Photos by author from 2009 dinner at Saam inside The Bazaar, Los Angeles.
Top: Jose Andres's reinterpretation of a Philly Cheese Steak sandwich.
Center: Andres's homage to Chef Adria, the "Olives Ferran Adria."
Bottom: Andres's reinterpretation of a Buffalo Wing (boneless).
In The New Yorker's latest food issue (23 November 2009), Chef Heston Blumenthal contributed a piece about a taste memory from his childhood experiences of a certain duck a l'orange. He remembers having it when his parents, on rare occasions, took the family out to eat at a "pub-restaurant with flock wallpaper, mock-Regency furniture, and a menu full of exotic-sounding international classics...." Though by his own standards now, he admits, he would not consider the dish much good, he savored the memory of this duck because it was tied to strong feelings about the specialness of the family outings, and the theatricality of the food's presentation, at an impressionable age. He went on to address the phenomenon of taste memory more generally, stating, "I am convinced that the foods we find most delicious are the ones that trigger memories and associations."
Chef Blumenthal's musings about taste memories--those remembrances of things past triggered by particular foods like the Proustian madeleine--have plenty of company among the chefs associated with the cutting edge of so-called molecular cuisine. Ferran Adria, Jose Andres, Grant Achatz, Homaro Cantu, Wylie Dufresne, and Will Goldfarb have, to varying degrees, described certain of their dishes as designed, albeit through surprising new forms, to evoke deep-seated memories. Adria, Blumenthal, and Achatz have been the most explicit and in-depth in their discussions of their food in terms of conjuring aromas and flavors tied to significant memories and emotions.
These chefs are right on the mark in understanding that food is a powerful memory trigger. But, if a chef considers memory their culinary tool, they must be pressed further to examine what they're doing. On whose memories is one playing? One's own? The diners'? In interviews or in essays in their cookbooks, some chefs tend to conflate the two, eliding explanations of their own inspirations for particular dishes and suggestions that they are evoking similar memories in their diners. To what extent do chefs expect memories drawn from their own pasts to be shared by their diners?
I am becoming convinced, as I read The Fat Duck Cookbook, that much of Chef Blumenthal's inspiration from the dime-store candies of his British childhood might be lost on this American diner. And I would like to ask him: would it matter? How important, really, is the conjuring of that taste memory in the diner to his culinary artistry? If chefs are indeed serious about using memory as their tool, then greater consideration of the cultural backgrounds of their diners would be in order. But would such consideration even be feasible, or desirable, after all? Must cuisine be turned into an inexact branch of social science?
If, on the other hand, it is not important for chefs to evoke particular memories in their diners, then perhaps the discourse on taste memory should be clarified. The talk of taste memory functions best as an autobiographical account of the chef's own creative inspiration, but is, frankly, hit-or-miss as culinary communication with diners. For every diner brought to tears by the aroma of charred chestnuts, there are hundreds enjoying the same dish for other reasons.
Chefs, what are your intentions concerning taste memory? Unless we diners share your cultural experiences--your regions' native olives, your grandmothers' pot roast, that gussied-up duck a l'orange--we can't eat your pasts.
Copyright Alison Pearlman 2009. All rights reserved.