The meal is alive with the sound of music
recently ate at a renowned ramen restaurant, whose chef was so acclaimed all the big names—David Chang, Anthony Bourdain, you get the drift—would duly pay homage at the shrine of his tonkotsu broth each time they were in town. And yet, despite being absolutely ravenous, I could barely work my way through a portion of gyozas, let alone the ramen, extra soup, and bao that I had also ordered with the meticulous planning of someone with a usually mammoth appetite. Leaving aside the embarrassment of departing from the restaurant with hung head and a table full of wasted food, I was of course, as someone who depends on her rapacity to make a living would be, full of consternation.
Was I sick? Did I not understand the greatness of this chef's ramen? Was I, shudder, an uncouth gastronome? And so I duly returned for a second foray to quell aforementioned concerns, and once again, I could barely finish the ramen (no extra soup, no extra nori, and no bao this time, although I snuck in a jellyfish salada, so as not to make the gyoza feel lonely on the table, you understand). Suddenly it dawned on me: my queasiness was due, not to the especially thick broth, but to the death metal music that was playing—at lunchtime, no less—to an audience that the wait staff must have imagined were hearing impaired. To add insult to injury, said hellish sounds were in English, so it wasn't even a nod to their particular cultural predilection.
I wish I could say this was an isolated incident, but all too often, I've found that I lose my appetite when the music is too loud, too inappropriate, or sometimes just plainly too bad. Because, let's face it, just as taste and smell can trigger childhood memories, sound is equally efficacious in enhancing or destroying your dining experience. And arguably no one understands this better than Heston Blumenthal. His 'sound of the sea' dish—composed of seafood and edible 'seaweed' on a mound of sand-resembling tapioca—was first served at Fat Duck to the sound of breaking waves in 2007. And now, almost a decade on, we are becoming increasingly aware that virtually everyone, to varying degrees, possesses synaesthetic abilities when it comes to taste. In the same way that the sight of the 'sand' and 'seaweed' triggered connections to the seaside, so too did the sound of breaking waves make the fish taste fresher, and the ocean brine of the oyster more vivid.
To further support his argument that auditory elements influence the way our brains process food, Blumenthal—with Oxford University's Dr. Charles Spence—served bacon and egg ice cream to customers, with accompanying sounds of either bacon sizzling or chickens clucking. No surprises that when the bacon sizzled, diners reported a more pronounced bacon flavour in their dessert, whilst an eggy character was declared when the chicken audio was played.
Which is why it's preposterous that restaurateurs squander a fortune on decor, lighting, and food presentation, only to neglect what should be an integral part of the dining experience: the music. A 2011 study found that loud background noise suppresses gustatory enjoyment and our sensorial perception of sweetness and saltiness, which could also be the reason why I hardly ever eat on long-haul flights (although I suspect the quality of the airline food, or deplorable lack thereof, plays a big role).
Ergo, herewith some complimentary advice to restaurateurs: invest time in the auditory repertoire that your customers are subject to, because the right soundtrack could potentially be immensely lucrative to your bottom line, and vice versa. And when you're entertaining at home, readers, start your music soft, then speed it up as the evening progresses, especially if you've had enough and want your guests to exit stage left pronto. Yes, it works, and you're welcome.