Flavour, flavour and ... flavour: chefs' flavour memory needs to be constantly exercised and improved, allowing them to instinctively combine ingredients and improvise when the going gets tough or someone’s just binned part of the mise en place by mistake.
Here then are six ways to strengthen your flavour memory from chef Paul Sorgule, who as you may be aware has a wealth of great tips and advice for professional chefs over on his Harvest America Ventures blog.
First, and foremost, the cook must be hungry to learn, passionate about knowing, and committed to finding the answers. The cook must begin by dispelling assumptions about ingredients, traditions, and flavours. Even a week on a farm will make a world of difference in a cook’s appreciation and knowledge about the ingredient. Until you have this base of knowledge; until a cook has visited a ranch, feed yard and processing plant for cattle; until a baker has spent an afternoon in a wheat field and a mill; or until a cook has been on a commercial fishing boat – 20 miles off shore – it would be very difficult to really appreciate how important knowledge of ingredients is to the experience of cooking.
2. Be inquisitive
Why do some people add a dash of fresh ground nutmeg to a béchamel, fresh rosemary stems to a roast leg of lamb, parsnips to a stew, bone marrow to boeuf a ‘la bourguignon, or spend time to sear meats before braising? Until a cook has answers to questions like these, he or she will find it challenging to build that essential flavour memory that will define who they are in the kitchen.
3. First hand experience
A cook cannot understand what he or she does not experience. Reading about flavour and taste is certainly valuable, but actually tasting, smelling, and chewing on a product at different stages of cooking is what builds useful memory. Everything that we smell and taste is imbedded in our subconscious mind. The more we experience a product, the stronger that database of flavour. An accomplished cook can summon those memories into the conscious mind and thus grab on to the knowledge that will allow them to re-create it. A cook or chef can oftentimes know how a dish will taste before it is simply made by accessing those flavour memories and how they would likely interact.
4. A bit of chemistry knowledge
The study of concepts like the Maillard reaction will help a cook understand what to do with a dish in an effort to reach a particular flavour goal. Knowing what happens to less than tender meat during braising that breaks down the fibres of the muscle and understanding at what point that happens is chemistry in action.
Building this memory is not a “one time only” process – it is a lifetime commitment to understanding and the discipline necessary to seek that knowledge.
Once that flavour memory bank is starting to fill up, the cook can envision how to create a dish, how the ingredients will work together in a recipe during the building phase, and what the end product is likely to taste like. This is as structured as an engineer building a drawing of a new structure and knowing how it will support itself. When a cook reaches this point, it is remarkable how they become able to create signature dishes that separate their operation from others. This is when a cook becomes indispensable to a restaurant, and this is when a cook is well on his or her way to becoming a chef.