Behind the Soundbite

Behind the Soundbite: Music at Mado

Chef Leavitt likes tongues and tunes.
Chef Leavitt likes tongues and tunes. Photo: David Hammond

You might recognize this Grub Street guest editor from our work as the host/producer of the Chicago Public Radio series Soundbites, which examines how Chicago chefs use sound, everyday, on the job — the electronic blips of their equipment, the chatter of their staff, the sound of food cooking, and, of course, the kind of music played in the restaurant. Here’s a peek behind-the-scenes at some of the experiences we had during season two that didn’t really translate to radio, not because we didn’t like them but because they didn’t fit in our format. Today, we’re at Mado talking music.

One of the fun parts of working on Soundbites is hearing how chefs incorporate music into their lives. Some chefs, like Jason Hammel, of Lula and Nightwood, love music but won’t allow tunes in their kitchens. Some chefs cite music as a direct influence on how they cook, and even on specific meals they’ve prepared — Mark Mendez believes his current style of cooking reflects the late work of Keith Jarrett, and Grant Achatz claims to find inspiration in Rage Against the Machine. But chef Rob Leavitt of Mado uses music in a different way: as a barometer of what’s happening in his kitchen.

“I know on certain nights at certain stations, like with [sous chef Chris Turner], if he’s really being hit, I can tell by what music he puts on that it’s time for him to hunker down and get serious,” Leavitt tells us. “I mean, if Ministry comes on, it’s almost like a mantra for him. That’s going to keep him focused.”

Part of his ability to tell what the mood of his kitchen is just by listening comes from Leavitt’s democratic approach to the playlist. “Anyone can bring in any music they want,” he explains — “They just have to be subject to us making fun of them.” And while some chefs (like Hammel) forbid music during service because they think it can distract from the work at-hand, Leavitt believes that music helps him manage his staff — and produce a better product. “I like to listen to music and so does my crew, and I figure if we’re all happy listening to music, the food is going to taste better. I’ve never liked being in kitchen where you can’t listen to music.” The level of rocking out in the kitchen also translates to a livelier mood in the dining room, as Leavitt seems to find the sober silence of some culinary temples to be oppressive, saying “At a fine dining restaurant, there’s a kind of hush in the dining room, and that’s kind of what’s expected. We ate at the French Laundry on our honeymoon, and it was kind of library quiet in there, and we found ourselves talking at almost a whisper. It had this thick sense of calm.”

You can listen to the new season of Soundbites starting today, August 18, on Eight-Forty Eight, which runs from 9AM-10AM, and repeats at 8PM-9PM, on 91.5FM. As with all Chicago Public Radio programming, it’s also available for listening via streaming audio.

Behind the Soundbite: Music at Mado