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Perfume and Cooking: Aesthetic Practice of Cookery

Authors:
Perfume and Cooking
Anton Studer
When a chef and a perfumer work together, this can result in a riveting
dialogue on aromas and the translation of moods into taste and smell. Even
before we met, chef Stefan Wiesner had used perfume to accentuate his
creations a few times using the same herbs and spices as in Le Male by Jean
Paul Gaultier in an ice cream. In a radio feature Wiesner then mentioned
that he would one day like to work with a perfumer. Since I had grown
up next his home village of Escholzmatt it made sense to volunteer my
services. And that is how our shared story began.
We debated, inspired and analyzed one another. My knowledge of chem-
istry– and to a certain extent also of physics– helped me to better understa nd,
and in some cases even just begin to understand, the common processes
used in cooking. The incentive for this kind of dialogue was to discover just
how the other person thinks and to open one another’s eyes. An encounter
between a perfumer and a chef is a meeting of two dierent worlds, each
one new to the other. Perfumers think and work quite dierently from chefs,
since we are merely able to examine our raw materials and creations in
bottles, on scent strips and ultimately– and most significantly– on skin. A
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perfumer spends two to four years of his career by simply studying, mem-
orizing raw materials, without actually creating anything. Later he creates
simple accords by using two or three components. The focus hereby is not
on creating a masterpiece, but on learning and gathering knowledge.
Smell is not taught in schools the way singing or drawing are. It is
therefore very important to train the sense of smell– perfumers learn this
at special schools, but graduates will then always also have to undergo a
perfume house’s own internal training courses.
Right from the beginning, fantasy is an important “component” of the
perfumer’s work. And this involves smelling and tasting without seeing at
the same time first and foremost. This “blind” tasting and smelling stimu-
lates fantasy and fosters the imagination. Few people are able, for example,
to identify orange oil or mandarin oil on a scent strip, because the accompa-
nying peel or fruit is not visible. In our day-to-day lives, our sense of smell
relies strongly on our vision. Perhaps when smelling “with their eyes”, very
few would recognize lavender in a yellow-colored shower gel, while a violet
shower gel might prompt an immediate identification of lavender. Colors
and shapes help us to perceive and recognize odours and flavors better.
This in turn helps us to understand the complexity and the multifaceted
flavor of fruits, vegetables or meat. One example is mandarins, where we
can discover facets of lime and orange blossom, amongst other things.
A chef is far less likely to conduct extensive studies of all his possible
food ingredients than a perfumer is. During the chef’s training, he
prepares or helps prepare meals right from the beginning. Right from the
start he sees how his dishes will look, what forms, colours and tastes will
characterise the meal. Scents are everywhere during the cooking process.
Starting by peeling, chopping of vegetables and fruits, later fr ying, stewing,
boiling them, are resulting in complex odour accords. An interesting point
here is that everything one perceives in the air is no longer in the dish. It
has evaporated.
Taste is perceived via the tongue and nose. The typical aromas of meat,
fish, nuts, fruits, etc. are identified via the olfactory organ. Some scientific
studies show that the proportion of scent involved in taste is up to 80percent.
In turn, knowledge or recognition of scents helps a chef to “discern” dishes
more accurately, i. e. to perceive the full complexity of the culinary creation
better and more intensely. This gives him ideas on how new combinations
might ultimately work, how they can be developed further, or about finding
out why the dish he has created is harmonious. In a pear, for example, we
can taste, smell facets of quince, cognac, lily-of-the-valley and freshly cut
grass. Recognizing these facets of the scent accord ‘pear’ requires years of
acquired knowledge and precise analysis.
In contrast to a customer who gives the perfumer detailed instructions
for a perfume, cooperation with a chef is very dierent. Stefan Wiesner
generally begins with a dish, with the intention of then creating variations
of this in smaller or greater combinations. What might go well together,
what can be used to complement the dish, which reductions can be made
and to what? All this requires a great deal of work and plenty of trial and
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error. Often, as the dish progresses, one notices that one or the other com-
ponent no longer creates the eect one is actually seeking.
The common features in the work of the chef and the perfumer lie in
the experimental testing and approximation, and the constant sampling of
new possibilities. One has to simply try out new things – they cannot be
developed according to a reference book, but they can be an excellent start
or source of inspiration.
But the dierences bet ween the chef and the perfumer are also obvious:
the chef needs to perform outstandingly each and every day, always
creating something afresh. Every day he has dierent guests, each guest
expects the same excellent dish, and perhaps will even come back because
of it. Dishes appear to be far more complex than perfume. They have to
be served at specific temperatures and with specific textures; smell and
even taste are just two aspects. Visual appeal is part of the experience of
eating, so the colors in a dish have to go well together and the presentation
must be appetizing. The tongue wants to be indulged by sweet, sour, bitter,
salty and umami, whilst the nose likes to be seduced by roasting flavors,
dierent fruits, vegetables, spices and herbs. A perfume on the other hand
is developed, sold and then produced in quantities of millions, without the
perfumer continuing to be involved in the distribution process. He does
not hear what customers and consumers say about his perfume at the sales
counter, how they criticize it or comment on it. At most, he might see a
bottle on display in a store now and then, but his work essentially ends with
the basic formula.
For Stefan Wiesner’s perfumes, which were named after ancient runes
to reflect his interest in their meaning, we initially sought scents whose
accords could easily be incorporated into dishes. ‘Bay Rum’ is an old classic,
developed in the Caribbean. The main components are all native to the
region: rum, orange (peel) and West Indian bay leaves (not to be confused
with common culinary laurel leaves, one bay leaf is sucient for ten liters
of stock). With these three components, Stefan flavored/modified a fish
dish, and they are also the main accord of the perfume Fehu (meaning
fruitfulness or genesis). The perfume Sowilo (sun, Kundalini) was inspired
by a classic Eau de Cologne, supplemented with basil, cardamom, caraway,
lavender, rosemary and thyme (all of which are aromas also often used in
cooking). Gebo (gift, harmony), the third perfume, is inspired by what is
probably the most elegant and luxurious theme in perfumery, a chypre.
The chypre is the “fur coat” or “diamond necklace” of perfumes. It is not
worn every day, but only for special occasions. I think it is a great addition
to Fehu and Sowilo and thus forms a beautiful bridge to perfumery. All
three perfumes do not dier from industrially-produced scents.
The development or creation of a scent can take various forms. One
can draw on works from the past (known as ‘formulas’ or ‘recipes’) that fit
with the idea or brief, and often a new scent is based on one that has been
successful in the market. Generally, the marketing also describes precisely
what impression or desire is invoked in the customer. There are new raw
materials or new themes that can be incorporated.
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To get everything just right– top notes, middle notes and end notes– a
great number of attempts is often needed and this work can be frustrating
at times. It is a question of patience; over 95percent of our experiments
end up in the bin. But once the work is complete, the sense of achievement
is magnificent.
This means the first impression a perfume gives, the top note, should
immediately draw the consumer under its spell. The middle or heart note is
crucial in defining the character of the perfume, as well as for the “scent”
you perceive when someone wearing it walks past you. This part of the
scent is also influenced by the end notes, the fixing. These are responsible
less for the character of the scent than its enduring nature. Since they have
a low volatility, they evaporate slowly and therefore stay on the skin for
longer. However, an overly high proportion of fixers can negatively aect
the intensity and radiance of the perfume to the extent that the customer
gains the impression of it being weak and not lingering.
That said, let’s get back to the cooking: not all aromas found in the
kitchen can be translated into pure scents. Milk, chard, lime and bay leaf
are all things I can interpret in perfumery, but pig’s head is trickier, possibly
with aldehyde notes for the fattiness. I would think sardines simply cannot
be interpreted in perfume form. Aside from meat and fresh fish, pretty
much anything can be interpreted as a scent composition. Whether there
are consumers who would be interested in such scents, though, might be
doubtful. For example, to recreate a simple dish like pizza as a perfume
for candles, I would begin by analyzing the individual components. I can
create cheese, oregano and tomato; representing the pizza dough, on the
other hand, is quite a challenge. The most dicult thing is finding the
balance that makes it possible to smell all the components clearly. Thus
hot, sharp spiciness cannot be smelt, because it causes a stimulation of the
pain nerves and is not a smell on its own.
Scent has always accompanied cooking right from the beginning, even
when humans cooked their food in caves on open fires. You can even smell
whether it is pork or beef sizzling on the grill. Scent was always present,
but oftentimes overlooked.
However, for some years now there has been an increased interest in
a pairing between perfume and dishes. Perfuming the air whilst eating,
however, is somewhat dicult. It can mislead, interfere and in fact be very
unpleasant. What does work well though, is if various aromas are sprayed
in the air during consumption of, for example, weakly salted mashed
potato. This leads to a more sophisticated perception of the mashed potato.
If, on the other hand, like Stefan Wiesner you aim to recreate a perfume
in the kitchen, then the dishes should be based on the perfume’s top notes.
The composition and ingredients of a perfume are often indicated in its
publicity and marketing material. It is therefore relatively easy to identify
the main components of a scent. You can then try to combine the herbs,
spices, etc. to create a harmonious mixture in order to subsequently incor-
porate this into a mashed potato, an ice cream, a dessert cream, a soup
or a sauce. Of course the finished product should taste like a dish and
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not like a perfume, so the components should be used in moderation. It
sounds pretty easy this far. However, if you want to get more complex a
little imagination is required, so you can use coriander leaves to simulate
the aldehyde notes, apricots as freesia or feta cheese for the costus root.
We perfumers also have a secret weapon, a gas chromatograph (GC) with
a mass spectrometer (MS), abbreviated to GC/MS. This is my “brain”, so
to speak, because I use it to analyze essential oils. I can clarify structures,
check whether suppliers are selling counterfeit products, analyze market
products, see what makes a product so successful, etc. The GC/MS is not
however limited to the analysis of perfumes (it is thanks to this gadget that
I have “insider info”, secrets or new raw materials the perfumer might have
preferred to keep to himself, without informing customers or marketing),
but can also be used for rare or new herbs and mixtures of herbs. A few
years ago I tried to produce a list under the title “foodstu compositions”.
That also shows that cooks and chefs have always come up with combina-
tions of herbs, spices etc., in which scent plays an important or a primary
role. Curry, for example, is centuries old.
A primary concern in the kitchen is to avoid “over-composing”– i. e.
not make the whole thing so complex that it is no longer possible to per-
ceive a character or the character is simply too boring and inexpressive.
Hence a tomato soup must remain a tomato soup and not become a basil
soup. A basil soup does not necessarily require tomatoes. Thus Stefan
Wiesner and I began calling herbs and spices ‘modifiers’, as is common in
perfumery. Modifiers are used to make creations appear more beautiful,
radiant, intense or interesting. They are added sparingly enough for a clear
eect to be perceived, but without it being possible to actually discern the
fact. So-called “creatives” often struggle to contain themselves, adding an
endless amount of dierent modifiers and thereby achieving almost thor-
oughly disappointing results. For me, this has nothing to do wit h complexity
or creativity, but rather with the fear of forgetting something or avoidance
of precision. Here, the precision is precisely what is interesting, and this is
where Stefan Wiesner is a master. A perfume always “represents” some-
thing, tells a story, allows us to dream, transports us to the seaside or the
mountains, or gives us a sense of cold/warmth, just like a taste composition
can. It combines certain themes, complements them or creates contrasts.
In my view as a perfumer, it is important to make clear to the person
cooking just how complex the tastes of the individual foodstus are, how
they can contribute to the complexity of dishes and in what way this stim-
ulates the variety of combinations and the level of creativity. That is why
blind tasting and the practice and discovery of scents are so important,
including – and indeed precisely– for laypersons at home. But the most
important thing here, I believe, it’s more fun being a gourmand than an
analyser.
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