What does a fresh, seasonal strawberry taste like? How about apple pie, a Georgia Peach in July, A Prime Steak just off the char-grill, or even a cup of hot chocolate with cinnamon whipped cream? We would likely answer: it tastes like a strawberry, apple pie, a peach, a steak or hot chocolate. We know what they taste like from experience. Somewhere in our subconscious mind we can envision the texture, smell and flavor or each one of those items only because we have enjoyed them before. Without previous experience it would be impossible to describe those items and even with that experience it is very difficult to describe those items to someone who is lacking a previous experience themselves with that food.
We can make comparisons in an attempt to describe items that someone else has not enjoyed, but they generally fall short on accuracy. Case in point, how many different proteins are simply described as tasting like chicken (alligator, frog legs, rattlesnake, etc.)?
Now comes the interesting part of food memory from a cook’s perspective: You really can’t cook unless you have experienced taste, aroma and texture. Recipes are great, but they lack the flexibility to adjust for seasonality, size, maturity of raw materials, the impact of terroir, brand, or process. Tapping into food memory allows a cook to truly understand how to prepare an outstanding dish and if necessary, adjust to reach the correct end result. Additionally, one must always remember that food memory takes into account the environment in which those tastes, aromas and textures were experienced. When the context of the experience changes, so will memory of the food. That prime New York Strip grilled outside on a patio overlooking the vineyards of Napa Valley will taste differently when you try to replicate the food experience in an employee cafeteria. Food memory becomes the benchmark by which all other experiences with the same food prepared in another location and at another time are measured.
Why is a baguette so different when produced in your local bakery than in that boutique boulangerie on a side street in Paris? Some will claim it is the flour or the water, but is it that simple? Maybe it is the centuries of history behind that Parisian baguette, maybe it is the way that the baker kneads the dough, or maybe it is simply because it is Paris after all. I know chefs and bakers who spend countless hours, days and months trying to recreate that perfect loaf of French bread, Robuchon whipped potato, or Italian pizza crust to no avail. A restaurant in New York once determined that the flour and water for their pizza crust had to be imported from Italy. It was the only way that they would be satisfied with the results that compared to their memory.
The importance of this rambling is that every serious cook or for that matter, lover of food, must dedicate the time and effort to building food memories. Create your benchmarks by tasting everything you can, in every ideal location possible, with the right companions. Without this data in your subconscious, great cooking will alway allude you.