Thomas Keller and Hiro Sone
On Monday, I attended a symposium on umami called “New Frontiers of Taste”; it was organized in honor of the 100th year anniversary of Japanese Dr. Kikunae Ikeda’s discovery of umami—which is popularly known as the fifth taste. (The others being salty, sweet, bitter and sour.)
It was one of those hotel conferences that both inspired me and frustrated me. Five academics—including master of wine Tim Hanni, Gary Beauchamp, the director of the Monell Chemical Senses Center, and local nice-guy, food scientist Harold McGee—sat on a panel discussing where this mysterious umami (often thought of as a savory flavor) comes from molecularly, and what foods it's found in (think aged and fermented things like fish sauce and Parmesan, as well mackerel, tomatoes—especially the seeds—and cabbage). There was lots of talk of mouthfeel and of salivating.
For me, the frustrating part of all the umami talk boiled down to the same reason I’m never going to be an academic (sorry, Dad). Generally speaking, I don’t care to analyze why food tastes like it does as much as revel in the experience. So much of cooking is instinctual.
Funnily enough, French Laundry chef Thomas Keller—who along with Hiro Sone (Ame and Terra) and Kunio Tokuoka (a renowned chef in Kyoto), cooked the umami-heavy lunch—echoed my thoughts. I sat down with both Keller and Sone for a brief chat about their thoughts on this elusive fifth flavor and then went home that night and made one of my favorite umami-laden comfort foods: pasta with canned tuna in olive oil, capers, green olives, tomatoes and yes, Parmesan cheese. (You uptight Italia-philes: Don’t tell me fish and cheese don’t go together.) It was downright mouthwatering.
Has understanding umami changed the way you cook?
Thomas Keller: It’s not a driving force for me. Pretty much what we’re doing today reflects what we were doing yesterday. The knowledge is good to have, but is it going to impact the way I cook? No.
Does umami seem like a flavor to you?
Keller: Umami represents an emotional connection. Sweet, salty, sour, bitter—they can all be part of a umami.
Hiro Sone: It’s something that satisfies you. Some things you eat with your brain. Some things you eat with your soul. Umami you eat with your soul—it’s like, ‘Oh, that tastes good!’
So when you cook, your thought process is like, This dish needs a little more salt and maybe a touch more yummy?
[hysterical laughter at my funny joke]
Is umami something that molecular gastronomists think about more than other chefs?
Keller: You’re on a slippery slope. Everybody thinks about [cooking] from a molecular point of view.