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From The Ivory Tower Kitchen: Chasing the Perfect Bite

"How do you come up with those flavor combinations?" may be one of the most common questions I hear as a cook. About 12 years ago, a self-acknowledged professional midlife crisis prompted me to try professional cooking as an avocation.
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"How do you come up with those flavor combinations?" may be one of the most common questions I hear as a cook. About 12 years ago, a self-acknowledged professional midlife crisis prompted me to try professional cooking as an avocation. I was trying hard to impress my chef instructors and classmates alike with what I considered daring and out-of-the-box combinations of flavors. If it wasn't for the fact that I executed well and followed directions, I don't think my teachers would have been in the least impressed. Even then, I would brashly pair ingredients outside the recommended directions provided to students.

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"When am I going to use this in my life?" may be the most common question I hear in the classroom. I don't think my colleagues in other disciplines hear it nearly as much as some of us in Department of Mathematics & Computer Science. Essentially, my primary come back is along the lines of problem-solving using abstraction is a powerful aide for navigating the complexities of life. While a builder may actually use geometry and algebra to solve problems on a daily basis, an artist is more likely to imagine the space of the canvas before delving into the details.

Sweet, sour, salty, bitter, umami (savory?) offer the guidelines for extremes, balance, and everything in between on how food tastes. Naturally, achieving success on this front hinges on one's ability to perceive those senses in the first place. As with tasting wine, to a degree, one can train one's taste buds. According to some research [1], in humans, around the age of 50 the sense of taste begins to diminish. I recently hit that mark, so theoretically, I should be worried that if I haven't already done so, I may never create the perfect bite of food.

This brings us to the observation that the notion of perfection in art (like the creation of food) is both undefinable and a hindrance to the creative process. So, what's the point? To me, the point is that as long as I have a good command of my sense of taste and smell, my own talents and interests will drive me to create as I naturally do. But, in a vacuum, devoid of personal bias, science (Mathematics) can help define and even develop the perfect bite. Here, I will begin that exercise by equating perfect balance with perfect taste. My proposal for how one achieves the perfect bite is to chase balance within the five aspects of taste. This is where abstraction can help. Assuming that no two individuals have identical taste buds, by assigning variables which depend on a person's ability to perceive sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami, one could create the perfect bite of food customized to each person. Theoretically, this means that the perfect bite of food is unique to the person tasting it. This should not bother or deter because just as we celebrate our uniqueness as individuals, we should expect that only we know when food tastes perfect (to us).

All of a sudden, the image of a food-making robot which assesses your unique taste buds, mood, general health, etc., and subsequently concocts a perfect morsel or bowl of food you will find perfect (at least in that moment) doesn't seem so far-fetched.

So, how do I conjure up those combinations? I imagine. I use time-tested techniques and good ingredients. I taste obsessively. And I hope for the best. Perfection? Hardly. Thoughtful and Sincere? Always.

Reference:

[1] Henry M Seidel; Jane W Ball; Joyce E Dains (1 February 2010).Mosby's Guide to Physical Examination. Elsevier Health Sciences. p. 303. ISBN 978-0-323-07357-8.