Flavor Profiles: Levels of Layering

by Emily Bell
Antoinette Bruno, Shannon Sturgis, Will Blunt
November 2011


Chef Mathias Dahlgren
Mathias Dahlgren - Stockholm, Sweden

Chef Christian Ragano
New York Central at the Grand Hyatt - New York, NY

Chef Sandro Micheli
Adour Alain Ducasse - New York, NY

Chef Massimo Bottura
Osteria Francescana - Modena, Italy

From haute cuisiniers crafting new flavor delivery systems to neo-traditionalists building taste from the mortar and pestle up, modern flavor profiles vary between extremes of purity and complexity. But one thing unites them: layering. Whether a chef approaches one flavor with multiple techniques, or uses one technique to marry a variety of flavors, layering can create dimensionality, structure, or refined variation on the palate. A well-layered flavor profile (built on three ingredients or 30) won’t fade after first impact; it’s going to last, and change, over the course of the bite. And it’s as true for conceptual and micro-seasonal cuisine as ethnic staples and comfort foods.

Complex Comfort

At this year’s ICC Welcome Reception Dinner, New York Central Chef Christian Ragano served a seemingly simple “Central Shrimp and Grits.” Ragano built his grits with a rich corn stock, made from corn husk and fresh corn, and dosed the final product with lightly fried, freeze-dried corn. The result was a homage to the rich Southern classic that introduced uncommon nuance of flavor.

And at this year’s ICC, Massimo Bottura served an avant-garde update on a beloved childhood recipe. His Piglet Head Soup, rich with dried morels and Romagnola pig (head to tail, literally), upped the earth-and-pork ante with Cotechino-stuffed morels on top of the luscious soup. And in Portland, Tyler Malek of Salt & Straw is putting more complexity of flavor into a classic comfort food: ice cream. His Brown Ale with Bacon laces 50 percent-reduced Hooligan Brown Ale with candied bacon, brown sugar, and rich Maris and chocolate malts, for a creamy, roasty-sweet soft serve with layered flavors both echoing and amplifying one another.

Savoring Singularity  

Shrimp and Grits with Chorizo by Chef Christian Ragano of New York Central at the Grand Hyatt - New York, NY

We didn’t taste his Parmigiano-Reggiano Five Ways at ICC, but Bottura explained the concept—a tunnel-vision homage to a classic Italian cheese through five kinds of technical manipulation. Fellow ICC Presenter and Adour Pastry Chef Sandro Micheli paid a similarly singular homage to the archetypal fall ingredient, apple. He served confit apple with crème fraîche sablé with a tart Granny Smith sorbet and a bright, apple cider vinegar-spiked Apple Jus—a modernist, multi-faceted ode to the singularity of product.

Unwrapping the Layers Within

This kind of one-ingredient focus is at its best among chefs who’ve already mastered classic layering techniques, and then turn their passion to the emphasis of product (over process). In Stockholm, Chef Mathias Dahlgren is part of an ingredient-obsessed Nordic naturalist crew (whose mandate sounds like a kind of culinary Wiccanism). “We follow nature,” Dahlgren says. “Every single ingredient has its own season.”

For Dahlgren, flavor profiles aren’t built on stocks or seasonings, but clever manipulations that tease out the dimensions within ingredients. Take his “Variation of Sloe Berries: Sloe Berry Meat Pie with Sloe Skin and Sloe Pit”—a deceptively diminutive dish that actually—and powerfully—plays up the chef’s intimate acquaintance with a marginalized ingredient. The chef derives three distinct flavors from one ingredient, juxtaposing the acid and sweetness of the flesh and skin against the gently bitter almond nuttiness of a roasted, ground pit. “I can see the magic in simple things,” says the chef, a Tolkien (or Wordsworth, or Hopkins) for the kitchen. 

Low-Tech Layering

Piglet Head Soup, Cotechino Sausage-stuffed Morels, and Gnocco Ingrassato Dumplings by Chef Massimo Bottura of Osteria Francescana - Modena, Italy

As Dahlgren and his brethren get back to the literal roots, other chefs, like Angus An, ICC Presenter David Thompson, and Portland Chef Andy Ricker get back to the cultural roots of flavor layering. Thompson, a passionate convert who's taken up the mantle of Thai food, espoused the virtue of his adopted cuisine at this year’s ICC, demonstrating how Thai food creates complexity of flavor by combining elbow grease, powerful ingredients, and—most importantly—the je ne sais quoi of the seasoned chef, intuition. Ricker, who opened ultra-authentic Pok Pok in 2005, was drawn to Thai cuisine for the same reasons. More than the application of technique, layered flavor is at once the genetic and cultural inheritance. And it's becoming the hallmark of the traditionalist chef.

“Traditional Thai recipes don't use times or quantities,” says An, who was inspired by Thompson’s return to low-tech methods and use of strong flavors. “It’s more about tasting a dish and understanding the flavor.” An has adopted this cook-by-consciousness method, building flavor at his Vancouver restaurant Maenam with dishes like his rich curry. "Traditions get built," says Ricker, explaining how Coca Cola was incorporated into the traditional, centuries old stewed chicken dish. "There's not a dictated way to make a dish." Instead, it's all about building a complex of traditional flavors, and delivering them the right way (with sticky rice, to cool the intense heat of many curries).

Ricker, Thompson, and An may practice old-school flavor layering, but the spirit of their methods is universal. The process of layering is as much about trust as technique. As a sculptor finds his creation in a block of marble, so too does a chef find his dish: by design, technically, but by instinct, always.