Chef David Burtka Talks about Matching the Playlist and Menu to Elevate Any Occasion

Chef and actor David Burtka recently released his ultimate guide to entertaining, Life Is A Party: Deliciously Doable Recipes To Make Every Day A Celebration. A successful gathering is all about setting the right tone, and David believes that no detail—neither food nor music nor theme—is too small. It’s why he created not just one Spotify playlist to accompany his book’s release, but 16: One for every type of party he helps his readers plan.

Just as David’s book began hitting the shelves, we chatted with him about setting the mood through food, drink, and tunes—whether it’s a big soiree, cooking for his husband Neil Patrick Harris and their two children, or settling in for a quiet night on the couch.

What’s your dinner party conception process like?

I usually focus on the menu first, and set it depending on the party theme and season. Then I go through the guest list and revamp everything based on who’s going to come and who eats what. From there I work on the flowers and the decorations, and then I start to put together my playlist. Throughout all the prep work I’m doing, I listen to the songs that I’m going to play during the party. Then I start subtracting and adding songs based on which ones truly fit.

Is there anything in common between working for great stage directors and great chefs?

Yes. There’s a lot in common, whether it’s chef Thomas Keller, who I trained under, or director Sam Mendes, who I worked with on Broadway. There is a level of professionalism and attention to detail. With Thomas, it’s how different components taste together, on their own, and how everything on the plate delivers. And it was the same thing with Sam. We had weeks of improv acting and just got to know our characters and how they lived with each other. It’s all kind of the same job, just in a different medium.

Who are your greatest culinary and musical influences?

In terms of culinary, Ina Garten throws a party effortlessly. Of course, legendary chefs Julia Child and James Beard were incredible hosts as well. They knew exactly what they needed to do and how to get their point across. As for music, I really love Elton John and his process. He’s amazing in terms of how he puts together a song and how he writes.

Give us your “aha” dish, drink, and song pairing.

“What A Wonderful World” by Louis Armstrong, a nice steak, and a glass of wine is just the ultimate pairing for me. It’s classic, it’s never going out of style.

Let’s say your family is invited to a last-minute Sunday afternoon gathering with takeout and a couple other families. You’re asked to DJ. Which artists or songs would you queue up?

My Dig In Brunch playlist. There are some great throwbacks from the 1950s, some classical songs, and there’s also some nice, light and easy listening—some mellow tracks with a beat. It’s good for everybody. The kids are happy, the adults get the songs. You want something that everyone can enjoy, from age seven to 70. 

Do you have a secret for getting your kids to love certain songs or foods or both?

We expose our kids to every single kind of music and cuisine, and they have to just try it. We were even listening to AC/DC the other day, and my son likes hard rock now. My kids love strong, briny flavors, like caper berries and olives. They love sushi and even duck. From a young age, I was able to cook them foods that had herbs and spices and salt—at six months of age, kids are able to process those flavors. Expose your kids to as much flavor as you can, and just have your kids eat what you eat.

What’s your secret ingredient in cooking, and in terms of creating the perfect playlist?

Don’t under-salt or be tepid with seasoning. Salt is really the thing. And in terms of the music, for a nice, elegant dinner party, it’s Sam Cooke. His voice is so smooth and sexy, it makes you feel good. His music is great in the background and doesn’t take away from your party or your guests.  

It’s nighttime and you want to unwind on the couch. What music do you and Neil listen to?

Neil is really into 1920s to 1940s music, and that big band, swing, upbeat music with horns and strings. We also love Frank Sinatra, Perry Como, Ella Fitzgerald, Etta James, and that sort of world. We go for the oldies. It’s really nice to chill out and relax, and feel your shoulders go down.

Listen to David’s Summer Picnic playlist here.