Flavor is a Language: An Interview with Mandy Aftel
The Art of Flavor Co-Author Wants to Demystify Taste
“What’s the recipe for that?” The question, which delighted my grandmother when she saw early signs of my desire to cook, now began to annoy her. I was at the end of my teens and couldn’t even be trusted to boil water—distractible me would wander off and return to a hot pot, all the liquid evaporated, as if molecules fled to escape my clumsiness and lackadaisicalness. But here I was, declaring to the best cook I knew that I wanted to be her apprentice.
I took note of ingredients, ready to absorb techniques and recipes. “How much should I add?” Her answer was always the same: “Enough to give it flavor.” “And how long should it simmer?” I’d persist. “Long enough,” she’d say, “to give it flavor.” “Why are you adding more thyme? I thought you were done.” I’d say. “It needs flavor,” she’d respond. For her, flavor was everything. I kept trying to determine which ingredients to assemble, kept trying to understand the rationale behind how she combined them, kept trying to figure out the chemistry of her sprinkling and rubbing and shaking and pouring, but it was no use. I would learn nothing more than Give it flavor.
My grandmother’s advice, though vague, has always hovered over me in the kitchen, and much of my cooking has been my attempt to absorb her dose of common sense. So I was way past ready for Daniel Patterson and Mandy Aftel’s The Art of Flavor, particularly because I’d gotten tired of books on cooking that dispensed one formula or another to supposedly unlock the secret to great cooking, books that are focused on recipes rather than on principles that prepare one to cook with more confidence and creativity. Patterson and Aftel’s book emphasizes intuition, improvisation, and intimate attentiveness—the very things that made my grandmother a marvelous cook. (And they also understand that a good recipe is the embodiment of the perspectives and experiences and tastes and, yes, errors and consistent successes of a good cook. Even better, they remind us that a recipe is something to be adapted rather than aped.)
My grandmother would never have read The Art of Flavor—or any other book on cooking, for that matter; she was assured in the mouth-watering powers of her culinary experience—but I think if she wanted me to have a book to learn from, or return to as an experienced cook refining my understanding and skills, it would be this book. My nostalgic wishes notwithstanding, I can’t recreate my grandmother’s cooking. But that’s as it should be—she gave me no recipes, because she wanted me to enter the kitchen with the openness and boldness she demonstrated, cooking meals that are the sensual experiences that eventually become fond memories.
Garnette Cadogan: We’re usually told that our taste buds are our key guides in cooking, but you’ve given the nose pride of place. Aroma, you argue, is in lockstep with flavor. Is the nose, then, the key to understanding flavor?
Mandy Aftel: Ninety percent of what we perceive as taste is actually smell. Think about how dull things taste when you have a head cold. The most ritualized and convivial drinks are all highly aromatic—wine, coffee, tea, hot chocolate. In the act of consuming them, pausing to experience the aroma is as much a pleasure as the taste.
GC: And that pleasure so often feels transitory to me—you can stretch the pleasure of a resplendent vista (at least, according to thousands of tourists with cameras) or a yummy dish in ways you can’t with a beguiling aroma—and yet, counterintuitively, I usually think of smell as less precious than the other senses. I treat scent as a handmaid to instinct: I use it to know whether to draw near or withdraw. Smells attract or repel; the way I’ve long considered it, scent is a subjective way of assessing pleasure and displeasure. But the olfactory palette is a more objective, precise quality for you, isn’t it?
MA: I don’t think of scent as transitory, but rather as ever-present. What is transitory is our attention to it.
Nor do I think of scent primarily in the conventional terms of attraction and repulsion. To my mind, that binary choice is more of an exit door that takes you away from experiencing scent. If we free ourselves from judging smells as “good” or “bad,” they function as a gateway to a world of diverse feelings and memories.
I think of smell as being one of the least objective experiences. Smell enters us. And one of the great virtues of smell is that it is so far removed from language. That makes them difficult to describe, but it also means that we naturally come upon them fresh and new. We each need to dig inside ourselves to find our own language to describe what we are smelling. There are few guides, few clichés: how often does that happen in the sensory world? The world of smell opens up as we open up to it, as we stay with smells long enough to let them work upon us.
“If we free ourselves from judging smells as ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ they function as a gateway to a world of diverse feelings and memories.”
It’s the suspension of value judgments attached to the subjective experience of—the suspension of value judgments so that you can subjectively, deeply personally experience—smell and, in cooking, its partner sense, taste—that I advocate. In The Art of Flavor we talk about what we call “accessory notes,” a term I transposed from perfumery. It applies to flavors (and scents) that can be unpleasant used at full intensity but can be powerful, even transformative ingredients once you open yourself to their possibilities and learn how to harness and control them. The task is not to develop an objective, universal understanding of the qualities of an ingredient; it’s to develop a personal lexicon that lets you appreciate an ingredient in all its individuality, all its facets—and accumulate a memory bank of your experiences using and tasting it. That’s how you learn to create flavor.
GC: How, then, do you create this personal lexicon and employ this dynamic duo, smell and taste, to cook?
MA: Being fully present with your ingredients—starting with attentively smelling them in the grocery store or while preparing them for cooking—allows them to unfurl their many sensual facets to you, first in your nose and then in your mind and then in your vocabulary. The more precise you can be about the slight differences of aroma you notice between, say, this kind of apple and that, or between clove and cinnamon, the more you are building a personal lexicon. The process also applies to the way ingredients interact: you can smell this interaction—in your nose and thus in your imagination—even before you actually combine them.
When Daniel and I were writing the book, we borrowed a couple of terms I’d coined in my perfume-making (speaking of lexicon) to describe the essential dynamics of how flavors come together—the delicious alchemy they make—which we’d never quite heard put to words. We use the word “locking” to convey how ingredients combine with impact that seem more than the sum of their parts. Usually this is because what we call facets—the volatile molecules of the individual ingredients, which can number in the hundreds but many of which are present only in trace amounts—are bonding to create aromatic qualities that none of them had to begin with, or that heighten inherent similarities. Some of the most exciting ingredients we get to work with to create flavor are the most intense. When we work with such ingredients we tend to highlight one or two, but we need to control them or they can overpower a dish. These relative dynamics of flavor—the ability of some elements to control (or dominate) others we call “burying.”
GC: In my lexicon, I’d call that “bullying.” One of the main reasons I love cooking is its propensity to bring things together: colors (the radiant yellow of zucchini and sparkle of red peppers), smells (cumin doing a lockstep dance with thyme), textures (the playful crunch of corn juxtaposed with the cushion of chicken thigh), sounds (an exciting sizzle punctuated by fireworks-wannabe pops: three cheers for bacon strips), and, of course, people (few things, armchair observers will confirm, beat the lively gathering of hungry chatterboxes in a kitchen). You encourage us to pay attention to how things interact—”locking” and “burying,” for instance—and how they differ. When we build a recipe, how should we give thought to how things come together and set themselves apart? Or, more importantly (for the lazy me that can’t be bothered to reach further than my kitchen cupboard, unwilling to run to the store for a missing ingredient), what should we keep in mind when we depart from a recipe to improvise?
MA: The key to becoming recipe-free, whether you are planning a meal from scratch or looking around your kitchen and wanting to work with what you have on hand, is learning to think structurally. In the book, we articulate four basic rules for creating flavor. They are a great way to organize your thinking about creating food without having to resort to a recipe. If you have a hankering for, say, comfort food, you’ll tend to gravitate toward easy, companionable flavors—mac and cheese, for example. But if you’re thinking structurally, you’ll immediately call to mind Rule #1– “Similar ingredients need a contrasting flavor”—and know that to become interesting—delicious—such a pairing will need a dash of contrast—a dash of cayenne or mustard, say. The second rule is almost the opposite of the first—“Contrasting ingredients need a unifying flavor.” Cauliflower and cumin, for example, which are far apart on the flavor spectrum, can be knit together with brown butter and its rich, almost meaty facets.
Between these two basic rules you can cover a lot of ground and go a long time without cracking open a cookbook.
GC: You’re saying, then, that in the kitchen I can become as resourceful and improvisatory as MacGyver if I understand flavor. But how do we figure out which flavors are familiar and which are standoffish? Or, put differently, how do I determine where flavors fall on a flavor spectrum? What makes macaroni a likely bedfellow for cheese, for instance, and why would ginger be the variant that’s there to lively up the palette party? (By the way, when I think of comfort food I think of fire in my mouth—is this is a giveaway that I’m Jamaican?—but many of my American friends would disagree that there’s anything comforting about Scotch bonnet pepper or ginger laying on the burn at the back of their throats.)
I ask about flavor, but ought to admit—the pepper made me do it!—that I wonder if you and me mean the same thing when we say flavor; after all, I habitually focus on my tongue for taste, and you employ tongue and nose. And I can’t describe what grapes smell like, but am convinced that everything tastes better with a few grapes or raisins thrown in.
MA: We don’t mean the same thing when we say “delicious”—that’s the whole point! Each of us has a different sense of what that is, and the point of Daniel’s and my project was to give people a way to develop with confidence their own versions of delicious, and keep experimenting. But you’re confusing personal associations with flavor. The dishes you ate in childhood have their roots in primal experiences—your home, your beloved grandmother, the smell of her kitchen where you felt so safe, etc. Such associations become embedded in memory, remain enormously resonant throughout our lives, and deeply influence what appeals to (or repels) us. They are also inevitably tangled up in culture and tradition, especially if we grew up in a flavorful, high-contrast tradition like Jamaican cuisine.
But personal and cultural associations are not the same thing as the underlying structure of why and how certain flavor combinations work. As my co-author Daniel Patterson explains in the book, most enduringly popular “ethnic” combinations—basil and tomatoes and mozzarella, say, or soy and ginger and scallions—work because they obey what Jacques Pepin so delightfully called the “Cartesian logic” behind what good cooks learn to do instinctively. So, back to comfort food: rice and peas is classic Jamaican comfort food, right? Not only in a cultural, personal sense (if your grandmother fed it to you) but in a structural sense: its primary ingredients, rice and beans, are bland, starchy, soft, filling, undemanding; and cooking it in coconut milk adds richness and creaminess. It also risks being boring, so you think about serving it alongside a spicy meat or seafood stew, or maybe you throw in one of those Scotch bonnets to add excitement.
“We don’t mean the same thing when we say ‘delicious’—that’s the whole point!”
Regarding the second part of your question, you are indeed using your nose when you taste—as I said earlier, smell accounts for 90% of taste. If you keep repeating the habit of using grapes or raisins, it’s presumably because that tastes great to you. And if it tastes great to you, it’s mostly because your nose that has told you so in the past, when you tasted what you cooked. So, grapes and raisins have become part of your personal culinary syntax, and you can call up the likely contribution they’ll make to a dish from your taste memory. It’s great if you want to keep cooking on habit, with familiar combinations. But if you want to branch out, you’ll need to back up and take in new ingredients and their possibilities afresh, and break free of habitual associations by adding new ones. And for that, having a structural framework for thinking about flavor is invaluable. So when you encounter, say, celery root or a heap of dandelion greens or broccoli in the market, you can begin to think what to do with them rather than revert to the familiar.
GC: Experience, then, is fundamental to inscribing associations onto us. But you call for us to pay attention to the importance of experience, too, in how it reveals the structure of how flavor operates. As we try to figure how flavor combinations work, what are some simple, commonsensical ways to pair ingredients? And give me a recipe that will help me see—and smell and taste—that in action. (All this talk made me hungry, and I’m out of grapes, so I’ll happily go buy ingredients).
MA: Although there are many wonderful cookbooks out there and literally millions of recipes available online, what Daniel and I didn’t see were books that really grappled with flavor itself. And the few that did didn’t seem to get at the heart of what makes food truly delicious, but instead focus on creating rules and schemes that, even if they were helpful in minor ways, miss the big point, which is: What are the dynamics that govern how you create truly delicious food?
I’ve already mentioned a couple of the four basic rules for applying those dynamics. The other two are also mirror images of each other and help you conceptualize in broad terms everything you are putting together. Rule #3 is: Heavy flavors need a lifting note. And Rule #4 is: Light flavors need to be grounded. Heavy and light are relative, so how you create that kind of balance varies tremendously, depending whether it’s a pot roast or a dish of greens we’re talking about. But in general, in food as well as perfume, citrus and spices and herbs—and flowers—are some of our favorite “lighteners,” striking the palate first thanks to their concentration of aromatic molecules. One of our favorite tools in the book is a flavor compass that helps a cook recognize the exact nature of a range of this fabulously intense category of ingredient, and fine tune choices to use the exact right herb, say, as in this recipe in which what could be a rather flat grain salad is lifted by mint and lemon.
The flavor of grains is usually flat, and salads based on them require a lift. One way to broaden the middle is to add another ingredient with a sweet and flat flavor, like peppers or cucumber. This gives more of a base for the acidity and herbs required to energize the combination.
In this case, young artichokes are shaved raw, adding body, texture, and vegetal sweetness. The earthy/fresh facets of the artichoke connect with the earthy/sweet flavor of the farro. To lift the combination, add a simple dressing of lemon juice and fruity olive oil, with lots of sliced mint. Almonds provide additional texture, and their nutty flavor plays off the nutty facets of the farro. And crumbled feta adds a lightly sour tang and soft creaminess, a respite from all the hard textures.
Farro Salad with Feta and Mint
2 cups cooked farro
8 young artichokes, peeled and shaved
4 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
4 tablespoons fruity olive oil
4 tablespoons toasted and chopped almonds
4 tablespoons crumbled feta
½ cup shaved fennel
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
10 leaves mint, sliced
Combine all the ingredients, except the mint, in a mixing bowl. Toss, taste, and adjust seasonings. Divide among serving dishes. (This serves 4 to 8 people). Shower with mint.
When making salad, it’s sometimes hard to know whether it’s better to add an ingredient when tossing or to sprinkle it on top at the end. In this case, the feta tossed with the salad will break down somewhat and make the dressing a little creamy, providing a binder for the crunchy ingredients. The mint, however, should be added at the end, so it will give more of a spark.
GC: And spark is what I most want from a cookbook these days. I’m not interested in another recipe for the most delicious roast chicken ever, much as I love roast chicken. With the help of dozens of recipes, I have often put juicy, sumptuous roast chicken on the dinner table. Recipes; formulas; techniques—I’ve had enough of them. I want cookbooks that speak with a clear, confident voice to tell a story that captures my imagination and prompts me to cook with more abandon. Tell me a story that sets me off to explore and create. I want books on cooking to be, well, books. Instead of the typical bloated grab-bag of recipes, deliver a story, one full of insight and delight, instead. What is the story of The Art of Flavor?
MA: Learning to cook well—deliciously, originally—is ultimately learning a craft, and an art, and its deepest reward is connecting with your own deepest instincts and aesthetic. Like any art form, it starts with knowing your materials—your ingredients. Nature, in her infinite and subtle configuration of constellations of molecules, is the inspiration for this. As Daniel and I like to say, Nature is the ultimate flavorist. It’s not just a matter of the best and the freshest: If you taste and smell—really taste and smell—ingredients, you’ll see how there’s a whole symphony at work in them.
Making delicious flavor is about imitating nature that way—orchestrating ingredients to create transcendent combinations that taste like a whole new thing, what we call a flavor “lock.” The book is full of recipes that help readers grasp all these concepts and practice them, but ultimately the goal is to develop the kind of confidence and control that lets you become truly original—joyous, unfettered, bold—in the kitchen. As with all art, when this kind of originality happens, it resonates. The art of eating is in the tasting, and nothing connects people like the feasting together on delicious food.
The Art of Flavor is co-authored by Mandy Aftel and Daniel Patterson.
Mandy Aftel is an internationally known artisan perfumer and award-winning author of several books, most recently Fragrant: The Secret Life of Scent. She has participated in many exhibitions, panels and conferences on scent and food, and regularly collaborates with chefs and mixologists. She and her work have been featured in The New York Times, Vogue, Vanity Fair, Gourmet, Bon Appetit, Food and Wine, O: The Oprah Magazine, and Elle, on CNN and on countless blogs. Aftel lives in Berkeley, California.
Daniel Paterson founded San Francisco’s Michelin two-star Coi and several other Bay Area restaurants; most recently, he cofounded the acclaimed “revolutionary fast food” venture LocoL. His awards include Food & Wine’s Best New Chef and a James Beard Award for Best Chef in the West. Patterson is the author of two previous books, and his essays have appeared in The New York Times, Food & Wine, Financial Times, San Francisco Magazine, and Lucky Peach.