The Music Behind The Menus Of 3 Groundbreaking Restaurants

How chefs build their visions around the intangible emotions of music.

July 7, 2017 ● 3 min read

By Priya Krishna | Image iStock CSA archive

In 2006, Eleven Madison Park received a curious review from the New York Observer: “More Miles Davis.”  

Owners Daniel Humm and Will Guidara weren’t exactly sure what to make of it, so Guidara took it upon himself to study the work of the legendary jazz musician for clues.  

“[Will] pulled out terms like ‘endless reinvention,’ ‘cool,’ ‘forward-moving,’ ‘collaborative,’ and we started using those words as the guiding principles behind all that we did at Eleven Madison Park,” Humm writes in an email, dashed off in between preparations for the summer version of EMP—a beachy seafood pop-up in the Hamptons. Davis’ music became the spiritual compass for the restaurant, from the choreography of the staff to the pacing of the menu to the interplay of flavors in the food.

Ten years later, the restaurant catapulted into the number one spot on The World's 50 Best Restaurants. Humm, in large part, credits Miles Davis.

Music and food have always felt interlinked — they both deal in the synapses of the senses, harmony, escapism. But in many of the top restaurants across the country, music is about so much more than a great playlist slinking through the dining room all night. “It’s about playing off of the parallel sensibilities in music and food,” says Tim Cushman, chef and co-owner of o ya, a modern Japanese restaurant with locations in Boston and New York. “You can hear it, you can feel it, you can touch it.”  

When he and his partner Nancy develop dishes for o ya, “we talk about them in musical terms,” she says. “I will say that something needs a base note or a treble note, because a lot of our courses are one bite. We really we are looking for the flavors to be able to sing and harmonize in that singular moment.”  

They build a dish as you’d build a chord (it helps that Tim was a classical guitar major at the Berklee College of Music), using ingredients like vanilla as an underlying key, mushrooms to provide base notes, and chili to create dissonance. The two did an event last year at an art museum in Boston, serving certain dishes as Tim Cushman played his guitar to illuminate the chords associated with particular bites.  

Take the notion of a chord progression, writ large, and you’ve got yourself a tasting menu. That’s what Sean Brock thought as he envisioned the offerings of McCrady’s, his Southern fine dining restaurant nestled on a cobbled Charleston side street. Around 2014, he broke his knee and started listening to a lot of Mississippi blues. “The blues and Southern cooking were all coming from the same place,” he says. “This desire to nurture the soul. I started paying attention to the emotional side of music, and created this vision for a perfect dining experience, where the music felt the way I wanted the food to make you feel.” 

He started re-listening to albums like Radiohead’s In Rainbows and Songs for the Deaf by Queens of the Stone Age, where songs bleed together at the edges, and tried to make the tasting menu flow in the same way.

“Every song goes together, and you can tell that is the idea of the record,” he says. “The mood never changes drastically, but it has its ups and downs to keep your attention, and to relax you when it is time. The tasting menu has to do the same thing — catch your attention at the beginning, give you space at certain points, and then reel you back in.” (Brock is the only one allowed to touch the playlist at his restaurants now.)

Ever since The Miles Davis Incident of 2006, whenever Guidara and Humm open a restaurant, they first choose a musical touchstone. The NoMad, a burgundy-bathed riff on a classic hotel bar is a little edgier than Eleven Madison Park, by design. It’s a place where you can go for an epic New York City kind of night, so they looked to the fathers of epic, perhaps Bacchanalian, nights out: The Rolling Stones. And for Made Nice, the duo’s recent fast-casual venture, they turned to Jon Batiste, a young gun jazz pianist with a concept called ‘social music.’ “He plays in the streets,” Humm writes, “because it allows him to share his talents with so many more people.”  

Music, he concludes, “gave us a language with which to define ourselves.”  

At o ya, Led Zeppelin led the way for the eclectic, pseudo omakase-style tasting menu that the Cushmans created. “When we are training staff, we always play them ‘Whole Lotta Love,’ because it’s such a dynamic song, like five songs in one,” Nancy says. “The roller coaster that song takes you on mimics how we want people to perceive the tasting menu. You taste the oyster first, which starts strong, but the menu hasn’t totally kicked in—”  

“—then we go into the sushi and the sashimi for this lighter, brighter interval, and then we hit you with the richer, darker notes of meat and foie gras,” Tim says, picking up where she left off. “We don’t start with heavy flavors. We want to pique your interest, crescendo, and end on a high note.”

LISTEN NOW: Mixtapes from The CushmansChef Sean Brock and Will Guidara.