I say “usually” because music only inspires positive shared community when it’s music everyone likes. But if the song/album/artist grates the nerves of the sous chef who’s grating carrots, then the opposite desired mood is achieved. And in extreme cases, acute annoyance can result.
Grating carrots, grating nerves
In the Austin, Texas, restaurant where I worked for 14 years, the preferred pre-opening music of our obsessed, idiosyncratic chef was a certain Howlin’ Wolf tape (yes, this was in the days of cassettes). There is no suitable word in my vocabulary to describe how much we, his staff, grew to loathe it. Let me just put it this way — with so many sharp knives at our disposal, it was just not a tenable situation. One afternoon, I took matters into my own hands. I found the unlabeled cassette, wrote “Easy Listenin’ Jazz” on it, put it in an unlabeled case and back on his shelf. The result? A lot of raging on his part, and about three weeks of blissful Howlin’ Wolf-free prep shifts on ours. But then one night, he had a particularly inspired fit — a touching combination of fury and heartbreak — and I was moved to confess. The look of happiness on his face as he popped that tape into the player is one I’ll never forget.
Chefs who want to create community in the kitchen don’t make mistakes like this. They pick music that resonates with them personally, but also works for their staff, or, at least, they mix it up a little so there’s a little something for everyone there.
Pick up the pace
Allana Smith, director of operations at Vail’s Larkspur, who for many years worked as a pastry chef and still occasionally helps out in the kitchen, approaches prep music this way. “At home, [when I’m preparing dinner], I pick music that pairs with the food we’re making: Italian, Mexican, etc. In the kitchen at Larkspur, I personally like Nina Simone. But I’ll play the “Mana Station” on Pandora when I’m in the back with all of the Mexicans, Argentineans and Hondurans. They all start singing and moving a little faster; it’s uplifting. And, of course, when you play the Beatles, everyone is always happy.”
At the Corner Bistro in Edwards, chef-owner Mike Irwin chooses rock with a driving beat to focus: The Doors, AC/DC and Pearl Jam are a few of his favorites.
“It’s a brain release for me, especially during prep and cleanup time,” he said. “It drowns out the dish machine, I hear nothing else but the music, and it creates a clear feeling in my head. It’s soothing and motivating at the same time.”
At Beaver Creek’s Spruce Saddle Lodge, line cook Trace Minavio says there’s nothing like loud dub step to inspire that second wind needed to cleanup or close.
“We put an ipod in a player and just let it blast,” he said. “It works.”
A native of Cortina D’Ampezzo, Italy, chef Simone Reatti of Vail’s Campo De Fiori also lived and worked in London, England, and developed a love of British rock while there.
“I like Pink Floyd, Dire Straits, U2, The Alan Parsons Project, ” he said. “But we have a lot of Mexican natives on our staff, and I also like to play Mexican music to get them motivated and happy. And when it comes to getting everyone pumped up, nothing is better than ‘We Are The Champions.’”
Everybody’s A DJ
“My personal favorites are the Grateful Dead and Widespread Panic, but I find myself mostly listening to what the kitchen wants instead,” said Anthony LaRosa, executive chef at Larkspur. “If there’s one thing a cook will always let you know, it’s that the music isn’t doing it for them, but we all understand that it’s a community and our turn is coming up soon. But in my truck on the way home, I’ve found myself listening to classical music. No words to focus on, just symphony instruments, is the perfect way to wind down.
Madeleine Berenson is a freelance writer contracted by Larkspur Restaurant. Larkspur, located at the base of Vail Mountain, has been serving American classics with a fresh interpretation since 1999. Visit www.larkspurvail.com.