Published 27 July 2018
In each edition we ask two industry figures to face off on a subject exercising the food world. This season we ask two chefs why they have such different approaches to music in restaurants.
When you enter the dining room at St John you’re met with a hum and throb of satisfied diners tucking in to lunch or supper. That rich cacophony is the perfect soundtrack for a dining room, sounds that can only be created by human beings conversing and enjoying themselves. St John is not a quiet restaurant. It’s the original OG, unique in so many ways. But there aren’t many places that can create that kind of buzz in a room.
I worked for Fergus and Trevor at St John for more than a decade. In 2017 Black Axe Mangal was the first kitchen invited to cook at St John in their 23-year history – the pinnacle of my career to date.
Knowing Fergus’s stance on the subject, my first thought was “what the fuck are we going to do about music?” We agreed a happy compromise that music would be played in the bar but be audible in the dining room. The first – and maybe last – time diners enjoyed listening to a mix of Skid Row, Skepta and Slayer during a meal at St John restaurant.
There is nothing worse than a quiet dining room in my opinion. Especially if it’s full of people eating. WTF? It sucks. How does that even happen? What kind of warped chemistry is going on here? I find myself negotiating conversations differently, not being myself, trying not to swear or blaspheme and spend most of the meal tense, wondering if I’m having a good time or not. It’s just dry.
Don’t get me wrong. Restaurants that play music at a barely audible level I find equally as uncomfortable. What’s the point?
Anyway. You’re probably wondering when I’m going to get to the actual point. Why do I play music in my restaurant? And why is it so loud etc? Why do I think music benefits restaurants?
Music had become a dominant feature and integral to the make-up of BAM. When we started, as a popup in Bakken nightclub Copenhagen I didn’t think anyone would show up and wanted to fill the space with something. Music occupied that space nicely. I believed would protect me and keep me company while enduring the humiliation of staring into an empty courtyard serving no food to no customers.
More than 250 people turned up on our first night, which was petrifying. The music became a shield for me to hide behind – a wall of thrash and heavy metal. I became dependent on the music to combat my anxiety. The busier we were, the louder and heavier the music became, fusing the music and food together like leather and lace for ever more.
On our last night in Copenhagen people were moshing in front of the counter waiting to be fed. By the time it came to open in London it made no sense to drop the music or the volume, nor did we want to. The volume and the type of music played at BAM appeals to a small percentage of diners. I learned to use music along with other totems I have gathered and display at BAM as tools employed to repel types of diners I have no interest in feeding or entertaining. No apologies.
Most nights we have people hand us their coats, sit down, have a look at the menu, take in the atmosphere and promptly ask for their coats back, get up and leave. I respect that. They understand that BAM isn’t for them, rather than persevering and having a shit night. They feel like I do when I eat at a place devoid of atmosphere described above. I’m content for fewer people to come to BAM rather than vanilla-ise ourselves, sacrificing our integrity and sprit. I don’t think we are alone in this attitude.
Music strips away formality. Music charges our restaurant with energy. I want diners to feel that energy and vibe when they walk in and feed off that as well as the food and drink. Like going into a bar that’s pumping, its gives me higher sense of anticipation and we do our best to match that expectation with the food, drink and service.
The people that get it really get it and come back. The people that don’t don’t come back or hopefully have heard enough and won’t come at all. Not everyone gets everything, I don’t pretend to get everything. I know what I like, though. I like listening to loud music while I cook. If you like hearing loud music while you eat, you might like BAM or a number of other restaurants that share the same policy. If not, don’t come to our type of restaurant and ask us to change ourselves to suit you … go somewhere else.
At St. JOHN we famously have three rules of the dining room: No Art. No Music. No mobile phones. But why? Can it be because I hate conviviality and creativity? No indeed – it is the very opposite. Allow me to explain by way of a couple of cautionary tales. Some years ago I was in Budapest with a chef of mine. On our first night we dined at a restaurant which had been recommended to us as a true expression of the area, serving great slabs of foie gras and roasted goose.
A violinist spied us sitting at the table, this romantic pair of colleagues, and descended upon us playing furiously. We were there to do what one does at a restaurant – to have supper. But in the ensuing battle of wills our protestations were in vain. And this is not the only way in which music interferes with your dinner: at the grand and now-shuttered Jardin des Senses in Montpelier they played the weirdest jazz, plink-plink-plonk, making your lunch plink-plonk inside you in unwelcome sympathy.
Like large menus with gold tassels and red velvet banquettes, music is used as a crutch. It does not enhance the eating experience; in fact, it takes away. It numbs all the good noises, the chomping of chops, the glugging of wine… the happy sound of the dining room is a beautiful thing!
There is a particular phobia that people have of a dining room which is anywhere on the scale between empty and half full. Having been plugged in to something all day – computer, telephone, headphones – a restaurant early in service feels terrifyingly intimate. Restaurateurs turn to music to reassure, but this is a mistake! Perhaps you have experienced the peculiar phenomenon whereby music is turned on as soon as the first diner enters, rather as though the customer and the manager are teenagers in the awkward silence of a new crush: “Have you heard the new Bay City Rollers”?
Later in the evening, voices create the festive feel and the Richter scale of happy noise rises. This is a perfect position and certainly not the moment to whack on Ace of Spades, which simultaneously makes talking impossible and means that you are listening to the mere memory of the music, filtered through the sounds of the kitchen and the service.
But how do you smooth the terror of an empty restaurant? Ronnie Di Stasio, famed Melbourne restaurateur and a man full of theories, says that there should always be a waiter at the start of the service polishing glasses. It adds comforting activity to a quiet room, but an activity that can be abandoned at any time to tend to the now-reassured guests. This is certainly a more useful way of spacefilling than changing CDs.
Better still than the glass-polishing method is a theory of my own: we should encourage restaurant-goers to tune in to the exciting arc of an evening. That first moment when the doors open is not one of intimidating silence at all.
Instead, the air is filled with noises from the kitchen and the very tables hum with a shimmer of anticipation. From the initial electric hum to the gradual crescendo of talking, clinking and chomping, music flattens that glorious arc.
I will leave you with another tale. I once spent an entire afternoon lunching at the music-less Le Rubis in Paris where first a pair sat at an adjacent table: a Maigret-type figure taking his beautiful secretary for lunch to celebrate the solving of a crime. Then a couple of art dealers began speaking ostentatious English to each other, knowing that they were being overheard and proud to show off their impeccable grasp of the language.
A man sat down exclaiming that it is a disaster to drink Beaujolais in Paris as it travels so badly – Bordeaux is the only thing. He was replaced by a man who opined that Beaujolais is the only thing to drink, being so delightfully young. And all the while, at the bar, a gentleman suffered interesting cross-linguistic Tourette’s, as he periodically burst out “Bugger! Bugger!”. What memories I would never have, had there been music playing.
I once spent an entire afternoon lunching at the music-less Le Rubis in Paris where first a pair sat at an adjacent table: a Maigret-type figure taking his beautiful secretary for lunch to celebrate the solving of a crime. Then a couple of art dealers began speaking ostentatious English to each other, knowing that they were being overheard and proud to show off their impeccable grasp of the language. A man sat down exclaiming that it is a disaster to drink Beaujolais in Paris as it travels so badly. Bordeaux is the only thing. He was replaced by a man who opined that Beaujolais is the only thing to drink, being so delightfully young. And all the while, at the bar, a gentleman suffered interesting cross-linguistic Tourette’s, as he periodically burst out “Bugger! Bugger!”. What memories I would never have, had there been music playing.
This article was first published in Issue 15 of CODE Quarterly.
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