From fryers to three-compartment sinks, there are plenty of items you’d expect to see on any chef’s must-have list for a new restaurant. But when notable Atlanta Chef Ford Fry was designing his soon-to-open Superica restaurant in Krog Street Market, he had an additional priority: a stage.
“I think musicians and chefs think a lot alike – food and music are such an integral part of who we are, how we were raised and what brings us satisfaction,” says Ford. “To me, an ideal evening is about eating and enjoying who you’re with; then after dinner, enjoying good music.”
Fry’s twin passions – eating and music – were nurtured at a young age. His family traveled frequently and built their trips around food, and Ford got his first guitar in the sixth grade. He continues to pursue both today. In addition to creating acclaimed Atlanta restaurants such as The Optimist, JCT. Kitchen & Bar, King + Duke, No. 246, St. Cecilia (named for the patron saint of music) and an upcoming Houston spot, Ford also plays in two bands.
We visited Ford in the guitar-, amp- and pedal-filled music room of his Atlanta home, where he told us how, at a recent dinner with a Grammy-winning band, discussion turned to just what makes music and food such integral, and overlapping, aspects of culture.
“We were talking about how musicians and chefs approach our craft in similar ways, and that trends in these two areas often take a parallel journey,” Ford says. “With food, we’ve gone through mass production, modernism and then we wanted to go back to solid techniques. In music, there have been over-produced songs, unnecessary use of technology, people using auto-tune to fix poor vocals, and then a desire to get back to basic techniques, a resurgence in vinyl and increased value in live performances.”
It shouldn’t be surprising that music and food are such significant and intersecting elements. Since the visual presentation of a dish is important to our satisfaction of it, why wouldn’t its auditory accompaniment make a difference as well? Indeed, 2006 experiments by a chef and two Oxford University researchers provide evidence that sound can significantly influence the way we taste food.
There is plenty of appreciation for this interplay, from the Food is the New Rock podcast’s interviews with chefs about music and with musicians about food; to sites like the Turntable Kitchen, which features a recipe for rib-eye steak with blue cheese butter and fried onion rings paired with The National’s album Boxer.
Ford shows us why it’s truly a relationship worth celebrating by explaining that cooking and music-making are both representations and interpretations of creativity. With taste and audio, he notes, “you’re searching for the right ‘tone’ – the right balance – of flavor and sound. Music and food tap into emotions and memories based on our own experiences. They are both an expression of the chef or the artist, and something to be enjoyed by the customer and listener.”
Unlike music and many other art forms, cooking serves a utilitarian purpose bundled up in our very survival. Chefs, therefore, have to deal with a distraction that artists do not: sustenance. Too often with food, we have been overly focused on a quantity to cost ratio, and in so doing, we leave a much richer experience on the table.
Adding music to the mix helps puts us in the right frame of mind to also appreciate the artistic dynamics of an expertly crafted dish – its moments of variation and crescendos of flavor.
Pairing food and music is an art unto itself – as anyone who has agonized over the playlist for a dinner party can tell you – so it’s no surprise that Ford puts a lot of emphasis on the mixes in his restaurants.
“It’s important to set the right tone and vibe in a restaurant. It’s a key part of the atmosphere and the experience, but don’t make it cliché and ridiculously obvious,” he says. “If you’re an Italian restaurant you don’t have to play Sinatra because others have done it. I was recently at Babbo (the James Beard award-winning restaurant in New York), and they were playing rock ‘n’ roll, and it worked for the settling without being distracting or overly predictable. It fit with the food and enhanced the experience.”