Now that I have your attention – allow me to walk you through a cook’s journey of experiences that activate the senses. One of the most amazing aspects of the human mind is its capacity to store and remember every single experience from birth to last breath. These experiences whether they are tactile, social, psychological, or spiritual are stored in the subconscious mind – a person’s “built-in” hard drive. Sometimes those experiences are buried deeply in that hard drive and take real effort to bring to the surface while others simply require a small prod to jump into the conscious realm and activate all of the senses. It truly is amazing.
What cooks and chefs talk about quite often is “food memory”. Oftentimes the difference between a good cook and an exceptional one is the breadth of a person’s food memory. Sometimes we refer to them as flavor benchmarks – significant additions to a food memory data bank that become the standard-bearers of how we approach and compare food experiences moving forward. Cooks and chefs are bombarded with these benchmarks – each and every day.
WHAT IS THAT SMELL?
*Bacon – is there any deeper, more intoxicating, more all consuming smell than that of thick strips of bacon frying in a pan or rendering in an oven. Every kitchen is filled with this gratifying aroma that greets cooks and chefs as an old friend wrapping his or her arm around their shoulder and telling them that life is good?
*Onions – what makes us salivate, wake up and direct our attention to our palate is the rich smell of caramelization. Onions are the mistresses of the kitchen – that irresistible link to the passion of eating. Every cook snaps to attention when those onions hit the surface of a hot pan and squeak and hiss as they turn from white to transparent, to lightly brown.
*Garlic – Ahhhh – garlic. What is that smell that reminds us of home cooked meals, of the beginnings of a rich Bolognese, the foundations of shrimp scampi, or the start of a sear before the long and slow process of braising those veal shanks or short ribs? Garlic, to cooks, is the magic ingredient that only gets better as it is used with reckless abandon.
*Grilled meat – a cherry red grill fed by the flames from briquettes laps around that ribeye, New York strip, or Black Angus filet. The marbled fat that webs through the eye of those steaks begins to melt and drip – fueling the flames even more and sealing in the flavor and moisture of the steak with grill marks and an exterior crust that shows the power of the Maillard Reaction. This smell is like no other – it reminds us of a good life, of summer bar-b-que with family and friends, and the best partner that a robust red wine could have. This aroma welcomes cooks to their station and reminds them of why they do what they do.
*Sauté’ mushrooms – When we use the term umami we often think of the savory aspects of roast pork or a 109 rib pushing it’s internal temp close to 120 F. But the smell of fresh mushrooms like porcini, shiitake, crimini, morels and chanterelles is as close to umami nirvana as one might ever expect to achieve. This is the environment that cooks live in.
*Bread from the oven – the work, the time, the physical handling of a living product, the elegant simplicity of four ingredients, the marvel of a sour dough starter uniting the gluten strands and lifting a dough to a remarkable stature pales in comparison to the smell of the finished product being pealed from the oven. Let the loaf dance in your hands as you flip it over, pull it close to your nose and drawn that completely unique smell into your being.
*Cinnamon Danish – if you have worked in a kitchen where breakfast is served – then you are familiar with the sinful smell associated with cinnamon rolls or Danish pastries fresh from the oven. You know that you shouldn’t, but it is nearly impossible to get anything else done until you break apart the rings and allow that first bite to melt in your mouth. You must take a moment with a familiar cup of coffee to relax and just let the magic happen.
*Simmering Stock – I always made sure that every kitchen that I orchestrated had a stock working every day. Sure, the stock was important as the foundation to soups and sauces, but maybe even more importantly it sets the tone for a kitchen dedicated to foundations, to building flavors in layers, and to respecting the traditions of a professional kitchen. Stocks are a statement and their deep aroma welcomes every cook to his or her station, allowing them to know that they are part of something special.
*Fresh brewed coffee – We all have a relationship with coffee. To many, it is the first thing that we seek in the morning, the finish to a great meal, and the last acknowledgement to signal the end of the day. Each sip allows us to engage our olfactory senses as well as our taste receptors. In professional kitchens – coffee is a baseline aroma that is always there, always luring us over for another jolt of caffeine.
*Cured meats – The inspiration for this article was a video clip that I watched a dozen or so times – a walking tour through a curing room filled with thousands of Prosciutto hams hanging and working their way through the long process of fermentation that yields one of the culinary worlds most heavenly aromas and flavors. Picture what it must be like to walk through that cure room, take a deep breath, and let your senses turn to high alert. This is a cook’s moment.
*Cheese affinage – As enticing as the prosciutto cure room might be, the musty, fruity, deeply fragrant smell of a cheese cave takes it a step further. It is the affinage that takes the pressed curds from milk and transitions them into signature cheese from runny soft, and stinky Epoisse, to firm, mature Manchego, or the aged and intelligent aromas of Parmigiana Reggiano. Cheese, bread, cured meat, and great wine combine to tempt the nose to understand the mystical nature of the food that we eat.
*Shaved truffles on scrambled eggs or pasta – Not an every day experience, even for the most experienced chef, but if there were an aroma that’s impossible to describe except to say “truffle” this would be it. Nothing else smells remotely close to a truffle, nothing will make you stand tall and give all of your attention to food, and no smell is more addictive than a fresh truffle that is shaved over loosely scrambled eggs or fresh pasta. If there were a smell to describe heaven – this would be it.
As cooks we are privileged to work with, be enticed by, and enjoy the pleasures of aromatic foods. This is the environment we work in and this is quite possibly one of the greatest benefits of choosing a life behind the range.
Up next: TOUCH, TEXTURE, and CHEW.
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