Daniel Patterson on The Difference Between Cooking and Creating Flavor
On the heels of his latest book with Mandy Aftel, 'The Art of Flavor.'
March 6, 2018 ● 5 min read
By Richie Nakano | Original photograph of Patterson by Audrey Ma, Photo illustration by ChefsFeed
Cookbooks fall into an infinite array of very distinct categories.
There’s the “Oh my god why is this cookbook so huge/written in a different language/costing me $250,” book. The cookbook your half-brother really likes because it’s “none of that foo-foo shit.” The hyper-local “let me show you the terroir of where I live even though you will never get to cook this way because you don’t live here” book. The book written by a three Michelin-starred chef on “approachable food” even though the recipes are all in grams and wildly difficult to prepare.
You know that celebrity who likes to cook things with quinoa? Here’s like, four cookbooks by them. Food blogger with no actual restaurant experience more your style? Here’s an extremely authoritative cookbook.
Don't forget any one of the 40 random cookbooks your dad got on eBay. The secondhand copy of the 1991 edition of the CIA textbook (I know that’s very specific but that’s the edition that you want, nerds). Don’t forget that cookbook written in French—the one that’s out of print and which everyone is really into but no one has ever actually cooked out of—and a Giada De Laurentiis cookbook that you’re ashamed to own, but do cook out of regularly.
My point: despite the vast array of cookbooks out there, most of them try to fill some kind of niche. In order to differentiate your book from the flood of cookbooks that come out each year, you have to specialize. Not that there’s anything wrong with a book dedicated solely to pancake cookery, or Instant Pot recipes for one, but they seldom actually teach us anything new to improve our skills and knowledge. With the exception of Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking, and more recently, Modernist Cuisine, there just aren’t very many books that strive to present a deeper understanding of the how’s and whys of food.
Enter Daniel Patterson (three Michelin-starred chef, restaurant empire-haver, Smart Person) and Mandy Aftel (perfumier, very good nose-haver and scent expert, author). They started working together in 2001, with Aftel supplying essences that revealed the hidden character of ingredients Patterson thought he knew—ginger became citrusy, black pepper darkly floral— bolstering his vision in the kitchen. The partnership eventually led to a co-authored book, Aroma: The Magic of Essential Oils in Foods and Fragrance.
The book was considerably ahead of its time—the top cookbooks in 2004 were headlined by Food Network personality types— and getting the general public to wrap their heads around essential oils was quite the ask given that most of the country barely knew what braising was. Ten years later, the duo found themselves back in Aftel’s studio.
“We’re talking about the processes of how she's creating, and it was very much how I think about creating flavor,” recalls Patterson. Aftel suggested a book dedicated to flavor, a follow-up of sorts to their aromatic beginnings, and they were off to the races. Sort of.
“And then it got really fucking hard,” he says. “We worked on that thing for a while. All cooking creates flavor, but the book is about how to make conscious choices that lead to the flavors you want. Creating a language and systems for something that is so personal and intuitive is challenging.”
After three years, the result is a book that’s part textbook, part cookbook, and part newfangled dictionary. The chapters include rules for creating flavors and outlines when and why you might want to break them. There's a seven-point flavor dial for fine-tuning recipes along with explanations of “locking” flavors together and “burying” two flavors to achieve something else completely (see below). It feels like the kind of book you’d give to a young cook, to point them in the right direction—or, say, to a jaded three Michelin-starred chef.
“We really felt, from all the books we read and everything we looked at, there really wasn't anything that helped [cooks] take the training wheels off the bike,” Patterson says. “None of the old cookbooks that we looked through got into how to create flavor, the dynamics and the components of it, and that was really fascinating to me. All of the molecular stuff at that level of detail was new for me. We wanted to show all cooks how to create flavor on their own, to instill, literally, the principles and practices that make it possible. And that's what took so long.”
For most cooks—restaurant or otherwise—it can be easy to overlook the mechanics of flavor (and the joy and freaky magic of those mechanics) when there are orders to get out, or children to feed, or a sketchy looking cabbage in the fridge that just needs to get used, to say nothing of the less fun stuff, like budgets and margins. But that’s what makes this book so interesting: It wants to be a part of those everyday fundamentals. It seeks ways to infuse and transform even the mundane.
“[The process] reminded me that a lot of the things that we take for granted now were probably being done about 1500 years ago,” says Patterson. “Cooking is so vast and so rich; every corner that we turned around, it's like, Oh, that's another thing I should have known.”
You heard the man: shit is crazy. Here are three new concepts to contemplate the next time you're in a kitchen (or at the market, or pushing onto a crowded train) chasing a craving.
“It has nothing to do with physical shape or texture; it has to do with the overall impression of what you are tasting. Perfumers learn to smell in shapes, and cooks learn to taste in them: saffron is flat; cinnamon is pointy.
Some shape descriptors: balanced, deep, flat, full-bodied, hollow, pointy, round, sharp, soft, thin.”
“Locking is the concept Mandy came up with to describe what happens when ingredients combine with impact that seems to be more than the sum of their individual characters […] If you add jasmine and rose to a perfume, for example—ingredients that share some floral aromatics but are quite dissimilar—the characters of each flower merge, so that you can no longer discern each individually; yet together they contribute to a single floral bouquet that is neither rose nor jasmine.
At its most effective, locking creates a flavor that is only implied by the original ingredients—for instance, the phantom pine created by the lock between grapefruit and rosemary. […] When you put coffee and milk together—even as a frothy cappuccino—you don’t create a lock. The milk adds richness, dilution, and lightness to the dark, earthy flavor of the coffee, but the essential flavor of the coffee is unchanged. But if you add chocolate, the earthy and bitter facets of the coffee and chocolate will lock to create a new flavor, each ingredient surrendering its distinct traits to an indivisible whole. This particular flavor lock has become so popular that we gave it a name of its own: mocha.”
“The relative dynamics of flavor—the ability of some elements to control (or, if not controlled, to overpower) others is what Mandy calls burying.
You already use burying without thinking about it when you add a grind or two of black pepper to give a lift to your salad or zip to your soup without dominating them. You want to bury the strong flavor of sage in a lamb stew just far enough that it remains mildly present as a seasoning, not overbearing.
Burying can also be a way to remedy flavors that have developed in an unpleasant way. Maybe you’ve accidentally scorched the bottom of your stew a bit; adding a little more water or broth or some neutral grains can dilute the flavor and help bury the acrid taste, as can a squeeze of lemon juice. Introducing a bit more fat in the form of a pat of butter might help round out the bitter edges.”