#93 | The Flavor Matrix
The Flavor Matrix
The Art And Science Of Pairing Common Ingredients to Create Extraordinary Dishes
By James Briscione with Brooke Parkhurst
Suzy Chase: Welcome to the Cookery By The Book Podcast with me, Suzy Chase.
James: I'm James Briscione, author of the new book The Flavor Matrix, which I wrote with my wife Brooke Parkhurst.
Suzy Chase: Let me just start with a few of your impressive titles. Director of Culinary Research at the Institute of Culinary Education, ICE. Celebrity Chef. The first ever two-time champion of Chopped. I'd like to add culinary scientist to the list because you teamed up with IBM super computer Watson to discover flavor combinations based on different foods compatibility. Before we dig into the book, I'm dying to hear about your time at IBM and cooking with Watson.
James: Thank you so much for having me on, Suzy. That was really an incredible experience that changed so much for me in the way I cook, and the way I think about cooking, and flavor. That opportunity, working with chef Watson, which all began in my role at ICE, the Institute of Culinary Education. IBM came to us at ICE with this idea about how they wanted to use a computer to help people be more creative. I kind of heard that pitch and just kind of laughed in their faces, like "Yeah, right. Like a computer knows more about cooking than me." I was very skeptical going in. But I thought "You know what? Let's give it a shot, let's see what happens. If anything, I can say that I beat the computer." I was feeling very cocky.
We went through this kind of experiment really. No one really knew what was going to happen or how it was going to turn out. Where a computer was suggesting ingredients that we would then take into the kitchen and use the created dish really from scratch. No measurements, no quantities, no instructions on how to use ingredients, just Watson told us that you could use these ingredients to create a dish, and it's going to taste good if you do it right, basically. Immediately as I saw these combinations of ingredients were coming, I was like "Why? Why does it say that those ingredients would be good together?" Then, we'd started kind of working backwards through the system and finding some of the science, and some of the connections that Watson was making just using this incredibly dense data essentially about flavor.
I was absolutely fascinated by the process, and really just kind of ignited me to want to go learn more about it. I realized, that information didn't really exist anywhere outside of the most powerful super computer in the world. That's what put me on the journey to start creating The Flavor Matrix.
Suzy Chase: I'm going to read a passage from the book that blew my mind. "Strong pairings in a flavor matrix like citrus or olives indicated that there may be a greater connection between the ingredients. It shows that the ingredients have something in common, maybe they're native to the same area, or have a botanical relationship, or similar flavor profile." Was that something that Watson kind of came up with?
James: It was something that, as I kept looking at the data and seeing these connections, and in research, I mean, just a massive amount of research that went into creating The Flavor Matrix that I started seeing and we saw these really strong pairing scores between different ingredients. There was a reason for them. We could often trace them back to something I think olive, olive is one of the most interesting examples. It also kind of sent us down this path ... there's the age old adage of what grows together goes together. There seems to be a lot of evidence through a lot of these pairing scores that we saw that a lot of flavor in ingredients is derived from the environment. Plants that are native to similar geographical areas tend to be good matches. Because there's things from that environment that are kind of imprinting certain parts of the flavor into that food, which to me was really fascinating.
That thing can be a whole other rabbit hole to go down at some point, and spend another couple of years researching.
Suzy Chase: Talk about the old and new model of combining flavors.
James: For me, as a chef, I learned, it was just something you learn. You cooked a lot as a young chef, I was going to create a new dish, I was going to make something with oysters. If I didn't know immediately what the best ingredients to pair with oysters, or I just go to my massive collection of cookbooks and pull down every single one, or the ones that I like the best, and go to the index and look up oysters and start looking at the ingredients that other chefs use. You learned a lot from what you saw and tasted in other places and through your own experience. Building what we call taste memory, so that in my mind I know the flavor of an oyster now, and I know the flavor of a shallot, and I can kind of mentally combine those two without actually having to taste them.
But it relies so much previous experience, or having some familiarity with an ingredient. I think nowadays we have such incredible access to ingredients. We can have ingredients from all over the world at our door in 24 hours if we just click a button and pay enough money for it. To me, I think it's helpful to have another tool in your arsenal, another way to think about flavor and analyze flavor to make decisions about what ingredients go together. That's The Flavor Matrix, which is, for sports fans, I liken it to the analytics of cooking. In Baseball, and other sports analytics are big, and you're looking at stats, and using data to kind of make evaluations. That's the same thing we do in The Flavor Matrix. In this case, the data is the chemical compounds in each ingredient that create the flavor in that ingredient.
We're talking that we're down to the molecular level, talking about each one of these individual little compounds and in something like a strawberry, there are just over 400 different compounds that combine to make the flavor of the strawberry. Only a few of those are readily perceptible by nose. When you slice into a strawberry, you're going to be able to detect some of them. There are so many more that make up the flavor of the strawberry that we don't necessarily, wouldn’t necessarily detect on our own with the nose. But, when we're able to look at those ingredients, or look at those compounds in analysis, then we can start finding these hidden connections between ingredients because when two ingredients have a bunch of these compounds in common, we can very accurately predict that they're going to taste good together when we combine them in a dish.
Just how we land at something like mushrooms and strawberries together in a dish. Where that doesn't make any sense, and I would never put those together on my own. But through the research, we see that connection and go on. That's kind of an interesting weird thing, but it actually tastes really great.
Suzy Chase: God, it's so logical. No one has ever talked about this. That's crazy.
James: We talk about it in the book, kind of the origin of this whole concept. It is quite new, especially if you look it at the scope of all cooking. It's less than 20 years ago, Heston Blumenthal and his research team at The Fat Duck kind of put this theory forward, the flavor pairing theory. Yeah, it's been kind of quiet in a few chef nerd circles just for a little bit. It hasn't moved much beyond that, and really it didn't kind of make its way into my radar until five, six years ago when we started working with chef Watson, who was using flavor pairing theory to make some of its decisions about ingredients.
Suzy Chase: You mentioned taste memory earlier, and this book relies on chemistry rather than taste memory. Explain what taste memory is.
James: I think it's important, with the book, and I think, often when we're dealing with anything new to kind of remembering with The Flavor Matrix I really love to encourage people to learn this, and use it as another tool in their arsenal, a way to make decisions about ingredients and think about the flavor pairing, so that you can add that to what you already have in what we call taste memory, which is basically, it's not like those memories you cherish from grandma's roast chicken, or whatever grandma used to make for you. But, you do remember the flavor of that. You also remember the flavor of a lot other things that you've tasted before. The more eat, the more you travel, you start to build taste memory. Chefs, it's some we kind of work in our careers. It's a bit of training your palate as well, it's kind of knowing flavors just inherently, and being able to kind of combine them in your minds to put two flavors together and sort of know what it's going to taste like without actually having to taste them together.
But I think that really kind of elite level of taste memory to be able to do that, it's something that just professional chefs have. You kind of spend your whole life developing it. It's not easy.
Suzy Chase: Talk about the difference between taste and flavor.
James: Yeah. This is really one of the things we like to focus on in the book, and we talk a lot about. It's an important difference really. Because we tend to use those two words interchangeably, but in reality they come from different places. Taste comes from the tongue, flavor comes from your nose, it comes from all of your olfactory senses together, not just in your nose, but in the back of your throat, and sort of all around. Taste really only refers to six specific sensations, which is the tastes that we know, sour, sweet, salty, bitter, those are kind of the four classic ones, then two more that we've recently added with umami, and fat. These are things that are actually detected on the tongue, a chemical reaction happens on the tongue and relays that information to the brain about what's in the food that you're tasting.
The tongue, I like to kind of describe the tongue's job as being a nutrient and toxin detector. It's just kind of the gatekeeper for your body. When your tongue recognizes sugar, it signals your brain, your brain is happy, it knows that things with sugar in them are things like ripe fruits, so they have good nutrition. Or it's just sugar, and it's something that your body can easily and quickly utilize for energy. Your body likes that, so it wants to take in more. With umami it means protein, it's amino acids coming in, and your body knows it needs that as building blocks. When it tastes something that's very sour, that's often a sign of under ripe, fruits or vegetables, they all tend to be sour. They don't offer much benefit to our body, so we tend to not like those quite as much.
Things that are bitter are often a sign of toxin. When your tongue detects a toxin, it kind of makes you pause and be a little more cautious about what you're eating and wonder if you actually want to swallow it or not. This is really ... I think another great example is like when you're at the beach and you get hit in the face with a big wave, and you have that mouth full of sea water, you immediately start coughing and trying to spit it out because your tongue instantly recognizes that high concentration of salt is not good for your body and doesn't want to allow it in. That's really what our tongue is doing.
Then, everything that we perceive as flavor is coming through our nose. It's coming through these chemical compounds that we've talked about that are in the food that actually create flavor. That part of the equation, when we talk about taste and flavor, is so much more complex and so much more nuanced. But often, when we describe food, it's just savory, or salty, or sweet. We don't get into talking about all these wonderful, rich, complex flavors that exist in food. Just like we do in wine, or coffee, or beer.
Suzy Chase: Three factors help form a complete picture of flavor, you wrote in the book, taste, aroma and texture. But you said that aroma is far more influential. Talk a little bit about that.
James: When we take a bite of food and there is so much ongoing research and kind of developing science around, there's a really understanding the physiology of taste and perception, and all of this very well, we're starting to understand it much better than we ever have before. We now know that about 80% of what we taste when we have a bite of food, that 80% is coming through the flavor receptors, through olfactory, through aroma. About 20% is relayed by the tongue. Things like texture, sound, actual sound can influence how we perceive food, lights. All of our senses really combine to change how we perceive a bite of food, but the heavy lifting is fairly being done by the nose and the tongue.
Suzy Chase: I bought my very first durian in Chinatown a few weeks ago, and I can vouch for that in terms of aroma. It was so smelly.
James: It is, it take a day or two to clear that out of the house.
Suzy Chase: And out of your nose. You wrote this book with Brooke Parkhurst. Tell us about her.
James: She is my wonderful wife. We live together here in the West Village in New York, but not for much longer, we're actually about to head down to Florida to open our first restaurant down on the Gulf Coast in Florida. That's super exciting. Brooke will be the Wine Director there, and I'll be the chef. It's a whole new adventure for our little family, but very exciting. Brooke has been, obviously, she has been my life partner for over 10 years now. But also my cooking partner and writing partner. She is a wonderful writer, and before we met she was finishing her first novel about a small town Southern girl moving to New York City, who stayed connected to home through the recipe she made.
Our pairing of being chef and writer has been a really great one. This is our second book that we've written together. We're finding a way to take all of this complicated scientific jargon and put it in a form that really is accessible to anybody and everybody.
Suzy Chase: I think one of the many special things about this cookbook is that it has 150 of the most commonly used ingredients that surprisingly work together. You're not out there searching for weird, oddball ingredients.
James: Yeah. We really wanted to focus on ingredients that people are using every day, because I think, often, when you open a book, and you go through an ingredient list, and you see two ingredients ingredients "I don't even know what that is, I don't know where to find those." It can be a big turnoff. We've really wanted this to be a book that worked on different levels for different people. For professional chefs, and really big foodie home cooks, and just kind of the average, everyday cook, who has their dishes that they make all the time, and love, but was looking for a way to sort of change things up a little bit. Even if you just want to find one new ingredient to add to your favorite dish that you always make just to kind of change it up, or get a little different take on it, I find you can find that in The Flavor Matrix.
Suzy Chase: Last week, I made your shrimp and lamb gumbo on page 89. The spices in this dish were so minimal, but the flavor was huge.
James: Yeah. Thank you so much, I had a lot of fun following along on Instagram watching as you were making all these dishes, I think it looks like you did a fabulous job.
Suzy Chase: Thank you, in my tiny West Village kitchen.
James: I'm glad you were digging in there, and making these, they looked great. That to me was one of these just wonderfully, surprising combinations, was shrimp and lamb. Two things I would never think about putting together. But their flavors match up so well. Like you said, when you start with kind of flavor first in a recipe, you don't need as much to really bring it all together and to make it happen. That's a quick, simple recipe that I think really comes together so nicely because we start building on those common flavors from the beginning with the shrimp and the lamb.
Suzy Chase: I also made the lemon curd with crunchy olives on page 181. I have no words for this. It was so good. Can you describe this heavenly dish?
James: I think anyone who's eaten at any form of Mediterranean style restaurant, you've probably had a seafood dish that has lemon and olives in it, or a vegetable dish with lemon and olive. It's not a surprising combination, but as I looked at it, and saw just what a really, really strong combination it was, I thought [inaudible 00:19:49] thinking about "Why don't we use that more? What are other ways we can use that fantastic combination that are a little more interesting or a bit more surprising?" Naturally, I was like "Let's make a dessert out of them." That's exactly what we did. Starting with kind of ... it starts like a classic lemon curd with just egg yolks and sugar, and lemon juice, and lemon zest to really get the most intense flavor.
But then, once the curd is cooked and is nice and thick on the stove, and it has just kind of that creamy, beautiful, smooth consistency, take it out and start whipping it. As it cools, emulsifying olive oil into it, instead of the classic butter. That olive oil gives it a smooth, beautiful shine and really gorgeous consistency and such a unique flavor. I finish it with a little bit of butter as well, just because it kind of needs it for the structure, it's too runny if it's made with just olive oil. Just to kind of give it a little bit of structure, we add that butter. But the flavor and shine that that olive oil gives to lemon curd is just so, so fantastic. Then, we top it off with these little dehydrated olives that we just coat with a little bit of honey and bake in a low oven until they're crunchy, and they're salty, and sweet. Just the perfect match to that lemon curd.
Suzy Chase: I also made the crab, mango, dill and poblano salad on page 241. That was like perfect for summer. I wanted to talk to you about the cucumber in this recipe. I felt like the chopped poblano was enough crunch. What did the cucumber bring to this dish?
James: The chopped poblano does give some nice crunch and a bit of spice. The cucumber has these really great kind of ... it's almost sort of a bridge in those ingredients, because the two most prominent aromas in cucumber are just green grassy and melon. They're kind of the link between the pepper and the herbs, which peppers tend to have whatever type of pepper we're talking about, in this case the poblano, tend to have a little bit of that kind of melon and fruity flavor. The dill, which I think is such a great herb that's just not nearly used enough, but [inaudible 00:22:31] match it back to the mango. That cucumber is sort of there as that bridge. I think it adds just another great layer of crunch to the dish.
Suzy Chase: In your opinion, what was the most surprising flavor combination that you came across for this book?
James: I think I tipped it earlier with the strawberry and mushrooms.
Suzy Chase: Mine was the blueberry and horseradish jam.
James: That is another great. The blueberry and horseradish really is a lot of fun. You, I think, would love this. We ran an event down in Florida that we did down in Ocala, Florida. We had a bunch of local chefs and they got together and they all had different pairings from The Flavor Matrix. We had this great, big kind of local chefs gala where they all made different dishes of their own design from pairings out of The Flavor Matrix. We had a mixologist there who made a blueberry and horseradish cocktail. Really, rally great, unique, just wonderful flavor. But yeah, blueberry and horseradish jam is such a great condiment. One of different ways you can use that ... blueberries on their own have just these little tiny hints of kind of pine, and almost, like [inaudible 00:24:01] like rosemary. These little hints of pine in them.
That's a really prominent aroma in horseradish as well. It's one of those things that, again, you wouldn't necessarily perceive on your own, but when you start to see the flavors in those ingredients, and then you start to make those connections, it all makes sense, and kind of shows you the way. That's really with a lot of the recipes in The Flavor Matrix, they're more like the blueberry and horseradish jam. They're meant to be something wonderful that you can make and use in a bunch of different ways. That can be a great condiment on a cheese plate or charcuterie board. It's wonderful to spread on sandwiches, and there's lots of different ways you can use it.
Suzy Chase: I saw The Flavor Matrix book cover on a Times Square billboard. Is this the first ever cookbook that's been featured in Times Square?
James: Oh, boy. I don't know, I should hope so.
Suzy Chase: I've never seen a cookbook in Times Square.
James: That was very exciting. Once again, my wonderful wife knows all of the right people who were able to make that happen, but yes, you saw The Flavor Matrix up in the big, bright lights of Times Square. It was really a thrilling moment.
Suzy Chase: Where can we find you on the web and social media?
James: Brooke and I write together at The Couple's Kitchen, so thecoupleskitchen.com. Also The Couple's Kitchen on Instagram. On Twitter and Instagram you can also find me under James Briscione, just my name. Basically, if you just throw my name into Google Search, you'll probably find out more than you ever wanted to know about me.
Suzy Chase: What a wonderful conversation. Thanks, James, for coming on Cookery By The Book Podcast.
James: Thank you for having me, Suzy, it's been a lot of fun.
Suzy Chase: Follow me on Instagram @CookeryByTheBook. Twitter is @IamSuzyChase. Download your Kitchen Mixtapes music to cook by on Spotify at Cookery By The Book. As always, subscribe in Apple Podcasts.