There is no conception in man's mind
which hath not at first, totally or in parts,
been begotten upon by the organs of sense.
---Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, 1651

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The Chefs Palate

On Friday we're headed from Ithaca over to Hyde Park and my old Alma Mater, The Culinary Institute of America.  I'm giving a faculty workshop on why Sensory Science is important to chefs and teaching some basic techniques that chefs can use for their own taste tests or research.   The second seminar of the day will be to a group of students in the brand new Ecolab theater.  My goal is to help cheflings understand exactly what food science is, what sensory science is, and why there's an advantage to having a strong understanding of both.  The second half of the student lecture is loosely based on The Tactile Symphony, my last post here. 

 There's not a lot of research on Chefs, but there is some research on what's considered "experts" vs. "consumers" in taste vs. flavor perception.  An expert is someone who has had some sort of training, formal or not.  For example sommeliers and other wine professionals tend to be considered experts.  Their perception of wine is often vastly different than that of consumers, and, interestingly enough, is as much a practice in language learning as it is in flavor recognition. 

In 2006 I designed a taste test to compare the palates of Chefs vs. Consumers.  My specific question was to look at whether or not chefs, as a whole, had good agreement on how to classify 10 different fresh squeezed citrus juices (orange and grapefruit) compared to consumers' agreement.  I hypothesized that due to the training chefs had that they would agree better - I was completely wrong.  The chefs were all over the place and disagreed completely on how to classify the juices.  The consumers agreed well (published here).

So what was going on?  Our revised hypothesis is that consumers (i.e. the general population) have a rather simple look at orange juice.  They may recognized nuaced flavor differences between juices, but primary perceptions are "oranginess", sweet, and acidic.  Chefs, on the other hand, do recognize prominently nuaces in the juices.  And not only that, each chef attaches a different importance to the attributes they perceive.  Thus, in a classification task where prominent attributes prevail, chefs are all over the place, whereas consumers are not.

In the above picture, two chefs at the CIA are performing a brief survey on the juices to indicate the strength of 10 different attributes present in the juices.  In these simple "line scales," they rate how "sour" the juice is from 0 to 10, how "orangy," "pulpy," and so on.  I'll describe the details of this type of experiment in a subsequent post; the entire 2 part classification task is prominently featured in my dissertation research. 

What is the implication for the culinary world that chefs perceive foods in a different way than consumers?  On the plus side, it allows chefs to use their nuanced palates to illuminate to diners certain flavors and textures in food that consumers may not have noticed.  Thomas Keller, the chef at The French Laundry (among others)  famously presents multiple types of salt with his foie course, each with nuanced differences.  I think its beautiful, but my father wouldn't get it.  Wielded poorly, however, chefs can become too wrapped up in the concept of "The Chefs Palate," that "the diner just doesn't understand" and can even get angry if, perhaps, the diner requests salt for his soup while the chef believes that salty Parmesan cheese crouton counterbalance the delicately under-seasoned broth.


  1. So am I annoying the chef when I ask for pepper?

  2. Depends on the chef, and the level of restaurant.

    Genetic variation in both number of taste receptors and expression of odorant receptors says the chef has no right to be annoyed, as long as he's a decent chef.

    I'd say if they do get annoyed, then they feel they have something to prove. That said, I generally trust chefs at high end restaurants and rarely add salt or pepper. We did see a server happily get a salt shaker for a guest at The French Laundry.

    At your fast casuals (Chilis, etc.), its a crapshoot. And depending on the demographics, some places intentionally under salt - think if you're across the street from a nursing home. We used to undersalt for the large banquets of retirees bus'ing around the Hudson Valley.

  3. Hopefully I am not yet a nursing home target for chefs. I am 36 tomorrow, however.

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