Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Engineering a Dish; How to Start Planning A Menu Part 1

 I might have overstated the title. Throwing the word engineer in just makes it sound as if you are designing a rocket or the next Uber App instead of just planning a plate for your next dinner party. The question remains, how do you plan a good tasting dish for your next party, or get together?

 I do think the best chefs out there have a method to their sometimes crazy sounding flavor combinations and dishes. There can be a sort of engineering styled mindset when it comes to high level restaurants. In fact, there really is. Take a moment to watch Alinea's Chef Grant Achatz's clip about designing a flavor profile. In this case, he is taking more of an early swing at coming up to what flavors go into a dish (in more of a free write format). From there, techniques, textures, etc, will all have to come into account.


There are a couple of ways to plan a dish in my book. You can either start top down or bottom up Thus, you can either start with a concept, or set of flavors and select your ingredients and techniques from there or you can start with your first ingredient and build a dish around that specific ingredient. When conceptualizing a plate, a Chef also needs to take into account other concepts like flavor combinations, texture, priming a guests mind verbally(through descriptions), fat, salt, etc. All of these play  a huge role in the dishes final flavor, the the diners experience.When all is said and done, an excellent plate of food requires perfect execution, planning, and finesse.

Below I break down the concepts I think should be considered when creating a dish!

Flavor Structure

One of my favorite books is the Flavor Bible. It doesn't have an recipes, but what it does talk about and offer is a deeper understanding of flavor and food. Most of the book is made up of flavor combinations. You can look up an ingredient and find what other things it might go with. Maybe you have never cooked a sun-choke before? and don't know what put with it, or maybe treviso or artichokes. Whatever it might be, this book more than likely has it!

Another concept this book talks about that is great is flavor balancing. This is very key! Most of the book deals with aromatic flavors. The human tongue can only distinguish the five "flavors", sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami. At least, based off current research. The rest of the flavors we "taste' are aromatics. They come from our nose smelling and thus tasting. It is a cool little trick our brain plays.

Balancing this 5 flavors is key in every dish. Now, that does not mean every dish should always have an equal amount of all of these flavors. That would be boring. Instead, you should have an idea of what type of profile you want each dish to have. Do you want it to be a salty sweet combo, sour and bitter.  salty and umami, sour and salty and sweet, just salty and so on? Really you can do any combination of the 5 with any number. It is important to take it in mind thought. Just like I mentioned earlier, about menu structure. This plays a role as well. It is not only important that you balance cold and hot. It also is important that you balance the flow of flavors.

I recall my one of my Chefs telling me a story about when he ate a menu with 40 different courses. At first it sounded really exciting. Everything was pretty much one bite, but maybe they made 40 really good bites? However, as my Chef described it, everything really relied on the same flavor profiles, salty and crispy. Don't get me wrong, I love crispy pancetta and bacon, Parmesan crisp and kale chips. If your entire meal relies to heavily on one or two basic flavor profiles, then it will be dull and more importantly, that flavor will build and just over power everything else you are trying to taste.

Beyond just the 5 basic flavors, let's go one step further. Let's say you understand how to balance basic flavors really well. Now, you have to get an understanding of what goes with what. There are the easy flavor combos like basil and tomato, chicken and fennel, chocolate and raspberries. The more of these classic flavor combinations you understand, the better. Why? Because the more you understand the basics, the easier it is to make complicated flavor combinations. It's like playing an instrument. You can't suddenly play Beethoven's Fur Elise and expect to do well. Nope, you start with Mary had a Little Lamb and scales. If you don't have the discipline to master and execute the basics, how do you expect to develop flavors that really stand out if you never practice?

Yes, food could be stated to be an art. However, most artist first have to be craftsman and apprentices. It means painting straight lines, and cooking someone else's food. As you cook others people's food, you get what works. You taste it, you experience it, you learn to understand flavor.

Realize i keep using the word "understand". When it comes to any field, it is about about gaining the lowest level of granularity. The lower you understand a concept, the easier it is to bend the rules. The best mathematicians are probably just as or more creative than the most skilled artist. They are border line cut your ear off crazy. That is what you need to be to start making food like Ferran Adria, Rene Redzepi, Marco Pier White, Jose Andres and so forth. These guys know food backwards and forwards and they still know they have a lot to learn!

You must be thinking I still haven't gotten to the point. I just want you to know how important understand flavor is! It is so overlooked when young cooks want to be Chefs at 22 years old. At that age they haven't developed a base of any kind, not on the hot line or in menu development. They create a roasted bell pepper coulis and think they deserve a Michelin star.

Don't be that kind of cook. Always wonder why! Always wonder why does tomato and basil go together and if tomato and basil go together, what other things pair well with the two? What doesn't? Again, why?

A picture from my notebook, Raspberry, Pistachio, Toasted Rice and Vanilla

Hand Shake Flavors

This concept is named poorly and I don't remember if I read it somewhere(maybe in the flavor bible) or if this is just the analogy I use to describe the concept. When you have two friends who have never met, and you bring them together, you need to stick around and make sure they have something common right? Well one way you can get around flavors not pairing well together is by putting some form of catalyst in between them. When you pair flavors that don't match, they need something familiar for the palette to hook on to. That way it doesn't get confused by what is happening inside your mouth. For instance, you could pair strawberry, basil and corn successfully (Maybe some type of corn cake, strawberry salad and basil ice cream, just an idea). I don't think strawberry and corn would taste good together (some people might disagree...but I would disagree with them ;)  ). Basil has to come in between and add that familiarity(The Flavor also has a good deal of their combinations online! check it out!).

Now...there is one danger in understanding this and this is why experience is important! There are many, many, many cases where this doesn't work. Where the flavors you are pairing don't work. The only way you can learn this is experience. You don't have to taste and memorize every flavor combination. Just like math...you should memorize the why not the what or how. Otherwise, as soon as you come up to a new ingredient, you will have to go google what to put it with. An experienced chef should be able to taste something they haven't used before and understand what it goes with(not 100% of the time of course, but 70%-80% ).

Using familiar flavors to cross over is a great technique, certainly not the most complex but it does require time. Just like your piano, or violin teacher use to say....practice ...practice....practice.


Have you ever put something in your mouth and the flavor tasted fine...but the texture was all wrong, or maybe everything was just smooth and boring? Wait, are you telling me that taste is not just dictated by flavor!!!

Texture is a huge part of flavor. I recall one of my Chefs talking about a petite four plate that had a piece of chocolate that had been dipped in liquid nitrogen, and that was all. Personally, that is brilliant. This might be a weird quirk of mine, but I love frozen chocolate. For two reasons, the texture is much crisper, and temperature. Crispy, crunchy (not break your teeth crunchy), smooth, al dente, etc, all of these textures play a role in how food tastes.

Pre- Perception

When Chefs choose what words to describe a dish, they are priming your mind. I specifically used the word and concept priming. In psychology, it refers to preparing the mind, there are many different methods. In this case, it is simple. By naming a dish "gratin" or "pie" there is a specific food you connect with. You are now expecting to receive a cheese covered thing that was thrown under a salamander or broiler or a pastry dough encompassed product of some sort. If you were told that the dish you were about to receive were a mousse, but instead you got something that had the texture of think puree or custard..even a good tasting puree or custard, you would feel confused.

There are a few different paths I have seen from this initial confusion. Indifference, frustration, complaining, and quiet bickering(the most typical).

In the same way, pre- perception can also develop a mental bridge that can help a dish actually connect better in the mind. Maybe a dish is not 100% like a mousse or a gratin, but maybe it kind of is like one, and the Chef just wants to make a connection so you have a starting point. For example, when you look at the world of store bought products, there is "Almond Milk", "Soy Milk", "Rice Milk" etc. All of which...are not anywhere close to milk. They are really Almond water with some form of thickening agent to give it a texture like milk. It is brilliant from a marketing stand point. If they sold it as "Almond Water" it would not sell at the level at which "Almond Milk" sells(most likely). Almond milk creates the perception that you can replace your daily consumption of milk with almond milk. If I were to go to far into this, I would say that is double brilliant because the milk industry has already done a lot of the heavy lifting by putting so much into marketing campaigns for people to drink milk...we are already primed to think we need a lot more than we need....

Darn, I got on a side tangent again...

The point is...when you give some one a reference point, be mindful and make sure you know the words you are choosing...If you say egg tart...to someone who loves egg tarts, and you make a custard tart, someone is going to have a bad time.

Overall, an excellent plate of food requires several iterations, conceptualizing, and execution. Some at the best restaurants in the world take years worth of planning. It is said that the 9 layer Black Forest Gateau at the Fat Duck in England took 2 years of planning! That is intense. Yet, when you look at this dish, you see purpose with every ingredient. Every bit of texture, flavor, and mental priming is well planned. Especially when you are referencing something as classic as a Black Forest Cake. You have to make sure your cake tastes perfect. Otherwise, your diners response might end up "The cake tasted good, but it wasn't a Black Forest Gateau". They will leave your restaurant unhappy or at least, unimpressed. Desert is your big time to shine, it is the last bite, so they had to get this right. Next time you are sitting there pondering how to plan a dish, or a menu, maybe look into the Flavor Bible, whether you use the online version or go buy the book. Everything else will take time, failed dishes, experiencing more experienced flavor combinations, and an open mind. Good luck to your future menus!

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Tags: Menu Development; Recipe Planning; How to plan a dish; Dinner; How to make good food

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