concept development

I’ve been reading a lot lately about chefs and bartenders who develop recipes by seeking inspiration from other creative spheres. I stumbled across this blog post today, (Meadowlark). The writer spent some time creating a drink to match an album by Sufjan Stevens. The drink was fairly simple, but I was immediately struck by the depth of research that went into creating it. She spent time looking at the artist’s inspiration, and used that to inform her own creation. Each ingredient was reasoned, and the recipe read well because of it. (btw, I noticed that huge amount of rosewater too, but in an earlier post she has a recipe for ‘rose water’ which is actually more of a petal tisane, which would definitely work at that volume.)

In this article from last month on Punch, Drew Lazor explores different approaches to concept development (How To Develop a Concept Cocktail). I’m smitten with Chantal Tseng’s ‘limited edition’ menus at The Reading Room, in Washington D.C, that revolve around the book she’s reading that week. She uses narrative, geography, characters, and the author’s persona to inspire her ingredients.

Cerebral stuff isn’t necessarily the way to go every time, but I’ve always found that the best names and recipes (of my own) are always tightly knit together by a solid concept that drew inspiration from a clear source.

A recent recipe comes from, at first, a pretty vague space that slowly developed into a combination of dew drops on winter green, Fern Gully, the flavours I associate with the word “nectar”, and how sweet and clean I imagine this water tastes to this little guy:

I truly believe it would definitely taste like Dolin Blanc

The idea hung about in my head and in a few variations for about a six months. By the time I got around to making it, I’d spent so long messing with the concept and had such a clear idea of how I wanted it to taste that it took less than 20 minutes to nail down a recipe. The drink ended up as a light, clean, carbonated thing with a hint of sweetness that is balanced with tartaric and malic acids to give the impression of a sparkling wine.

Who knows if people are going to taste the idea of a fairy with a dewdrop cupped between their tiny, webbed fingers. I doubt it, and I’m not going to tell them that they have to. I’d be delighted to hear that someone has drawn that conclusion independently, but it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that having a concise and well developed concept helped to develop a good recipe.



sound is important to your perception of flavour

Things taste different in planes to on the ground so when a chef curates an inflight menu, or a sommelier writes a wine list for an airline, they have to consider this as they select ingredients and flavour profiles. The altitude, background noise and dried nasal passages alters the way you interact with flavours. Salt perception is reduced, for example, but umami is enhanced. Apparently tomatoes taste amazing because of this, and in hindsight I think of all the very sad looking slices of “fresh” tomato that I have pushed aside on inflight meals. What if I was missing out on something amazing.

Studies have found that sound contributes immensely to our perception of flavour, with my favourite being the 2007 University of Leeds study (called “Bacon: the slice of life” omg) which was conducted to quantify just how important the crispiness of bacon is to the perfect BLT. This kinda thing is pretty common in commercial food science which I imagine often results in “new & improved” products on the regular. This Flavour Journal article references a Magnum icecream improvement that went wrong when they accidentally altered the way the chocolate coating cracks as you bite into it.

And then there’s ambient noise, like music. Studies have proven that music played at higher decibels influences people to perform activities faster, drinking in particular (ScienceDaily), which is a pretty neat trick that a lot of fast moving venues employ, but something that potentially inhibits your perception of the food and drink you’re consuming there. (Maybe that’s why some restaurants choose not to play any music at all?) There’s also evidence that that background music could be altering your palate too. Low pitched tones focus our palate on bitter flavours and high tones bring out sweeter flavours. You can test it out on yourself here: high pitch, low pitch. Apparently something like coffee or dark chocolate is a great thing to try it out with as it has distinctive sweet and bitter notes.

absence of flavour

I like to write ideas down to research later, so I often find snippets written down on the backs of receipts used as bookmarks or stuffed at the bottom of a bag I last used a few weeks ago. Then I get to decode my scrawl and try and figure out where the curiosity was focused.

This one was pretty interesting,
if you ate something that tastes like absolutely nothing would it enhance or dull an accompanying drink?

Turns out, there’s not much that tastes like nothing. Maybe just water that’s free from the chemicals our nose or tongue can detect, straight from a pure source. There is a neutral baseline, but it’s kinda gross so it killed this idea pretty fast. It’s our saliva. That’s why pure water tastes neutral. Our saliva is 98% water. The other 2% is made up of substances such as electrolytes, minerals like sodium and potassium, mucus, antibacterial compounds, and enzymes.

On a side note, a pretty neat trick for nosing spirits and wine is to smell your own skin to set a neutral baseline, (obviously this wouldn’t work if you use very fragrant soaps or perfumes.) This is helpful when you get overwhelmed with trying to pin down that one elusive note as well.

I think that potentially you could make a food very neutral flavoured, perhaps with gelatin, but if it were to enhance the drink then it would need to have some interesting textures going on, and that would be pretty hard to achieve while still retaining as little flavour as possible. Also, you’re trying to replicate the flavour of saliva, and I just don’t think you can sell that.