The usual Friday night conversation in the Cooksister household usually extends to: shall we go straight home from work or stop for a drink; which movie shall we watch on Netflix; and which fine supermarket curry should we have for dinner? All necessary questions, I’m sure you’ll agree, but not much by way of conversation starters. By contrast, the questions that filled the air at dinner last Friday night were far more riveting:
- What colour is bitter?
- How do pregnant cows know to graze more protein-rich plants?
- Which vegetables need to be kept in the fridge, and where?
The occasion was a pre-release screening of Tasteology, a documentary film in four episodes commissioned by AEG Electrolux – a project in which I have been involved since last December when I travelled to Toronto to meet one of the films stars, Chef Jacques la Merde (later revealed to be the lovely Christine Flynn). To accompany the screening at the Andaz Hotel in London, we were also treated to a four-course dinner designed to match each episode, as well as the company of two of the film’s other stars, chef Jozef Youssef and Prof. Charles Spence.
While many educational food resources focus on how to cook a meal and focus on a chef’s instructions, Tasteology takes a different approach to food, seeking out expert knowledge on why certain methods, circumstances and tools create exceptional taste experiences. By gathering insights on the ultimate taste experience from new and different kinds of experts, Tasteology brings new perspectives to an area that has long been the sole preserve of traditional chefs. The film is divided into four episodes entitled Source, Chill, Heat and Experience – each episode is dedicated to one of these aspects, digging into culinary traditions and unconventional innovations in order to find new ways to cook and eat food that is both tasteful, multisensory and sustainable. The film crew from House of Radon travelled the world over an eight month period collecting insights from some unusual taste experts from range of backgrounds, united by their insatiable curiosity. These include a Japanese Michelin-starred chef; a wagyu beef farmer; a psychologist; a campaigner against food waste; the father of sous vide cooking; and a famous instagrammer, to mention but a few.
The evening kicked off with cocktails (mine was a Black Widow) and canapés: little mini buckets of parmesan mousse with sous vide asparagus and black olive “soil”; and gin-infused compressed watermelon cubes with feta cheese – all delicious. What I had not realised was that chef Jozef Youssef of the Kitchen Theory project would not only appear on screen but was also in charge of the kitchen for the night – we were clearly in for a treat! After an introduction to the films and a word from the executive producer Lovisa, we plunged straight into the first episode and its matching course.
EPISODE 1: SOURCE
The Source episode kicked off with Mark Schatzker, author of The Dorito Effect which explores how artificial flavours have changed our palates, pondering how cows know to eat more protein-rich plants when they are pregnant. He postulates that our cravings are part of the body’s sophisticated system to get more of whatever nutrient it needs at any given time – but our food has become so divorced from its true and unadulterated taste and many of its natural nutrients that we are in danger of losing this ability. Later we also meet Satchiko and Hisato Nakahigashi, Michelin-starred Japanese chef who show us how they forages for their restaurant, with a keen appreciation for each ingredient’s true and unadulterated taste and a deep respect for the forest in which they forage. Fittingly, the dish which accompanied this course is the culinary expression of a forest. Served on a wooden board with bark still attached, it consists of grilled seasonal mushrooms, foraged herbs, “fossilised” cassava, and pumpernickel & mushroom soil, topped with a shallot crisp. One element of the mushrooms was a porcini paste so rich in umami flavours that you could almost believe you are eating bacon; another was the mild smoky flavour of the blackened cassava, “fossilised” with calcium hydroxide (pickling lime). And to enhance it all, in the centre of each table there are little buckets of dry ice impregnated with the scents of the forest floor which we are told to inhale as we start eating. I do love me a bit of table theatre…!
Image courtesy and © of AEG
EPISODE 2: CHILL
How many hours do you spend planning recipes and sourcing quality ingredients? If you are a foodie, I imagine the answer is “quite a lot”. But how many hours do those same foodies spend thinking about how they store these ingredients in their fridges? I would venture that the answer is “almost zero”. In Chill (episode 2 of Tasteology), the premise is that a perfect taste experience starts with respect for the ingredient and the knowledge of how to handle it correctly. More importantly, correct storage of an ingredient will maximise its shelf life and address one of the great conundrums of modern society: rampant food waste. In this episode we meet food waste campaigner Tristram Stuart who in December 2009 launched a food waste campaign by organising “Feeding the 5000” in Trafalgar Square in which 5,000 people were served free meals from food that was earmarked for disposal by supermarkets. He subsequently founded the charity Feedback which has replicated the Feeding the 5000 campaign and event model in several countries. We also meet Wagyu cow breeder Ludwig Maurer who shares his insights on how the correct temperature makes the different between food that tastes OK and food that tastes amazing. AEG representatives also explained where the best place in the fridge is for things like meat (at the bottom as it is coldest), vegetables (in the more humid crisper drawer if they have a high water content), and tomatoes (nowhere near the fridge!). To accompany this episode, Jozef served a clever take on beef tartare – chopped 28-day aged beef with all the condiments served separately on a tile that represented the different spaces in a fridge, which we then had to mix ourselves like a DIY tartare. Clever!
EPISODE 3: HEAT
How many ways are there to cook an egg? Ask the man who has devoted his life to researching the cooking of eggs! This may be a slight exaggeration – but French gastro-chemist Hervé This is widely regarded as the father of sous vide cooking and has an obsessive interest in the relative merits of different cooking methods. In short, there is hot solid (grill/fry); hot liquid (boil/braise/sous vide); hot gas (steam); radiation (microwave); and chemical (salt/sugar/acid cures). Each has its relative merits and each is better suited to particular foods and the result chefs want to achieve. We also meet Colombian chef Catalina Vélez of Kali restaurant who goes in search of the authentic cooking methods of her country and finds that steaming is what gives many traditional dishes their delicate and authentic flavours, preserving the colour and the taste of ingredients throughout the cooking process. To accompany this course, chef Jozef served salmon four ways: salmon sashimi “cooked” in lime juice; salmon cooked sous vide at 50C; steamed salmon; and pan-fried salmon – all accompanied by (excellent) samphire tempura and umami-rich soy pearls. It was interesting to see how each method affected the fish and how much of its essential character was left intact. The sashimi was obviously the closest in nature to the raw ingredient but my favourite was the sous vide salmon which was fatty, pink and delicious.
EPISODE 4: EXPERIENCE
So – what colour is bitter? This is the kind of question that was asked in the final (and to me, the most absorbing) of the four episodes: Experience. This episode suggests that our perception of food is about far more than simply the taste in our mouth: it’s an amalgamation of all elements of the dining experience. The episode asks how much of the eating experience actually comes from taste, and how do colours, sounds, the weight of cutlery and even the shape/colour/orientation of the plate affect our overall taste experience? We meet an Oxford Professor of Psychology, Charles Spence, whose specialism is researching how the brain helps us to understand what the food is likely to taste like before actually tasting it, using the other senses to gather clues. His research has established that the sight, touch and sound of food can have a massive effect on its perceived taste. Studies have found, for example, that white foods are associated with salty flavours; red foods with sweet flavours; green foods with sour flavours; and black foods with bitter flavours. It may also surprise you to learn that sweet foods taste sweeter on white rather than black plates. The segment also features Chef Jacques la Merde (a.k.a Christine Flynn) who rose to stardom for his/her artfully plated food – all of which was made from convenience foods like Doritos, Twinkies, processed cheese and re-formed tinned ham. People were both intrigued by the beauty of the plates and then shocked to discover that such beautiful plates could contain such scorned foods (you can read my full interview with Christine here; as well as my short interview with Chef Jacques). We were also privileged to have the third star of the segment, chef Jozef Youssef, on hand to cook us dinner and answer questions. Chef Jozef is the founder of Kitchen Theory, a gastronomic project which hosts regular multisensory dining events, amongst other things. Jozef works closely with Prof Spence to stimulate all the senses during the dining experience, including “sonic seasoning”; scents like we experienced during the Source course; and details like how people prefer food arranged on their plates. In the Q&A session, Jozef pointed out that although people are treating this as a wildly outlandish idea and many more traditional chefs would pooh-pooh it, all restaurants try to engage all the senses via things like the style and weight of their cutlery; the design of their crockery; and their choice of background music. To accompany this segment, we were served a multi-sensory dessert of passion fruit chocolate ganache; chocolate and cacao nib crumble; passion fruit jelly cubes; apricot sorbet; caramel shards; and caramel popcorn. This was fantastic with a range of different flavours and textures. During the dessert we were also given a cube with a rough and a velvety side and asked to alternately stroke the sides as we tasted the food to see if our perception of sweetness changed.
Christine on the big screen!
One of Chef Jacques’s most popular Instagram posts
All too soon, the dinner and the films were over, and I had loved every minute of it. The films are beautifully shot and edited with very high production values and although each is only about 15-20 minutes long, each was so absorbing that I wish each segment could have been expanded into a full-length film. It was wonderful to have Charles Spence and Jozef Youssef on hand at the dinner to answer questions, and fascinating to see how the footage of Christine (where I had been present for the shoot back in December in Toronto) had translated into the final film. Each film segment does link back in some way to AEG and its products (e.g. the heat episode references the AEG Steambake oven) but this is subtly done in a separate section at the end of the episode – the rest of each episode feels like a slick documentary rather than an overt marketing ploy. I was fascinated by many of the questions raised by each episode, particularly Experience, and I’d encourage you all to watch all four if you have not done so already.
If you want to read another perspective on our evening, have a look at my friend Rosana’s post.
A huge thank you once again to AEG for inviting me to work on this project with them!
DISCLOSURE: I attended this event as a guest of AEG but received no further remuneration to write this post. I was not expected to write a positive review – all views are my own and I retain full editorial control.
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