The Alchemy of Taste and Smell 2010

by Francoise Villeneuve and Jessica Dukes with Will Blunt
Francoise Villeneuve and Jessica Dukes
November 2010

Who actually knows what goes on inside your body when you smell and taste food (besides deliciousness)? Among the most industry-relevant food conferences there are, this year’s The Alchemy of Taste and Smell event boasted some of the most innovative chefs, mixologists, and food braniacs from around the country. And they all gathered at the Astor Center to discuss, taste and, at times, butt heads over flavors and aromas. New York chefs were amply represented with wd~50 wizard Wylie Dufresne, Momofuku’s David Chang, and Jean Georges FourPlay meister Pastry Chef Johnny Iuzzini. The soft-spoken and cerebral Chef Daniel Patterson of Coi came in from San Francisco, and Pegu Club Mixologist Audrey Saunders advocated for the cocktail world. Food science mac daddy Harold McGee lent some much-needed insight into the subjectivity of taste. The event opened with a bang on Friday night with an industry party and closed with a smaller dinner on Saturday night.

Inventions in Flavor

In this workshop aimed at creative dish development, conjurers of the unconventional David Chang and Wylie Dufresne demonstrated their back-of- house, over-a-few-beers-style brainstorming. For a hamachi dish, Chang shared an invention-by-necessity: he rules out wasabi in its powdered form, but for the price, cannot provide it fresh at Momofuku. Through trial and error, he succeeded in recreating the texture, color, and flavor of this classic component by deftly combining edamame with horseradish and xanthan gum. Dufresne covered strategies in taste and texture, as participants enjoyed his sous vide cuttlefish with root beer and candied cashews. He also shared a wd~50 brainchild inspired by cold fried chicken; Both chefs went into detail about the evolution of dishes on their menus. Chang discussed his surprise at what uni could take on in terms of flavor. Together they discussed the pitfalls and high points of invention. The disappointment felt when lobster legs turned out to be a dud for diners became cheeky pride when the flatiron steak revolution eventually spilled over to T.G.I. Friday’s. Both agreed that the modus operandi is not to merely challenge the diner, but rather to use the classics as a starting point in exploring new territory.

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We Have Chemistry

Food scientist Harold McGee, author of the ultimate chef’s reference book On Food and Cooking, shed some light on the chemistry of taste and smell and, as usual, blew us away. McGee explained how only the volatile molecules that are small enough to evaporate from food and travel to our nose are detected by our sense of smell—meaning for once, smaller is better. For example, tiny vanillin and acetic acid molecules (vanilla and vinegary aromas) are small enough for us to be able to sniff them out. The five tastes, he explained, are different because they are chemicals detected on the tongue rather than inside the nose (fairly obvious). But the basic function of each taste was fascinating. He pointed out how umami signifies proteins, saltiness indicates the presence of that essential nutrient salt, sweet tells us that there are calories present for energy, and bitterness warns of naturally occurring toxins—like caffeine. Acidity remains a bit of a mystery. His next presentation was perhaps the best (and most surprising) argument for chefs having others taste their food before sending it out, rather than relying on their own tasting prowess. McGee handed out tasting strips soaked in a very specific bitter compound. Many of the audience were unable to detect it, some tasted a mild bitterness, and some an intensely unpleasant bitterness (this is commonly known as the supertaster test, with bragging rights involved if you’re one of the few able to detect the compound, but it took on a special significance here). You know that golden taste, taste, taste rule? Chef didn’t just mean for you to taste everything. Make others taste it too! Because all our taste and smell receptors are made by proteins coded by our DNA, how well our senses work depends on genetics. So if you’re that unlucky chef unable to taste that bitter compound, you might find your diners unhappy unless you’re extra careful to reach out to others for their feedback first. In other McGee news, it turns out that herb and spice aroma chemicals are toxic. Isopropyl Methylpheno— the chemical that makes oregano…well…oregano-ey—and others like it, is toxic. They function as defensive compounds in herbs and spice plants against predators. Some burn the skin on contact, some are corrosive (mustard gas anyone?). Luckily we only use herbs and spices as an accent in a dish, so they are never eaten in large enough quantities to actually be toxic.

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Aromatic Inspirations

Two presenters from this year’s International Chefs Congress joined forces from both sides of the country for this collaboration with perfumer Mandy Aftel—Chef Daniel Patterson of San Francisco’s Coi and Pastry Chef Johnny Iuzzini of Jean Georges. The workshop slowly climbed into gear—as Patterson quipped “just so you know it wasn’t the New York guy holding things up today.” But Patterson soon began constructing his first dish, inspired by the coastline near Coi. True to his signature style, he chose ingredients indigenous to San Francisco. As he plated the dish he revealed the lengths to which he had to go to get fresh seaweed for the dish. Unable to find decent seaweed, he resorted to sourcing his seaweed from his abalone guy (it turns out that what abalone most likes to munch on is seaweed), from whom he purchased the six kinds of seaweed used in his Squid Ink Panna Cotta, Seawater Infusion, Varied Seaweeds, and Radish Sprouts. Perfumer Mandy Aftel collaborated with Patterson, preparing a tarragon-tinged maritime spray to finish the plate, which filled the nostrils with an unexpected waft of beach air and brought to mind waves crashing on the shore.

Iuzzini took quite a different approach. “I’m less cerebral [than Chef Patterson],” he joked, but if his Salted Hibiscus Rose Streusel, Roasted Beets, Honey Ganache, and Amaranth was anything to go by, Iuzzini’s strength may be more instinctual than intellectual, but it has no less complexity. This dish was served with a rose absolute (a super-concentrated pure essence). Perhaps the highlight of Iuzzini’s offerings though was his hay ice cream—a combo of sweet hay and charred hay—topped with malt crumbs. The audience was instructed to dab a little of the pleasantly barnyardy “agrustic” solid perfume Aftel had crafted to pair with this dish on the hand so that when they were eating it they were inhaling the perfume. Patterson emphasized how precarious the use of natural oils and absolutes were in cooking: “one drop too many and you throw the whole thing out.” With these results though, Aftel may have chefs lining up to purchase her creative aromas, or even the pricier and deceptively delicate-sounding ambergrist she raves about. (It’s actually sperm whale vomit.)

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The Architecture of Aroma

You’ve never been to a workshop at a food conference quite like this. Perfumer Mandy Aftel of Atelier Perfumes made a case for natural aromatics, breaking down the components of scent for forward-thinking chefs exploring all the possibilities of these aromatics in food. Aftel had the audience do side-by-side smell tests, comparing short-lived synthetics, like that of the cloyingly sweet vanilla we can all call to mind, with their natural counterparts, in this case natural vanilla absolute. Like a dish, a natural aroma evolves over time, an important factor to take into account. Day-old fire tree oil from Australia becomes floral after a day of air exposure, for example. She emphasized the minute amounts of her aromatics used in food, and added that the aromatics can and do bond with other aromatics naturally present in the food, making for an enhanced experience.

Aftel’s outline of top, middle, and base notes was a great refresher course. Top notes are those scents that reach your sense of smell the quickest, but they’re fleeting, so if a chef wanted an initial impact, he might choose something like ginger. Middle notes are the heart of a perfume and thin slowly over time, so if a chef wanted a less jarring but longer lasting impression he might choose rose. A base note forms the foundation of an aroma, like myrrh for example. Perfume, like food, has fallen victim to mass production, and the synthetic scents that were almost unrecognizable next to the real thing in this workshop apparently sell for $80 a pound versus the $3000 a pound that Aftel charges (not to worry, they are sold in much smaller quantities!). Aftel’s innovative work in the culinary world has led to a kind of cross-industry pollination, where chefs take inspiration from her, and where she takes inspiration from them. Spotted in the audience was International Chefs Congress workshop leader Chef George Mendes of Aldea and Top Ten Cookbooks author Alex Talbot of Ideas in Food.

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Scented Dinner

To underline the importance of aroma in the dining experience the conference gathered close to 50 attendees to enjoy an intimate—and unusual—scented dinner. In addition to presenter chefs David Chang, Wylie Dufresne, and Daniel Patterson’s dishes, Chef George Mendes of Aldea, Chef Carlo Mirarchi of Roberta’s, Alexander Talbot and Aki Kamozawa of Ideas in Food, Chef Nils Noren of The French Culinary Institute, and Patterson’s Coi colleague Pastry Chef Bill Corbett each presented a dish emphasizing, tweaking, or otherwise manipulating the aromatic experience of cuisine. Some of the creations were the result of a collaboration with Aftel, using her essential oils and/or absolutes, meaning there were more than traditional culinary aromas on hand. Aftel’s scented teas were also served at the dinner, a gentle reminder of the ever-expanding elaboration of even the simplest experience of cuisine.