PHYLLIS ODESSEY

UMAMI: The Wow Effect

I lost my sense of taste to anesthesia.  When I was offered a cup of coffee before leaving the hospital, I realized that my tongue was no longer picking up on sensory cues.  I could identify the drink as hot, but that was all.  I tried not to worry.  I hoped it was a temporary condition.

A week and half after surgery, still living in a non-flavorful world, I went to hear Eric Ripert, chef at the 4 star restaurant, Le Bernadin and Christina Tosi, pastry chef at Momofuku Milk Bar talk about “Fabulous Flavors:  Sweet, Sour, Savory” at the Alliance Francaise.  The conversation moderated by Christine Muhlke, Executive Editor of Bon Appetit Magazine was advertised as a discussion on how flavors shape our memories.  For someone lacking  taste buds, I thought this conversation might revive my capacity to detect flavor.

The pairing of these two chefs was brilliant:  cornflakes meet black truffles.

Ripert grew up in the South of France in a cooking family. With French and Italian grandmothers, a mother devoted to the nouvelle French cuisine of the day (Paul Bocuse), Ripert was surrounded by rustic and elaborate cooking that depended on local ingredients.  His home was an ocean of flavor and smells.

Tosi’s childhood was packaged. A picky eater,  her childhood diet consisted of Whatchamacallits, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups and Barbecued Potato Chips. “I did not taste a raw tomato until I was 18 and ordered a BLT. My early food memories are those of the American Midwest.  It’s low-brow, casual and has provided me with a flavor palette that inspires me as a pastry chef”.

Just like a good dish, the contrast in texture made for a great conversation, which never became bitter or sour.  Each chef was passionate about putting their voice into food; tapping into emotions and memories.  The evening turned on one word:  UMAMI.

Tosi was talking about depth of flavor.  “It’s something you feel in the pit of your stomach; it’s umami.” 

Ripert brigthened at this remark.  “What does umami mean to you? We’ve been researching it.  What does it mean in Japanese?… delicious flavor.  It’s the WOW effect.  A state of mind.  A combination of ingredients…vibrant, powerful.  It’s pure harmony.  It’s earthiness.”

As I left the Alliance Francaise, I felt reassured that my sense of taste would return.  As Tosi said, eating creates emotions in your mind.  I am waiting for those emotions to infuse my tongue.  In the meantime, I am planning a trip to Milk Bar to taste a compost cookie (pretzels, potato chips, chocolate and Rice Krispies).  A dinner at Le Bernadin will have to wait until a few more pesos accumulate in my bank account.

From le Bernandin dinner menu:
Lacquered Striped Bass; Chayote Squash, Sofrito Broth
Sauted Sole;”Almond-Pisctachio-Barberry” Golden Basmati, Brown-Butter Tamarind Vinaigrette
Grilled Baby Sepia; Sweet Pepper jam, Red-Wine-Squid Ink Sauce

From Milk Bar menu:
Blueberry miso soft serve
Compost Cookie
Crack Pie
Pretzel Milk


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