Setting aside the role that a restaurants ambience plays in the dining experience, minimizing the significance of plate presentation, and even disregarding the value of exceptional service, the core reason that guests flock to a great restaurant is the flavor of the food. In the kitchen, the skill that a cook has with a knife, the speed and organizational skills that he or she demonstrates on a busy line, even the quality of the tools at a cooks disposal pale in comparison to the quality of his or her palate. Does the cook have the ability to marry flavors and consistently produce a product from their flavor memory? Can that cook determine what is lacking, what is needed, to bring that dish to the expected level of excellence? Does the cook have the ability to adjust seasoning to compensate for an ingredient that is out of season or picked before it is mature? If the answer to these questions is YES, – then the other components of success will come in due time. A great cook needs exceptional “buds.”
Where does this ability come from? Are cooks born with this skill or can his or her palate be built? Here are some things to consider:
- BENCHMARKS: One of the first steps in building a palate is to train and develop your flavor memory. There are so many references in cooking that can only be understood if the preparer has experience with certain food items. How could you ever describe the difference in quality from a perfectly developed loaf of artisan sour dough bread unless you have tasted such a product, numerous times? Could you even begin to understand what a real strawberry tastes like until one has been picked at the peak of ripeness on a warm, sunny day and immediately popped in your mouth? A perfect duck leg confit with properly prepared flageolet beans, and Andouille sausage from central France will paint an indelible picture in your subconscious and as such become a trigger to your food flavor memory. Benchmarks are the portal to building a responsive palate.
- THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN TASTE AND FLAVOR: As Stuart Firestein, a natural biologist from Columbia University states: taste is something that stimulates the five critical sensations in your mouth: Sweet, Sour, Salt, Bitter, and Umami. Flavor builds the experience by adding smell, texture, multiple tastes, and the expectation of eating. One might even add that flavor is sometimes determined by the experience of sharing the meal with treasured friends or family. “The flavor of the roast is determined by the handshake of the host.”
- TO SALT OR NOT TO SALT: The question of flavor really comes down to which ingredient is designed to play the lead role in the experience. Salt is a fantastic mineral that carries with it the ability to bring out, or enhance the flavor of the ingredient that it touches. Salt should not be the main character, but rather serve as a complement. Americans, both working in the kitchen and sitting in the dining room suffer from saltshakers elbow. When in doubt – add salt. The far too common solution to a lack of flavor substance is to add salt, to the point where the primary taste is that of the complement rather than the primary ingredient. Many are so addicted to the flavor enhancer that they add more before even tasting the product. Great flavor memory will allow the cook to sparingly use salt to bring out more of the flavors that made that initial eating experience – special.
- TO SAUCE OR NOT TO SAUCE: Is sauce an essential ingredient to every plate, or is sauce commonly used to compensate for poorly prepared food? Is the sauce, like salt, a component meant to complement the primary ingredient, or is it used to mask the flavor, or lack there of, in the primary ingredient? In Medieval times Chef Taillevent used sauces to hide the flavor of tainted meat since refrigeration and other forms of preservation had not been introduced or perfected. This is not where cooks want to reside today. Complementary sauce work can add complexity to the dish, but should only be used after a cook understands how the primary ingredient should be cooked and how it should taste if prepared properly. As an example, a properly roasted chicken is a stand-alone item and really does not need a sauce.
- UMAMI: A more scientific description of umami, from the Umami Institute would be: “Taking its name from Japanese, umami is a pleasant savory taste imparted by glutamate, a type of amino acid, and ribonucleotides, including inosinate and guanylate, which occur naturally in many foods including meat, fish, vegetables and dairy products. As the taste of umami itself is subtle and blends well with other tastes to expand and round out flavors, most people don’t recognize umami when they encounter it, but it plays an important role making food taste delicious” In laymen terms: umami can be described as savory or well-rounded, pleasant flavors. There are some foods that are naturally higher in umami sensation, such as mushrooms, pork, aged beef, tomatoes, and soy sauce.
- WHAT ABOUT HEAT: Heat is in when it comes to creative, fun foods today. Whether it is Thai, Mexican, Southwestern US, Chinese, or Korean cuisine, guests are gravitating towards foods that you feel, rather than simply taste. What many cooks and customers fail to differentiate is heat from flavor. As an example, chili peppers are the rage and many people refer to the Scoville Scale as a badge of honor – “How much capsaicin heat can I withstand?” Jalapeno (1-4,000 Scoville units) is surpassed by Serrano (20,000) Habanero (350,000), or even Ghost peppers (up to 2 million Scoville units).
What many people have lost sight of is the fact that each of these peppers has distinctive, and complex flavor profiles that can be masked by capsaicin. Removing the seeds and pith, and roasting the peppers first will reduce the heat and accentuate the rich flavors that will allow a cook to understand how to use them in building a flavor experience in a dish.
- BACK TO FLAVOR MEMORY AND GREAT “BUDS”: To be a great cook requires that each individual experience food, savor the experience of eating and dining, pair foods to determine how ingredients work together, and go through this process many times. Set your benchmarks, build that sub conscious database, and learn, through trial and error how to distinguish the role of each ingredient working together in a dish. When this occurs, a very good line cook becomes an irreplaceable part in the creation of a dining experience. This is what customers come back for – the consistent tastes and flavors of foods that are designed to work together. When this takes place, menus start to make sense, wine lists truly interact with food, and a restaurant signature is born.
Great cooks have great palates, great cooks are always anxious to try to new foods in quest of expanding their flavor memory, great cooks understand what a dish needs based on the benchmarks in their sub conscious mind, great cooks truly connect with the ingredients.
TASTE-SEASON-TASTE (Chef Michel)
PLAN BETTER –TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC