17th July 2020

Featured / Food / Mark McCabe

Cooking, Community and Counterculture by Mark McCabe

18 6 mins 0

MMark McCabe, the head chef of The Ethicurean restaurant discusses the relationship between food and music and how they have shaped the course of his life.

I was 12 when my friend John handed me the earphones of his portable CD player on the school bus, pressed play and opened the door to a world that I’ve been part of ever since. The song was ‘Why Don’t You Get A Job’ by The Offspring, a cheesy pop-punk hit from the late ’90s and not exactly one I’d usually readily admit to having shaped my life but here we are. It was my first taste of punk, or at very least the ‘alternative’ music scene and it’s only a tiny stretch of the imagination to see how it has brought me to where I am today as a chef.

Music and food have always been tied up together. Whether it’s the psychology behind which BPM your dining room playlist should have for a specific service or struggling musicians consistently finding themselves as line chefs between tours, there is no doubting that the two are deeply connected in a lot of different ways.



There’s no denying that a great playlist can exponentially improve a meal.

Mark McCabe

It’s been said that Taylor Swift’s track Blank Space is the perfect accompaniment to a Chinese takeaway (although I’d argue it’s pretty great for everything) and that Justin Bieber’s music has been shown to have a detrimental effect on the way people enjoy the flavour of any dish (or anything) but whatever the solid science behind that is there’s no denying that a great playlist can exponentially improve a meal.

It’s easy to look at the connection through an Anthony Bourdain, Kitchen Confidential, viewpoint. At a time when cooking was often an alternative to prison, it’s not hard to see the similarities between debauched, drug fueled benders in hot, loud rooms and the last night of a Kiss tour. However, kitchens fueled by abuse, cocaine and sleep deprivation are (thankfully) becoming less and less common and yet the attraction for misfits and creatives to enter the culinary world still seems strong.

To me, the answer lies in community and a sense of belonging. As a scrawny, church going teen, it wasn’t until I started playing the guitar and formed a band that I truly began to find my place in the world. We were kids who listened to the same obscure bands, scribbled the same lyrics on our folders and religiously bought Kerrang! every week and we united in our shared understanding of each other and love of these songs that would never be on Top Of The Pops.

I wouldn’t feel like this again, outside of music, until long after I had left university and started working in hospitality in between tours. There is little to give your self esteem a lift whilst living at your parent’s house in your mid 20’s but in the afterglow of a busy Friday night service, all sweat, cold beer and relief I always felt like I had worked well, given my best to the team and been accepted.

Part of this connection, I’m sure, comes from the hardship inherent in both jobs. Trying to make a living from music is incredibly difficult, living hand to mouth a lot of the time whilst driving vast distances to play your music to a handful of people. It takes 357 plays on Spotify to earn £1 so touring is the only way to make a living from music. Cooking at least offers a steady wage but it is still a hugely underpaid industry that relies on staff working long hours.

Kitchens will always be a refuge for those who perhaps need a little more direction in their lives. Those who are searching for their place in the world or need hard work to feel worthwhile. While neither the restaurant nor music industries are perfect, the communities they form, through shared experience and common goals are strong. One that has enabled me to make friends all over the world, to travel and work, to overcome anxieties and feel a spark of connection with people I’ve just met.

There’s no telling where I would have ended up if John had chosen to sit next to someone else that day on the bus. Maybe I’d have found a different route into alternative music and still ended up who I am now. Or maybe I’d be here, a 33 year old man, still listening to Britney Spears. I’m glad I don’t have to find out and I’m grateful to him for that.

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Mark McCabe

Mark McCabe is a chef who writes in his spare time. Or a musician who cooks in his spare time. Or a writer who takes photos sometimes. Or an anxious man all of the time. He is currently the head chef at The Ethicurean.

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