How the Music Industry Capitalized on Foodie Culture — and Why the Culinary World Is Turning the Tables

Illustration by Brett Nuckles for Flavorwire.
Illustration by Brett Nuckles for Flavorwire.

A few months ago, in a foreign city I’d never visited before, I found myself fondling raw steak in a pitch-black room. Despite the disconcerting situation, all I could focus on was the conversation taking place several tables away: an argument between two men over a friendly bet. It sounded like they were wearing lapel mics. When one or more of the five senses is impaired, our remaining abilities overcompensate — a fact that sits at the heart of Montreal restaurant O.Noir’s light-free concept — but I hadn’t imagined my hearing would be the sense to take over when I sat down to dinner.

With all due respect to my dining companion — my oldest friend — I can’t remember a word he said that night. I do, however, remember the smug tone taken by one of the men arguing at the table to my northwest, just past the bathrooms. I remember chewing in time with his companion’s slow, methodical verbal cadence. Déjà vu — another one of the brain’s mysteries — struck.

A few months earlier, I had attended the third Supper Studio event at Manhattan’s Centre for Social Innovation, where singer-songwriter Mirah performed eight songs while 70 diners feasted on a five-course meal designed to mirror the textures and themes of her acoustic folk-rock. As I ate a poached cod, saffron, and tomato stew, I became aware that I was actively trying to match my chewing to the melody.

What I experienced is one aspect — perhaps the only one that still could be considered emergent — of a larger trend that attempts to tie food and music together. It spans from tiny, highly curated events to mega-festivals, DIY projects to major corporations like British Airways and Häagen-Dazs. Event producers in the music space have dabbled in the culinary world with increasing frequency over the last decade, as the foodie movement has gone mainstream among those with disposable income.

Why? Well, the ongoing music festival boom has meant that tourist festivals have been jostling for the same kinds of consumers amidst a ballooning marketplace. As more festivals pop up each summer, you start to wonder why anyone would travel long distances to watch the same ten bands they could see 100 miles away at a local event. All the other stuff that goes into making a music festival feel distinct starts to seem a lot more crucial. When we talk about a tarragon-spiced lobster corndog at Lollapalooza (a music festival) or The Roots at GoogaMooga (a food festival), we’re referring to strategies to build or retain business. But some build their entire businesses around the notion that food and music can complement each other in ways we don’t fully understand: the senses. Scientific research supports this theory; in fact, crossmodal studies are just starting to be applied to the mass food industry.

Run by Dr. Charles Spence, Oxford University’s Crossmodal Research Lab is one of the world’s leading sources on how our senses work together. Earlier this fall, Spence and fellow researcher Betina Piqueras-Fiszman published a book titled The Perfect Meal: The Multisensory Science of Food and Dining. Among its many considerations are nebulous but fascinating observations like this: the right musical pairings can make food taste, on average, ten percent saltier or sweeter.

“You can just take regular music that we’d all like to listen to, and if matched appropriately to what you’re tasting or smelling, it can enhance the experience,” Spence tells Flavorwire. “But you cannot create through sound a taste that isn’t there. What I think sound works best at is when you have a complex flavor experience where there are lots of things you could be paying attention to. If you draw a diner’s concentration to the high notes in a wine’s aroma or the sweetness of a dessert by saying, ‘This is a very sweet product,’ or by coloring it red — or by echoing those sweet sounds in music — then [their] food experience will change as a result.”