I’ll be headed to The Woodlands next weekend to help judge the final event of 10th annual Houston Wine & Food Week (June 2-8 )—the elaborate Chef’s Showcase—where dozens of chefs compete for a $5,000 cash prize, Waterford crystal, and bragging rights. Not only does this event offer participants the opportunity to learn about wine-and-food pairings and get to know some of the state’s most influential chefs, but an associated auction has funneled more than $675,00 to local charities.
And so I’m taking my judging responsibilities seriously. What makes a great dining experience? While I admire a beautiful location, with flattering light and comfortable seating and maybe even a lively (but not too loud) soundtrack, all that takes the backseat to enjoyable company and flavors that make my taste buds sing. But if we strip away the atmosphere, the company, and even the identity of the dish, what’s left is purely flavor. Or is it?
I’m reminded of a lesson I learned at the recent Austin FOOD & WINE Festival in April, during a fascinating session with Chef David Bull, currently the Executive Chef at Austin’s Second Bar & Kitchen. Chef Bull’s resume includes positions at the Mansion on Turtle Creek in Dallas and the Driskill Grill in Austin, and he’s been nominated for a James Beard award—but he also does a fair bit of food education to nutritionists and other chefs about food science and the chemistry of flavor perception.
Chef Bull’s Saturday-morning presentation at FOOD & WINE was called “Both Sides of the Palate,” and one of the first things he illustrated was how strongly aroma influences flavor perception. He and his assistants passed around sprigs of fresh spearmint, and he told us to chew it while holding our noses, then release our noses when he told us to. With our olfactory senses blocked, chewing on fresh mint resembled chomping on a twig. But when we released our nostrils, there was an audible “wow!” in the crowd as each of us took in the bright, crisp, and intoxicatingly minty flavor of the herb. “The power of aroma in cuisine is underrated and unappreciated,” he told us.
Chef Bull continued his exploration of flavor by explaining that cuisine has four basic flavors—sweet, salty, sour, and bitter. He had us taste a grain or two of kosher salt. Then he asked us to taste salt with a drop or two of lemon juice. Then he added a smidge of maple syrup to the mix. Then finally, some leaves of fresh arugula, which completed the flavor puzzle; the foursome together tasted delicious and complex.
The takeway: If you’re making a dish and it seems like it needs something, identify the flavors that are already present, and add whatever’s missing. You don’t necessarily need all four flavors, but chances are pretty good that if you add the missing element, you’ll have something delicious. I’ll keep this in mind next weekend, when I’m tasting and evaluating.
Try the mint test this weekend. I promise it’ll be eye-opening.