Airlines offer music on planes to help panicky flyers relax. Music is piped through the metro or subway system to reduce crime. And supermarkets have been known to play loud music to push customers more quickly through the aisles without reducing sales. So why not play just the right mix of music to your dinner guests to make them feel they’re dining at a Michelin-star eatery?
Absurd? Well no, not really according to professionally-trained chef Barbara Werner, “With an open heart, an open mind, and a simple mathematical formula, you can elevate a good dish to great and a great dish to near perfection.”
Werner collects degrees and certifications like most of us collect lost socks from the laundry. On top of an associate’s degree in culinary art, she’s certified in reflexology, payroll and HR and is trained as a beverage specialist, bartender, and equissageur (dog and horse masseuse in case you’re wondering). In addition, she’s taken sommelier classes and is a licensed manicurist and tattoo artist.
“I am always studying something and telling myself, someday this will come in handy, I don’t know where or how but it usually does,” says Werner who prefers the moniker of Renaissance Woman.
A self-described “über-nerd sporting the ‘death to disco’ T-shirt who secretly played Bach in her room”, Werner’s dreams of flying jets for the Air Force after high school were dashed when her guidance counselor reminded her she wears glasses. Ever adaptable, she dug into her Italian butcher family roots and headed to Cobleskill University to studying culinary arts. “I’ve been around meats and cooking my whole life. I could run a Hobart before I could do long division and love food so it made sense at the time.”
Initially, it proved a good decision as Werner worked in several restaurants and industrial kitchens before becoming supervisor of food production for NY hospital at Cornell Medical Center. But two years into the position, she developed severe food allergies. “I couldn’t put a piece of fish in my hand without it leaving a huge red mark. I had them as a child but they returned with a vengeance,” she laughs with little irony.
Engaged at the time and saving for the purchase of a new home, Werner looked around for other career options rather than returning to school. “I thought, well what else can I do? I knew I could type and was ridiculously organized so I dove into data processing and the secretarial field. And, as we all know, life happens. I had my daughter. Got divorced and had to keep working.” Although she has kept her hand in the culinary arts by teaching afterschool cooking classes and giving instruction to girls scouts over the years, Werner spent the last 15 years working as an office manager for Bernstein Medical – Center for Hair Restoration in Manhattan.
Over that time, she remarried and got divorced again.
“When you get divorced the first time, you’re depressed. When you get divorced the second time, you get mad,” she laughs. “I didn’t want to have to wait for Mr Match.com to invite me to dinner so I started taking myself out. But you know, restaurants have a terrible habit of announcing to the room that you are alone, by shouting “table for one!” about four times and then clanging and clattering all the dishes of your lonely place setting so I decided to wear headsets and listen to music to drown out the noise.”
And then the magic happened one night at her local favorite. “I was eating dinner and it was the best thing I ever had. I had eaten here a thousand times, ordered my usual steak and mashed potatoes, but it was amazing. My mouth was watering. Then all of a sudden the track changed, and it was again just an ordinary steak and potatoes. My grandma used to say I was the kind of person who had to find the hair up a chicken’s behind, so I had to find out why.”
The über-nerd in Werner took off and she began breaking down food into math, trying to understand why one dish would taste better with one song but not another. Over two years, she discovered a mathematical formula for pairing food with music. She tested it out on her friends and found they were having the same experience. Then she approached people she didn’t know well and who were less likely to humor her. Her thinking was “my mother’s not going to tell me I’m out of my mind, but other people will”. She got the same response.
While initially the 51-year-old Werner did this just for fun, she realized she might be on to something. She copyrighted the idea after checking with an intellectual property attorney and, after approaching an App developer, filed a 46-page, 9-figure patent. As the app takes time to create, Werner decided to put her idea out there and published a short guide entitled Musical Pairing: The Art of Harmonizing Music to Your Meal.
The concept is pretty straightforward and while Werner refers to musical pairing as an art, it’s really more of a science. Dishes are given a food pairing number based on four factors: protein, richness of the sauce, cooking method, and spice level. Songs are given a music pairing number derived from the genre (eg, country versus hard rock), the main instrument, tempo, and dynamics. If the numbers match, you’re on to a winner and can expect those glands to start salivating.
”If you can count to 13, you can do musical pairing,” Werner explains. “My book shows you how to calculate what music accompanies your meal best, but the app will make it even simpler and include beverage suggestions links to iTunes.” The next book in the series, Musical Pairing: Bringing Beverages to the Table comes out with the app in March.
Werner is still working at the doctor’s office but has drastically reduced her hours as she ramps up her company Musical Pairing LLC which, in addition to a forthcoming series of books and apps, offers catering and hosting of private musical pairing parties, and recommendations for restaurant, wedding and special events’ playlists.
So the next time you are having dinner guests over, download the App and magically turn that mediocre meatloaf into a mouth-watering success. And if it’s your kids you are trying to convince to eat that delectable broccoli and salmon in cream sauce, Werner’s working on a book for that too.
“I’m not going to know what to do with myself once I get to the fifth book. But the learning process has been such a great experience and I’m having such fun. I never expected to be doing this, but I’m not even sure this is it for me. I love learning. I’m a huge dreamer,” Werner says with much emphasis, “I don’t considering anything out of the range of possibility. And if you really truly believe that the world is wide open. Every day you could do something different. If you don’t, you just chose not to.”