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Working in the intersection between high perfumery and haute cuisine, journalist and author Chandler Burr teams up with visionary chefs and perfumers to create experiential dinners that explore the virtually unknown world of culinary scents. Fine Dining Lovers caught up with the man who created the New York Times perfume critic's position and established the world’s first department of olfactory art, at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York City, to ask him some more details about the olfactory dinners: events in between fragrance and fine dining.
How and when did you come up with the idea for your scent dinners?
I think it was the first year of my job as the New York Times scent critic that I had drinks with some people from the Carlyle Hotel in New York. I was doing a lot of travel and food journalism, and they took me out to talk about possible pieces I might do. I said—they knew this obviously—that the problem is that an editor will only commission a piece if there’s something new about the property. And there wasn’t. So, cunningly, I turned the focus of the conversation to the most interesting topic at hand, me, naturally, and my obsession with this category of perfume the French call “les parfums gourmands,” culinary scents. It’s a category virtually unknown to Americans. In fact you say it here and Americans look at you funny.
There are so many of them. Tom Ford has extraordinary parfums gourmands, Café Rose, Tobacco Vanille, Black Orchid with its amazing rum absolutes— I’ve just done several Tom Ford dinners, Venice, Dubai, and NY, each menu made up one hundred percent from his collection. We forget that historically perfumes have used food, spices and vanillas and peppers. Chanel’s Egoiste and Coromandel are excellent culinaries. I’d always wanted to do this. So I proposed to them that we create something new about the property. The Carlyle’s then-Executive Chef Jimmy Sakatos and I would create an evening of two parallel six-course dinners. I’d create each of my six courses from one perfume and three or four of the gourmand raw materials in them. Chef Sakatos would then have to translate those invisible olfactory materials into six courses of edible gustatory materials, translate from the sense of smell into the sense of taste. That’s how they started.
How does smell relate to taste?
It’s astonishing that this fact is essentially unknown. Ninety-five percent of what we perceive as taste is in fact smell. Ninety-five percent of what we think we’re tasting on the tongue we are actually registering in the olfactory receptors of the nasal epithelium (which sits just behind the bridge of our noses).
What is the most curious thing about human senses that you have discovered through your research?
That we can smell things we shouldn’t be able to, molecules that didn’t exist in our ancestral environment, and no one can figure out how we can sell these things. Well—there is a fascinating and very strange theory that explains it. That was the subject of my first book related to smell and perfume, The Emperor of Scent.
What is the process that you follow in your food and fragrance pairings?
First, look for a terrific chef, which in this case means the ability and the desire—which is two very different things—to collaborate on this unusual culinary project. Some chefs find it extremely difficult to escape their strict classical training. Escoffier has been hammered into them, and I’m asking them to power up flavors (which is to say smells) to levels they normally never would. It can be disconcerting. I’ve worked with the ridiculously talented chef Harry Hensman, in London, and Harry had the flu and hates publicity, so he was sort of grumpy about it, but his translation of my olfactory menu was astonishing. Vito Mollica at the Four Seasons Florence was a doll and was brilliant and loved it, same with Fabrice Guisset of Las Venetanas in Cabo— by the time we’d reached the final courses everyone from both kitchens was in the dining room, the bus boys were smelling raw materials with women in $5,000 gowns, the pastry chefs got standing ovations, it was incredibly fun.
Once I have the chef, I choose 4-8 perfumes, often from a single collection— I did a 5-course Armani dinner in South Beach and created a scent lunch for Hermès with Jean-George Vongerichten —and with both of them they, their kitchen squads, and I sit and go through the raw materials. The chef chooses the 3, 4, or 5 raw materials that they want to use from each perfume, those that are most interesting to them, and then the kitchen dives in. We always do a run-through rehearsal—a tasting of all the raw drafts of each course— and the chef will change, adjust, add, subtract things. In the end we have our parallel menus.
How do your guests react to the scent dinner experience?
What I think produces the greatest sensation of awe is just the real, god’s honest truth raw materials. Which are virtually impossible to smell, they’re not retailed, they’re not present in daily life, and people enter the perfumes during the evening. The best way to express it is that I did a dinner in Atlanta, and there was a very elegant, dignified woman sitting next to me the whole dinner, smelling things very carefully and making intelligent comments. At the end she sat for a moment and then said to me, “I am a researcher in neurology at the University of Georgia, and this experience has changed the way I think about how the brain works.
Any interesting events that you are currently working on, or you just did?
I just did two fascinating Tom Ford dinners, one in Dubai at the One & Only, in March—it was for the Middle Eastern press, and it was very interesting to meet them—and the other a week ago with Daniel Boulud’s team, who were absolutely a delight to work with, enthusiastic and inventive and surprising. It was in the Glass House, a tower on West 25th clients—a gift Sephora gave them—so no press, only civilians, and they were Street, for Sephora’s VIP a blast. They weren’t working, they were just there to enjoy, and we had so much fun. I think I’m allowed to say that I’m doing an all-Dior scent dinner in NY in September for press; that’s going to be awesome. It’s to celebrate a very interesting project I’ve just done with Dior. I’m looking forward to it.