One day, Barbara Werner, a classically trained chef from New York City, was sitting in a restaurant by herself enjoying dinner. Taking pleasure in some alone time, she put her headphones in, started listening to some music and dove into her food. But she noticed something â€“ when the music changed, the taste of her food did too.
Today, alongside her daughter Victoria, Werner operates Musical Pairings, a company that hosts dinners around the country, pairing music with dishes based on a mathematical formula devised by Werner herself. According to Werner, the formula really works and is grounded in research from Oxford University that links sounds to how we experience other senses.
According to Werner, the math is very simple. She assigns numerical values to food based on heaviness and matches that food to a corresponding piece of music with the same numerical value, which is based on pitch, genre and tempo.
We tried Wernerâ€™s system at Ruthâ€™s Chris Steak House last Sunday by tackling a six-course meal that involved a plethora of drinks, each one designed to enhance the experience further. For starters, we sampled a small ramekin of vanilla ice cream just to see how it worked when we listened to â€œPachelbelâ€™s Canon in D Majorâ€ and â€œCarmen Suite: Les Toreados.â€ So did the combination of music and food work? Well, just ask Louisvilleâ€™s resident â€œChief Entertainment Officerâ€ Tim Laird.
â€œI was tasting the vanilla ice cream on its own before the music came on. Then, all of a sudden, the opera came on, and the vanilla just jumped out of the flavor profile,â€ explains Laird. â€œThat to me was so amazing. It was an â€˜a-haâ€™ because at first I thought, â€˜Is the music really going to make a difference?â€™ And it did. Then they played another selection. The vanilla kind of went away, but the creaminess came in. It was like this creamy texture of flavors. And Iâ€™m going, â€˜Oh my gosh! The song did make a difference because there were two different songs. Same ice cream.â€™â€
While I wouldn’t necessarily say that Iâ€™m a convert to Wernerâ€™s system, many others in the room, such as Laird, undoubtedly were. They experienced the next course â€“ seared ahi tuna in a mustard glaze â€“ just as intensely as they did the vanilla ice cream or the calamari that followed the fish course. Whether the music worked or not, the food by Ruthâ€™s Chris was phenomenal to say the least.
The next course was cheese-stuffed chicken with a brown sugar-encased sweet potato casserole. It was also served with a cherry flavored Manhattan. The cheese was savory and fragrant, while the potato casserole could almost be classed as a dessert with the sugar adding so much sweetness. For Laird, this was another highlight.
â€œI tasted this before I put on the headphones,â€ adds Laird. â€œAnd I got it. I go, â€˜This is unbelievable. Great chicken. Great sweet potatoes. Traditional side.â€™ Put on the headphones, and, all of a sudden â€“ what the music did was take everything up three levels â€“ and, all of a sudden, Iâ€™m going â€˜Oh my gosh, this is like the most incredible chicken.â€™ What I thought when I was tasting it, I told [Werner], I said â€˜This is like a chicken and waffle experience.â€™ The potatoes became sweeter. The chicken became more savory. And then Iâ€™m going â€˜This is chicken and waffles the way itâ€™s supposed to beâ€™ because it was just so kicked up and full of flavor. It was unbelievable to me. And the â€˜a-haâ€™ with that one too was with the drink because, with that chicken and sweet potato, they had a Manhattan with a little bit more cherry juice. So, all of a sudden, when I tasted the Manhattan itself, I go â€˜Oh this is like a cherry glaze on the chicken.â€™ And then, all of a sudden, Iâ€™m going â€˜Oh my gosh the Manhattan works with this, with the extra cherry juice on it.â€
Thereâ€™s no doubt that listening to music while eating changes the experience, but the idea that music changes the taste of the food leaves me a bit more skeptical. However, the fact that someone with Lairdâ€™s renowned palate could be swayed may make me go back and try Wernerâ€™s dinner once more. Whether or not the taste changes is one thing, but there is no doubt that immersing yourself in music does change the experience. No need for small talk or any other distractions; itâ€™s just about enjoying the food. And in the end, isnâ€™t that the point? VT
For more information about Wernerâ€™s upcoming book and app that teaches you how to host your own musical pairing party, as well as finding a dinner near you, visit musicalpairing.com