The sounds of cooking

Chefs reveal the music that make them want to cook

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I was cleaning the electric slicing machine when the mariachi music was cranked up. The device had just been used to thinly slice 25 or more pounds of medium rare roast beef, so there were numerous hard-to-reach parts of the slicer that needed to be carefully cleaned.

It was the end of the shift and the propulsive polka beat kept me going and kept me focused in the vicinity of a sharp blade. I looked around the kitchen and a certain synchronous energy had taken hold, a sort of awkward choreography. When the right soundtrack plays in a commercial kitchen, it’s a beautiful thing. It grooves.

The last time I cooked for a living was in the early 1980s in long-shuttered Boulder restaurant kitchens including Potter’s, Pearl’s and the Good Taste Crepe Shop. At the time, we were stuck listening to a handful of radio stations. I have a memory of making sandwiches to Adam Ant’s “Goody Two Shoes.” Other kitchens had Muzak to chop to. When there was a cassette deck available I would try to impose my musical taste through mix tapes.

Fast-forward 40 years and I’m back in the kitchen working 30-plus hours a week as a prep cook for a local catering company. This time around there is no radio, cassette deck or CD player, just Spotify and YouTube playlists on cell phones.

Working in a catering kitchen is different from life in a restaurant. Sometimes there is a rush of work but mainly you do a series of projects that can take 10 minutes or two hours. When you are chopping 45 pounds of fruit salad, stuffing 400 toasted almonds in 400 bacon-wrapped dates, peeling 100 hard-boiled eggs or frying 15 pounds of pita chips, you need a beat, and you need variety.

I’ve learned to work to Metallica and tolerate Audioslave. I’ve learned about Mexican ranchera music and techno music and Sound Tribe Sector 9. I’ve ended up listening to music I would never listen to in the car or at home. As someone who writes about music, I consider that a good thing.   

The other cooks, who are mainly young enough to be my children, are kind and put on playlists that focus on ’70s music or the Grateful Dead and it’s just like old times. I enjoy being the music trivia sage in the kitchen.

Kitchens are never quiet places. There is always a background roar. To be on your feet for eight hours, you need a soundtrack that produces energy. I love working to Motown, soul, funk, reggae and Chicago blues … even disco, a genre I loathed when it first appeared. Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” fits almost any task, but classical music only makes rare appearances.

I recently asked some local chefs and professional cooks to share their tales about their favorite tunes for sauteeing, braising, frying, chopping, stirring and surviving life in the kitchen.

Brandon Foster: “At Vesta, we had two songs we played over and over and over again during prep time. One was ‘I Keep Forgetting’ by Michael McDonald, and ‘Feels So Good’ by Chuck Mangione. I believe our record for ‘Feels So Good’ was [played] 39 times in a row before service.”

Rebecca Hess: “Reggae is right for setting up brunch service. I worked with a crew and Bob Marley Sundays were a regular thing. I think it helped to chill us out but [it was] still upbeat enough to get some serious prep done.”

Rob Corey: “We listen to a huge variety of music because the three of us in the afternoon kitchen are vastly different — gender, nationality, politically. The one musical genre we agree on is Sam Cooke during deep cleaning on Sunday afternoon”

Samantha New: “I’ve found that Motown is the crowd-pleaser. If I need to focus on tedious shit, I put in headphones and play indie folk. EDM like Major Lazer gets the crew pumped for a busy service. The trump card is ‘Bohemian Rhapsody.’ I dare you not to sing along.”

Shawn Simpson: “Can’t listen to anything too hard or heavy when I’m smoking meats. Something mellow like jazz puts me in the perfect mood for some ’cue.”

James Van Dyk: “My kitchen at the Gateway Café was never democratic. I always controlled what we listened to. It was my right after years of listening to the tastes of others. I would not hire someone who would feel unconformable with my musical selections. My favorite album to cook to is The Band’s Big Pink.”

Paul Conklin Quigg III: “Early Metallica is proven to increase productivity in a kitchen (the first six albums).”

Jamie Humphrey: “I vividly remember a service where we had a live Umphrey’s McGee set playing and one of the songs was about a half-hour long. The song started as the dining room filled up. Really slow to start as the tickets began to trickle in. The music hit a crescendo as the rail was full, and, as we pulled the last ticket of the rush, the song ended. The other cook and I looked at one another. ‘That was epic!’ was the only conclusion. Never again has a rush fit so perfectly to the music.”

Kim Adams: “Working in kitchens, we always took turns choosing music — sometimes old-school rock, sometimes Latin music, and sometimes introducing each other to brand new music.”

Other chefs and cooks also had their favorites including “Reggae for prep, punk for service” (Mathew Michaud), “Cumbias when cleaning” (Francis Martines), “Ween, specifically, ‘The Mollusk’” (Jilm Szalewski), “Lee Morgan Pandora Station” (Ryan Leinonen), and these choices from Roury Miller: “Elliott Smith if I’m opening. Grindcore during service.”

Local food news

The legendary Millsite Inn in Ward on the Peak to Peak Highway has closed. … Breakfast Champion is open at 4800 Baseline Road in the former long-time home of Erhard’s Bakery, serving American and Turkish breakfast items, Turkish coffee and tea, and a wide range of pastries and cakes.

Taste of the week

For my particular taste buds, Bookcliff Vineyards’ 2015 Syrah is a near perfect Colorado red wine. Made from 100 percent Grand Valley grapes, it boasts a beautiful dark garnet color, silky texture and dark berry terpenes in the aroma. It’s simply an easy sipping vintage that matches well with the roasted foods of autumn.

Words to chew on

“Have a banana, Hannah

Try the salami, Tommy

Get with the gravy, Davy

Everybody eats when they come to my house.” — From “Everybody eats when they come to my house” by Cab Calloway

John Lehndorff hosts an hour-long Radio Nibbles special, 8:30-9:30 a.m. Oct. 11, on KGNU (88.5.fm, 1390 AM, streaming at kgnu.org).