Chandler Burr, author of Emperor of Scent, has carved out a niche that probably couldn’t have existed at any other journalistic moment in history: He's a perfume critic, with a column in T, The New York Times Style Magazine, in which he rates new scents according to a five-star system. It’s no small beat: Perfumes are now a multi-billion-dollar industry, with hundreds of fragrances debuting each year. Burr’s latest perfume gig? He’s working with Rosewood hotels on a series of Scent Dinners, collaborating with chefs to create a five-course meal of dishes meant to evoke specific perfumes. (Spanish chef Juan Roca has been doing a similar thing for a few years at his restaurant, El Celler de Can Roca, in Girona.) The Scent Dinners start June 18 at Manhattan’s Carlyle hotel, with more to follow at other Rosewood properties.
On Tuesday night I went, not unskeptically, to a press preview at the Carlyle. The dinner kicked off with Burr explaining that most of the sensation we experience when we eat is actually smell, not flavor: 95 percent smell, 5 percent taste, to be exact. Before each course, Burr passed around scented strips with smells like green mango or carrot or cedar and asked us to guess what they were, then had us sniff a designer fragrance based on those notes. Then chef Jimmy Sakatos brought out a dish inspired by that perfume. No one guessed what the saffron scent strip was—but we still got to eat Sakatos’s black sea bass with artichoke, fennel and saffron jus, his interpretation of L’Artisan Parfumeur’s Safran Troublant ("troubling saffron"), my new favorite scent. Brian Van Flandern, the new mixologist at the Carlyle's classic Bemelmans Bar, brought out a new vodka-based cocktail he invented called Light Blue, made with lemon and apple juice to echo the components of the Dolce & Gabbana fragrance it’s named after.
Did the dishes and drinks taste like culinary versions of the scents that inspired them? Not quite, but listening to Burr’s fascinating fragrance-industry arcana made up for that. For anyone with a perfume fetish, the best part might be the gift bags: All guests (not just press) get five or six full-size bottles of fragrances to take home.
About perfume criticism as a career: Nice work if you can get it? I’m not so sure. It takes more than a sensitive nose and a love of perfume. As writer Trevor White puts it in his gossipy new book Kitchen Con: Writing on the Restaurant Racket, "Perfume launches are bad for the soul." No doubt they are—but when it comes to gift bags, they beat restaurant launches any day.