THE WELL-SEASONED COOK

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What is it about food that stops people in their tracks? What single characteristic about the food that we consume is literally addictive? What is the most important part of the formula for a successful restaurant that attracts return customers and new customers and builds a reputation that will carry the operation for a long time? The answer is flavor. This does not take away from all of the other important components that must be in place: great service, an ambience that is conducive to exciting or comfortable dining, great food presentations, solid marketing, cost controls, effective training, and so on, but flavor is what drives people to a restaurant and builds the word-of-mouth reputation that will allow a restaurant to thrive.

So, with this understanding in mind, why is it that so many operations fail to invest the energy, time, and resources in understanding, building, and maintaining the type of flavors that set a restaurant apart? Could it be that many restaurateurs and chefs don’t really understand flavor? Could it be that a dependence on recipes without a strong foundation in taste and flavor is problematic? Could it be that cooks resist the most basic methodology for building correct flavors in a dish: “taste-season-taste”?

A cook’s palate is quite variable and very complicated. Just as an exceptional sommelier must not only spend years developing the ability to distinguish the nuances in flavor between regions, vineyards, and grapes; so too must a cook invest the same time and effort in building his or her “buds”. Additionally, a person’s palate can leave a sommelier or a cook at an advantage or disadvantage in this process. Taste and flavor is complicated, but it is extremely important.

Let there be no misunderstanding – if a dish does not taste exceptional it will not inspire, nor will customers support and promote your operation to others. Chefs, cooks, managers, and owners need to be focused on this fact.

So, let’s take a look at some facts about understanding flavor that must be at the forefront of everyone’s thought process:

[]         SEASONALITY AND MATURITY OF INGREDIENTS IS IMPORTANT

Unless you have bitten into an heirloom tomato freshly picked off the vine in the mid-July sun then you have not truly tasted tomato. The difference between a June local strawberry and one shipped from New Mexico in February is dramatic. August corn sweetened by the sun is heads above an ear that somehow appears in April from cold storage. Melons that are prematurely harvested so that they travel better and last longer on grocery store shelves are not even worth serving, and an avocado that is still a week away from maturity pales in comparison to the soft, sweet and savory taste and texture of one that is ready for that perfect guacamole.

When restaurants serve items out of season or prior to maturity then the consequence is something that fails on the flavor scale and does little to build a restaurant’s reputation for exceptional food. Allowing Mother Nature to do her good work will always serve a restaurant well.

[]         SEASONING CHANGES WITH THE APPLICATION OF HEAT

Seasoning a dish to the end game before the cooking process is complete will result in a dish that clouds the palate with excess. Many spices, in particular, increase in potency through the cooking process. In particular, peppers and spices such as curries, cinnamon, nutmeg, and allspice will act differently through the various stages of cooking. To this end, many seasonings are best applied at the end of the cooking process where they can be controlled.

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[]         DRIED SPICES LOSE THEIR AROMA AND FLAVOR WITH TIME AND HEAT

Proper storage of dried spices and herbs is as important as proper storage of more perishable foods. Heat, light, and time is not a friend of dried herbs and spices, yet in most kitchens these items are stored where all of these factors are present. That gallon container of dried oregano or basil that sits on your shelf for a year or so is not a bargain at any price.

[]         HEAT IS NOT ALWAYS A FAN OF FLAVOR

Currently, diners seem to be infatuated with the “heat” of spice that is derived from peppers. The chain of thought seems to be: “No pain – no gain”. Flavor should not hurt! Some peppers are not appropriate for anyone to consume. Ghost peppers that burn your mouth, esophagus, and stomach are not part of food enjoyment they are really more a part of a game of dares. Other peppers that are more subdued on the Scovil Scale are improperly used and as such focus on the pain of heat rather than the joy of flavor. Roasting those peppers, removing the seeds and pith, will allow the true pepper flavor to come through rather than inflict discomfort.

[]         THE SOURCE AND TERROIR MATTER WITH FOOD AS WELL AS WINE

Just as terroir (soil composition, exposure to sun, rainfall and rain composition, wind and temperature) impacts on the quality and flavor characteristics of grapes and in turn the wine they produce, so too will terroir impact on a tomato, peach, onion, potato, green bean, chicken, steer, pig, or fish. Knowing where a product comes from will allow the cook or chef to understand its flavor characteristics and if necessary, adjust how it is handled to reach a desired outcome.

[]         “NEEDS SALT” IS NOT ALWAYS THE RIGHT ANSWER

Chefs and cooks, just like most customers, suffer from saltshaker’s elbow. There is no question that salt is not only a flavoring addition, but a flavor enhancer – bringing out or accentuating the natural flavor of other ingredients. But, salt, like alcohol, can cloud a person’s tolerance. The more salt you use, the more you will require in the future to achieve the same result. Chefs and cooks with great palates will use salt sparingly as an enhancer rather than a flavor in of itself.

[]         CONSISTENCY IS THE GOAL OF A COOK

Why do guests return to a restaurant? More than likely, a guest had a memorable experience (certainly including flavor) and returns with the expectation of that same experience. Flavor consistency is one of the greatest drivers of return business. Standardized recipes can help, but they fail to account for variances in ingredient quality and taste. Cooks and chefs must build an experienced palate if consistency is to be the foundation of a restaurants flavor reputation.

[]         TASTE AND FLAVOR ARE NOT THE SAME THING

Oftentimes misused interchangeably, taste is really one portion of the flavor experience. Flavor includes aroma, texture, taste, and even the visual aspects of a dish. How food looks will paint a mental picture of flavor perception.

[]         AROMA COUNTS

Never lose sight of the fact that we have 10,000 taste buds, while we have the ability to distinguish more than 1 trillion smells with our 400 types of olfactory receptors. Taste cannot stand alone without the introduction of smell. In fact, our flavor memory is more based on aroma experiences than taste. When asked to visualize foods like fresh bread from the oven, a recently baked apple pie, roast chicken, or a grilled steak, it is the memory of how each item smells that brings a smile to a person’s face.

[]         YOUR PALATE CAN BE TRAINED

Some individuals are certainly born with more acute “buds”, but most of us have the capacity to train our palate to recognize and adjust flavor. It is experience and time that allows a palate to grow and mature. A cook without a well-developed palate will struggle to understand or create positive flavors.

[]         FLAVOR MEMORY REQUIRES EXPERIENCE

Everything that we experience with food is imbedded in our subconscious – this is where our flavor memory is built and stored. In the process of building a palate an individual must learn how to bring those memories to the surface and out of the subconscious. For those without the gift of nature’s taste buds the best way to accomplish this is through repeated experience with a flavor. Cooks and chefs must try all foods – repeatedly. These same cooks must experience how these items change with the application of heat, through the use of different cooking methods, from ingredients of different quality, and with the addition of a variety of seasonings. There is no other way to reach this goal. Recipes with flavor experience equal success.

[]         GREAT COOKS AND CHEFS DO NOT LIMIT THEIR PALATE TO FOOD

All career cooks and chefs must invest the time in not only developing their flavor memory with food, they must also invest the time to understand those items that complement the food – wine, beer, coffee, tea, bitters, fresh herbs, floral introductions, etc.

[]         CONTEXT IS AN IMPORTANT PART OF FLAVOR MEMORY

One of the interesting variables with regards to flavor is the environment and the people associated with eating certain foods. Knowing that this can cloud a guest’s perception of flavor, it is important for cooks to work with the front of the house to create an environment that protects and enhances a flavor experience. Many people do not consider that the service staff can have an impact on food flavor, but in the process of understanding context a server can do a great deal through food description, recommendations based on a guests previous experience, presenting the food with flair, and simply understanding how important it is to capture the best of the food placed in the kitchen pass.

[]         FLAVOR ANTICIPATION IS AS IMPORTANT AS ACTUALLY TASTING

Restaurant food is part of theater. Chefs and Restaurant Managers are trained to build anticipation. The ambience of the room, the menu wordsmithing, the introductions by service staff, the recommendations of the sommelier, and the exciting presentation of the first course are all designed to build flavor anticipation. This anticipation becomes the memory that ends up embedded in a guest’s subconscious. Taste and flavor are important, but the thought of what an item is likely to taste like is equally, if not more important.

Cooking must go beyond the process of applying heat. Cooking is a highly intellectual endeavor that benefits greatly from knowing how ingredients are grown, what environmental factors impact on their quality, how heat works in its various forms, what each seasoning ingredient brings to the pan and how a combination of seasonings work together to change a dish. Additionally, it is even important for a chef or cook to understand the psychology of eating and how environment and people can impact on the perceptions of flavor.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Taste-Season-Taste + Flavor Memory

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

Restaurant Consulting and Training

**”Taste-Season-Taste” is a quote from Chef Michel LeBorgne.

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