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Playing with Food: A Recipe for Success from the Hartford Symphony Orchestra

Category: Center for the Future Of Museums Blog
In 2011, CFM launched Feeding the Spirit, an exploration of the relationships between museums, food & community. That project lives on in a number of ways—most notably, it played a role in the launch of the ongoing Let’s Move Museums & Gardenscampaign to promote healthy eating and fight childhood obesity. As I work on an ebook for the AAM press summarizing some of the great “recipes for success” shared by our many partners in the project, I’ve continued to collect examples of how cultural organizations use food in playful ways to explore their missions and connect with new audiences. Today’s guest post, by Carolyn Kuan, Music Director of the Hartford Symphony Orchestra and Katie Bonner Russo, HSO Director of Marketing & Public Relations, shares a particularly delightful example.
This is a Recipe for…
Conceived by Hartford Symphony Orchestra (HSO) Music Director Carolyn Kuan, Playing with Food is a concert that draws connections between the shared creative processes of musicians, chefs, audiences, and eaters through the presentation of music inspired by food and food inspired by music. For the first performance in May 2013, the HSO collaborated with five local restaurants, which each created a new dish on their menu inspired by a piece of music. HSO Music Director Carolyn Kuan also tasted the “signature dish” on each menu and paired it with a piece of music. At the concert, the orchestra performed the music associated with each dish and Ms. Kuan led onstage conversations about music and food with the chefs from each restaurant. Stunning photographs of the food were choreographed to the music, demonstrating the process for creating each dish, the atmosphere of the restaurants, and the chefs in action. Samples of the dishes were served in the lobby during intermission and after the performance.


Carolyn Kuan and the HSO. Photo by Steven Laschever.
What does a cultural organization need to make this recipe a success?
To replicate Playing with Food, you need two main ingredients: artists and chefs. At the HSO, we paired live music performance with food by five of our finest local chefs. The restaurant partners need to be selected carefully; their creativity and willingness to speak onstage and to the media leading up to the concert is essential.
For those looking to recreate the recipe, we recommend that they think about this as an inspirational experience for the eyes, ears, and tastebuds. Look to connect these sensory experiences through a shared vein of inspiration: food inspired by music, photos inspired by food, food inspiring music, etc. The overall effect is that the audience walks away with ideas on how music and art can inspire the most basic elements of their lives, even down to the food they eat.
How we went about implementing this project at the Symphony
Since Playing with Food was a concert on our subscription series, we put the plans in place 14 months before the show, including booking the hall and musicians. Six months prior to the performance we locked in our restaurant partners and chefs. Over the next few months we met a couple times, listening to music and tasting their signature dishes.
Around a month before the performance the new, music-inspired dishes debuted on their menus, allowing patrons the opportunity to try the dishes in the restaurants before coming to the concert; anyone who tried all five restaurants was able to receive a free companion ticket to the performance. The dishes remained on their menus one month after the performance, and audience members received a discount to the participating restaurants when they presented their concert ticket stubs. 
We brought a photographer to each restaurant and photographed them working in their kitchens, creating their dishes, and holding the finished products, as well as photos of the interiors and exteriors of each restaurant. These photos were choreographed to match the musical score, so the audience experienced the visual experience of being in the restaurants while they listened to the music.
A menu item from last year’s concert. Like music notes
on a plate! 
 Notes on Technique: lessons learned about how to tackle this recipe.
Asking a chef to take a Saturday night off to participate in this type of project can be challenging, so we would recommend scheduling your event for mid-winter or early spring. Ask the restaurants that you have in mind to suggest dates or seasons when they would be willing to participate. And do not try to communicate with restaurants during the holiday season- they are far too busy!


All in all, Playing with Food was most certainly a recipe for success. People could not stop talking about it, which is why we are planning to serve a second course in April 2014. This project brought together the Greater Hartford community in a way that only music and food can. As a result of this event, the Hartford Symphony has brought in new audience members and the participating restaurants saw an influx of new customers. Music is the universal language and food is a universal part of the human experience; the combination creates a powerful force for bringing people together.
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