At this past week’s SF Chefs event, the Grand Tasting on Saturday was a mix the culinary and music worlds, which led me to think more about how these to areas are connected. Participating chefs were asked to choose a song and create dishes that to match the tune (Bluestem Brasserie Chef Francis Hogan easily won the award for best fit, choosing “I Fought The Law” by The Clash to go along with his foie gras dish).

More and more Bay Area restaurants have music playing during service—a trend that is unpopular for some. Some critics say the music is too loud, it ruins their dining experience and they can’t hear each other over what’s playing. I’ve always felt like music plays an important dynamic and can even be a conversation starter in a group.

The Ne Timeas Restaurant Group (flour + water, Central Kitchen, Salumeria) has fully explored the connection between music and dining. In fact, they have their very own music director, Katie Mathis, who creates daily playlists at each restaurant. “I think the group specifically wanted music to be a big part of each restaurant,” Mathis said. “It started with one of our owners making the music selections, and then, he included the entire staff, with everyone creating their own playlist. They were looking for someone to take the position over and I think they liked the music I selected.”

Mathis, who works as a server at night at flour + water, said she has themes in her head and then goes about selecting artists to fill that theme. Albums are played from start to finish and printed out each night.

“I get tons of feedback. I think everyone has an opinion on music,” she said.


Ryan Pollnow, Chef de Cuisine at Central Kitchen, said the playlists “fit the general mood and feel of each restaurant.” Pollnow said that despite the refined food coming from the kitchen, the goal has always been to create a fun and lighthearted vibe.

Not everyone agrees with the restaurant group’s attitude however. In particular, San Francisco Chronicle food critic Michael Bauer, in his latest review of Central Kitchen, said “even when the place is packed, you can hear every note playing over the sound system at the expense of being able to talk across the table,” and “I’m generally tolerant of loud restaurants, but Central Kitchen is one of the worst I’ve ever encountered.” Both Pollnow and Mathis do note that they occasionally get complaints about the music from guests and at their request, always turn the volume down.

A person who perhaps best exemplifies the music-food connection is Bill Corbett, Executive Pasty Chef for The Absinthe Group. Not only does he make wonderful pastries and desserts, but he is also the lead singer in the band, Dead Seeds. “Music just keeps me moving in the kitchen,” he said. “It doesn’t really play an inspirational role as far as creating the food, but it does put me in a better mood and gets me excited.”

Corbett said he normally listens to music that is a bit more fast-paced or heavier in nature while he’s at work, such as Hot Snakes, Fugazi or Doomriders. But he’s also “pretty democratic” in the kitchen. “I don’t always pick the music. No one else really likes the music I do, so my cooks get tortured quite a bit.”

Like many chefs, Corbett said he has no problem with music in restaurants and thinks if it’s chosen wisely, it helps to set the tone for the dining experience. But he agrees with many in that it should never be louder than a conversation.

One of my favorite sushi spots in San Francisco also has one of the most eclectic selection of tunes. ICHI Sushi in Bernal Heights can run the gambit from hip hop to soft rock and almost anything in between.

“We keep it upbeat to keep a fun vibe going for everybody,” said owners Tim and Erin Archuleta. “Sometimes you feel like Hall and Oates and sometimes you feel like De La Soul.” That attitude is seen throughout the entire staff, which provides great service with a friendly smile.

Chef Archuleta said whomever gets to the iPod first chooses the tunes during prep and it always serves as inspiration, with the rhythm of the music setting the pace for prep.

So what’s the true connection between music and food? They are both works of art and both very independent forms of expression. A chef can take a certain ingredient and think of an entree to prepare, while someone else may think it works best as a dessert. Same with musicians – one beat might be great for a hip hop song, while a rock group may use it under a bed of lyrics. As Corbett said, both food and music “move people.” Mathis describes them as very “sensory experiences.” As a fan of both, listening to great music and eating great food are both wonderful, singular experiences – but for me, even better together.

Main Photo Credit: Central Kitchen