Taste. For chefs, a great sense of taste would appear to be essential. How can you create great dishes without that ability to judge the flavor palate of any dish?
While it’s used as a metaphor for our choices in much more than food, taste, the palate and its preferences are fundamental to our survival. The chef to a Dutch queen many years ago complained that the queen had, “a palate of stone.” How sad for her? To not have the joy of experiencing something wonderful as she ate?
Dinnertime is one of the things we all look forward to if we have a choice. A friend of mine from Vietnam insists that the obsession with food and taste now is because it’s the last bastion of choice – a real choice that we have left to us. If that’s the case, then bring on the feast.
As a chef for many years, I’ve been fascinated by, as long as I can remember, our sense of taste. How does it work? Is it the brain? The nose? The palate? The tongue? The ears? All of the above, it would seem. And Gordon Shepherd, a neurobiologist, tells us that the brain draws on all the senses to unite a ‘flavor image’ that stays in our memories.
If you are a chef, or simply an avid cook, you might like to do a taste test with your staff or friends. Place a dish or piece of food in front of them, take notes, and watch the show. And it begins with:
- Anticipation: it’s memory that gets those saliva ducts working, as it activates the dopamine reward centers, jolting us into wanting what’s to come. In other words, we salivate because we anticipate. That’s pretty simple.
- Sensory beginnings: We know our brains are pleasure-seeking, as well as threat defensive, so as we move the food to our mouths, we take in the colors and shapes, and the smells. If the food passes those tests, and the memories they evoke are pleasant, we’ll usually move on to step 3.
- Sounds and feelings: Chewing tells us if the texture is good, or bad, (too hard and our teeth tell us!) and then the taste buds kick in their tuppence worth: sweet, salty, sour, bitter or umami?
- Going deeper: The volatile chemicals that come off the food as we chew and swallow are actually carried into the nasal cavity from behind as we exhale. Quite the opposite of what you’d expect, really. And while you may think the taste is in your mouth, the main receptors come from the back of the nasal passage that builds our taste and flavor memories, ready for the next chew.
That’s how it works, basically, and the antipathy we have towards bitter foods was programmed into us for survival – sweet is good (lactose from mother’s milk is sweet, so we are primed from birth don’t you know?) and bitter? Could be poison.
So the latest research on taste tells us that our taste sense is more complicated than our vision. But, and it’s a big but, science still hasn’t fully unpacked the sensory machinery that controls our palates and tastes.
As a chef, have you produced a dish that you think should be spectacular, yet, just misses the mark somehow? Perhaps, look to your palate and the flavor spectrum that you’re offering. Go right back to those caveman instincts and investigate why a dish doesn’t work. It might surprise you.
It’s interesting that Master Chef always includes a blind taste test at some point in the competition, and very few contestants pass with flying colors. And the confusion on some of their faces may be comical, but it shows how complex the flavor spectrum is, and perhaps we all need to do more blind taste tests to sharpen up those taste buds and memory.
Fish have taste buds like us, but in surprising locations of course – catfish have zillions on their whiskers allowing them to seek food in murky water. Pretty handy if you are a fish. If taste is the basis of everything we do in the kitchen, why then is taste and how it works rarely taught in culinary school or apprenticeship courses?
Barb Stuckey teaches “The Fundamentals of Taste” at the San Francisco Cooking School, and her favorite example is the making of a barbecue sauce: while most ingredients are expected, tomato sauce, paste, sugar, honey, liquid smoke, and paprika, it’s the bitter additives like coffee, cocoa, bitters that add the real complexity to the sauce and balance it out to make it the palate-pleasing condiment it is.
Instant coffee? An ingredient that is used sometimes to balance out a dish, but could be used more often perhaps to add a much-needed fillip to an otherwise heavy sauce. What about salt? We have learned to love salt, and if we’re served low-salt dishes we complain – really. It’s tricky, while manufacturers are pushed to reduce the salt content of products, the public will always choose the saltier foods.
Why do we like salt? Because we need it. Especially if we’re in hot and humid climates where we sweat often, losing precious mineral salts that need to be replaced to get our bodies back in balance. And sugar – the big daddy of them all that’s been vilified endlessly as the reason for our obesity and ill health? Well, we go back to birth and the fact that we are born with a sweet tooth.
Giving a child sugary sweets alters their mood, quickly and easily. So how to get around that? I’m a baby boomer, and sweets weren’t a panacea, but a rarely indulged treat. These days, babies are fed sugary juice in bottles, something that never would have happened back then, and the children are paying the price with badly decayed first teeth. First teeth! Beat that.
And the amount of sugar that is in fast food is ridiculous, and I guess more people need to be aware of that, though I have a theory that the obesity epidemic is in large part due to the massive amounts of food that people are eating these days.
The quantity of food served in a single portion has grown alarmingly over the past 50 years and is totally unnecessary for survival. Then load that with salt and sugar, and you have a perfect storm for our poor overloaded digestive systems.
What does this mean to chefs in restaurants? That yes, your customers like sweet, they like salty, but they also like texture and flavor that is complex, even challenging. And it’s all in the back of the nose. Really. When I was cooking, I could tell if a dish was ready or not simply by the smell – if it smelt right, then I knew to leave well enough alone. What hits you first when something’s burnt? It’s bitter, isn’t it? Bitter is the burnt flavor that whacks you and tells you not to go there.
Research says that we should avoid burnt foods – they’re carcinogenic, so perhaps that warning bitterness of charcoal is there for a very good reason. And there’s a difference between a warm caramelization that’s taken place and a black, burnt, bitter piece of food.
I often tell the story of an old alcoholic chef I worked for decades ago, who seemed to always burn everything, and just added cream and never stirred the bottom of the dish. I could taste the acrid, bitter flavor without doubt, but customers would still eat it. Go figure!
As René Redzepi at Noma, Heston at his Fat Duck, and Adrià’s sons in Spain endlessly push the boundaries of taste, flavor, and texture, I do wonder where it will all end? Do we really need to eat ants or crickets? There’s a kickback now to natural, unfussy food for some, while others stretch the limits and keep trying to reinvent the wheel.
I think I agree with Marco here: “You don’t have to reinvent the wheel, but you can always paint it a different color.” And my advice to young chefs? Don’t lose sight of the main objective: to make a profit, and good, tasty food. If you do the latter, the former should follow. Remember too; if you haven’t got a good sense of taste, then perhaps you should look at another career. Just saying.
About the Author
Christine Matheson Green has been owner/chef of 10 successful restaurants, two cooking schools, and now writes about the industry and interviews chefs on her blog, www.justthesizzle.com. She has also just launched a global chef support site, www.offthehotplate.com aimed at reducing the carnage a high-pressure industry and poor conditions have created. Her motto? “Don’t tell, don’t bleat, just do!”
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