It’s All About the Nose

Sometimes cats can be very lucky, even for cats. We recently had the pleasure of hearing Chef James Briscione. That would be two-time Chopped champion James Briscione. True, his focus was on food, but there were some interesting implications for oenophilic cats everywhere.

The focus of Chef B.’s talk was the impact of science on cooking. He started with the age-old chef’s mantra of pairing foods that grow together. Anything else and you’re likely to end up with something truly hideous. Wine pairings often followed this same idea. Eating pasta? Grab a bottle of Italian red. Maybe a little Shepherd’s pie? Hmmm…guess that meant beers all around but no wine. Dreadful.

Not that Chef B. has anything against eating local. Chef B. is a fan of fresh ingredients and a huge supporter of farmers’ markets. Fortunately, modern farmers’ markets carry a wide-ranging variety of fresh food that wouldn’t have been available even a decade ago. This can lead to some great new dishes, if you can figure out how to match old and new.

This exploration of tastes garnered international attention in 1999 when Chef Marco Pierre White returned (yes, returned!) his three Michelin stars. His reason? “Michelin star restaurants are not what people want.”

Chef White’s point was that a traditional haute cuisine restaurant was very limited. Chef’s in such places have only a few dishes that they serve day after day, each dish expected to be perfection. Everything, including the dinner setting and the ingredients, were dictated by tradition. White wanted to explore with new ingredients, like soy sauce. You may not achieve perfection every time, but you could explore some amazing flavors that might not otherwise exist.

The culmination of this was Chef Heston Blumenthal’s white chocolate topped with caviar. Blumenthal was so intrigued at how well these two flavors blended that he consulted the flavor and aroma experts at Firmenich. The solution? Both contain high levels of amines.

And that brings us to Chef B.’s current work. Most of what we “taste” isn’t really done with the tongue. No surprise there. As wine lovers have long known, it’s the aromas that dictate much of what we taste. (Just compare a map of your taste buds with an aroma wheel.) Your nose is your true decoder of flavor. Your tongue is really more like a safety gate¬†–¬†quick check to make sure there’s nothing obviously bad, but no in depth analysis.

Aroma is much more than smell. Aroma is how we learn which foods have chemicals in common and therefore match well. It’s those chemicals in common that form the basis of modern food science.

Take the chemical known as mesifurane. Isolated, it smells like yummy, buttery baked goods. Every time you walk into a bakery, you inhale a heavy dose of mesifurane. Yet this chemical is also found in strawberries. Strawberries may not smell like fresh-baked croissants, but they certainly taste delicious when smeared across a flaky roll on a lazy Sunday morning. The reason strawberries and bread blend so well is that magical mesifurane.

The idea of matching chemicals to find new food pairings was the starting point for one of Chef B.’s biggest projects, the Chef Watson program he designed with IBM. Yes, that would be IBM’s supercomputer, Watson. True, it can diagnose what ails you and help researchers work together to solve the world’s problems, but it can also pore through thousands of recipes, ingredients, and chemical lists to generate new twists on old classics.

Chef B. and his crew put Chef Watson to the test, and found that Watson was a pretty good chef as well. In fact, one of Chef B.’s favorite dishes was created from a list of ingredients suggested by Watson based on chemicals in common. The end result was a chicken and mushroom burger with strawberry ketchup that even the most devoted burger aficionado would drool over.

All this talk of matching chemicals had us pondering the question of matching wines to food. Just like food pairing, there are those traditional rules that serve well enough – chicken and fish should get a white wine, beef gets red, yada, yada, yada. But we’ve all had those dishes that seem to challenge those old rules. Take a favorite in our household – spicy lime chicken. The citrus and chicken elements would suggest white, but the spice mix can overwhelm most whites and work against those that are more powerful. Reds match the spice mix, but you don’t want one so strong that you can’t taste the lime or chicken.

Imagine being able to type your ingredients into Watson and ask for a perfect wine match, based on the chemical analysis. No more mismatched meals! And more importantly, no more abandoned bottles when that seemingly perfect match of oaky chardonnay ends up a bust.

 

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