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The 'Sweetening' of Cuisine

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#1 Michael Laiskonis

Michael Laiskonis
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Posted 03 March 2003 - 11:29 PM

I appreciate your time with us Grant, as the issues being discussed here are difficult to find in the 'traditional' food media...

In my own research, cooking, and dining experiences, I've noticed an encroaching 'sweetening' of savory cuisine. Conversely, desserts are seeing the integration of more traditionally 'savory' products, i.e. vegetables, salts, etc. I see this particularly in the work of the 'innovators'- Adrià, Gagnaire, Passard, Conticini, Blumenthal, and pastry chefs like Butron. It is my view that chefs are now looking at their ingredients as base flavors- considering first that ingredient's acidity, sweetness, etc. and simply plugging it into a theoretical equation, resulting in interesting new combinations. While I don't necessarily think it is a negative development, I think this trend can have an affect on taste memory, physiological matters of taste perception, appetite, wine pairing, course progression, etc. Perhaps a "devil's advocate" view might suggest that today's use of sugar, in its various guises, is an all too easy way to enhance flavors- analogous to the overuse of cream and butter in the past. What are your thoughts?

And as the dessert course often becomes less sweet, or even if it simply toys with our perception and association of certain ingredients, does this represent a radical new approach to traditional multi-course menus, or is it simply a natural and gradual evolution?
Michael Laiskonis
Pastry Chef
New York

#2 chefg

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Posted 04 March 2003 - 12:57 AM


The swapping of ingredients and techniques from pastry to savory are certainly becoming more popular. These are techniques that we support at Trio and it has greatly shaped the food we serve. You strike several interesting points.

Starting with course progression, I ask why we should start savory and end sweet? Some say sweetness deadens the palate and supresses the appetite, I don't agree. We actually start most of the meals at Trio with a sweeter style amuse, I find it appetite stimulating as opposed to supressing. We are trying to break to stereotypes about coursing and the typical outline they follow. Cuisine is taking large steps forward at a rapid pace, as the food itself becomes more complex so will the experience they provide when linked together to form a meal. That is why this food is so exciting is because it actually defies comparison. That is why it is so contraversial, people can no longer compare apples to apples. Each experience is their first. How long will we follow the model set up 100 +years ago? Remember when the use of meat to garnish fish, and drinking red wine with fish were taboo? Those are two good examples of the blurring of traditional coursing. Does a meal have to follow a straight line? Can there be ups and downs within the duration of a meal. Now we have jumped again...further, with the use of invert sugars, chocolates, sweet spices and pastry techniques in savory food. All of this complexity requires a tightrope walk for chefs. The rate of failure is undoubtably higher, but when done correctly the results are exciting. As I mentioned earlier most menus are protien driven. Most people expect meat at the end of the savory courses. But what if the fish dishes are heavier? What if the vegetables dishes are heavier? I believe to a certain degree tradition must be overtaken by intellect, expectations reworked, and open mindedness brought to the front.

This may be of interst to you especially. It seems we have the most resistance to pastry dishes utilizing savory ingredients and techniques. If we use chocolate with lobster people love it, if we use nori in dessert people are less reseptive. This may tie into what you mentioned about flavor memory being obscurred. People seem to gravitate towards familar flavors in dessert. If people sense they are on a familar progression, sweet being at the end of the meal they may revolt against the mixing of the two because now they have lost all perception of the meal. It would be like traveling to a destination only to find out after a length of time...you are lost? What if that progression assumption was erased? Sweet items came into the progression periodically, or in small sequences and meal was made homogenous by the stratigic placement of the dishes themselves, wine pairing, transitional courses, intermezzos, to makes a rolling hills picture rather than a typical peak. The top being the point from savory to sweet.

I find this question very interesting and I would like to come back to it tomarrow if possible. Alot more can be said. Thank you.
Grant Achatz

#3 Michael Laiskonis

Michael Laiskonis
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Posted 05 March 2003 - 12:49 AM

I believe to a certain degree tradition must be overtaken by intellect, expectations reworked, and open mindedness brought to the front.

I agree with you on this, as I'm sure you would agree, and as your experience would suggest, that only with a knowledge of the 'rules' are we successfully able to break them! Our generation just may be the one that casts a new mold- especially if we do it for the right reasons- through equal parts good taste, continued respect for ingredients, a sense of playfulness, and solid science.

In terms of the ever growing 'sweetness' of food, I've experienced it not only expressed at Gagnaire and Arpège (I've dined multiple times at both), but more recently here in the US, at the likes of Clio, Aquavit, Union Pacific, Blue Hill, and Café Boulud, or Toqué in Montreal. Even Takashi's food at Tribute reveals complex layers of sweetness. Apart from its role in the flow of this 'new' tasting menu, from where do you think this subtle sweetness evolved? I find it interesting, but also delicious in the right hands!

Back to tasting menus, I like the idea of 'rolling hills'! To cite a couple of examples from my meal at Trio nearly a year ago, I did think the subtle sweetness of the 'ice cream sandwich' was a perfect amuse, especially paired with the sherry. Likewise, the 'spiced water' and 'oysters and beer' (was this the course paired with sake? - very cool), as well as the 'hot/cold coconut' demonstrate your intentions of creating such peaks and valleys, even within a given course!

This may be of interest to you especially. It seems we have the most resistance to pastry dishes utilizing savory ingredients and techniques.

True, but I think with the 'sweetness' spread throughout a given menu, the challenge for the pastry chef is to further explore subtler flavors and textures, or simply, as a reknowned French pastry chef told me, use sugar as one uses salt- as a seasoning. As I mentioned, we're really beginning to look at ingredients blindly, disregarding all but the basic building blocks of flavor, then restructuring them into something familiar again. Salt with chocolate or caramel is widely acknowledged as a new classic, while caviar and white chocolate, or olives and chocolate, or a soy sauce based caramel, or bacon with a pedro ximenez reduction, are deemed 'revolutionary'! (The nori-pear-chocolate dessert I tasted at Trio was among my favorites, by the way.) The general dining public may long resist such thinking, and that 'tightrope' can be mighty scary at times... but as I always say, to anyone who'll listen, it is a very exciting time to be a pastry chef...

I am, of course, interested to hear what else you have to say on this...
Michael Laiskonis
Pastry Chef
New York