Foster Curry

The Art of Flavor offers a fascinating deep-dive into the subtleties of taste … and proposes you put cinnamon in your tomato sauce.

September 01, 2017

If you’ve ever wondered whether it matters if you use lemon or lime, set aside any embarrassment and read The Art of Flavor. In the new book, artisanal perfumer Mandy Aftel and two-star Michelin chef Daniel Patterson offer a lyrical lexicon for the subtleties of taste—and how to better manipulate it.

“Mandy brought language to things I didn’t even know how to describe,” Patterson says. “The language of food and verbal language are so different. I always knew these things, but now I think about them in a more structured way. It made me find better taste solutions quicker.”

That’s a bold statement coming from a James Beard Award-winning chef; Patterson is the force behind San Francisco’s celebrated minimalist restaurant, Coi. If him writing a cookbook with a perfume alchemist seems unlikely, well, it’s not really.

For one, Aftel isn’t just any perfumer. Her handmade, natural scents are sourced from ingredients like roasted seashells, ambergris and wild mushrooms, with some ingredients costing upwards of $10,000 per kilo. Her clients are just as exclusive: Madonna, Liv Tyler and Kate Hudson are among them. She lives in Chez Panisse’s backyard, quite literally; her house shares a fence with the famed restaurant at which Alice Waters has pioneered California cuisine.

Courtesy of Riverhead Books

Figuratively, her work borders food as well. She’s consulted with Michelin-starred chefs to bring essential oils into their kitchens and bars, which is how she met Patterson. They ended up writing a book together in 2005, called Aroma: The Magic of Essential Oils in Foods and Fragrance. It’s a whimsical, almost ethereal daydream of recipes, from blood orange bath salts (yes, bath salts) to grilled steak scented with lavender. The Art of Flavor, by contrast, is meant to be directly approachable. “None of the ingredients are very expensive, and there’s always one familiar ingredient, which allows you to be adventurous and really play around,” Aftel says.

There’s a recipe for carrots roasted with coffee beans, for example, which somehow manages to surprise and delight with two mundane ingredients. Patterson came up with the idea when he and René Redzepi were working on an article for Food & Wine. “We were cooking at my house, and had made fifteen or eighteen dishes in two days,” he says. “At one point, I went to make a couple espressos, and René was holding this squash. And he was like, ‘What if we buried the squash in something?’ I’m standing next to the coffee, and I was like, ‘What about coffee beans?’ And we tried it, and it was magical ... the way the aroma of the coffee infused into the squash that’s really sweet and flat.”'

Maren Caruso

This synesthesia that Patterson describes—the flatness of squash, which is similar to carrots—is prevalent throughout the book. One understands that the taste of Meyer lemon (not the physical fruit itself) is rounded; the aroma of clove is pointy. This is more than poetry; it’s a system for understanding flavor.

One of the most helpful tools in the book is a flavor compass, a circular diagram which shows how various spices, herbs, citrus and edible flowers relate to each other taste-wise. Parsley and dill, for example, are both classified as “sweet” herbs—not because they taste sugary, but because they’re the brightest, and introduce other flavors. They’re “top notes.” Sage, by contrast, is more of a base note: deep and resonant, the flavor is dense and experienced in the background.

To truly understand any ingredient, however, we need to need to divorce ourselves from cultural preconceptions, Patterson says. For example, consider putting cinnamon in your marinara sauce. “It’s so much better than basil,” Aftel says. “If you get really good quality cinnamon, it almost acts a little bit like pepper. It moves it away from basil, but it kind of sweetens it and sharpens it and brings the tomatoes alive. It’s amazing to see the way that tomatoes and cinnamon lock together.”

“Locking,” by the way, is a term that Aftel coined to describe the synergistic quality of two ingredients. “At its best,” the book describes, “locking creates a flavor that is only implied by the original ingredients—for instance, the phantom pine note created by the lock between grapefruit and rosemary.”

Patterson adds, “With cinnamon, for example, our association is Cinnabon or dessert. But, and I think this is true with people too, we make assumptions. We use a shorthand because we’re looking, but not really seeing.”