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Smoking and Taste for Chefs and Eaters


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I was thinking...

If a chef smokes, wouldn't that SERIOUSLY inhibit his/her ability to produce quality dishes? I mean, tasting is such an integral part of being a chef, and it is well documented that smoking dramatically nulls one's ability to differentiate flavour sensations. Never trust a chef that smokes?

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Oh absolutely - I'm certain I do. I'm wondering though, if their food would be that much better if they didn't? I'm not making judgments - I'm not qualified. I'm looking for people that ARE qualified to do that for me. :)

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I'm skeptical of the idea that a chef would automatically turn out better food if he could taste things more strongly. There's a lot more to it than that, no? Hell, maybe your smoking chef was a supertaster to start with.

Matthew Amster-Burton, aka "mamster"

Author, Hungry Monkey, coming in May

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There's obviously a corelation between smoking and the ability to taste and probably one between the ability to taste and turning out good food, but things are never that simple. It's possible for one smoking chef to have a better sense of taste than another who doesn't smoke. It's also possible that a chef with impaired taste buds might have to try harder, or that his food might be tastier. How good that might be could depend on how strongly flavored you like your food. Beethoven continued to write music after he had gone deaf, so it's possible a chef doesn't have to actually taste what he cooks.

Robert Buxbaum

WorldTable

Recent WorldTable posts include: comments about reporting on Michelin stars in The NY Times, the NJ proposal to ban foie gras, Michael Ruhlman's comments in blogs about the NJ proposal and Bill Buford's New Yorker article on the Food Network.

My mailbox is full. You may contact me via worldtable.com.

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Hmm, very good point, Bux. I suppose at some point a lot of what a chef does relies on instinct that has been developed through years of practice and training.

I wonder (just personally) if some of the top chefs in America smoke? Does anyone have first-hand knowledge? Keller, Trotter, Boulud, Ripert, Collochio?

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Of course, alchohol diminishes taste, too

Hard liquor does, but not wine - Reason why Charlie Trotter does not serve the hard stuff... Wine, unless abused by severe over consumption, actually stimulates the palette and enhance flavors especially if paired properly.

Edited by awbrig (log)
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two of the best chefs i have ever had the privelege to work with were heavy smokers. I have found this to be true about smokers and it was evident in them. Smokers have a tendency to be heavy handed on the salt. Both chefs were more talented then anyone ive ever met and there food was more then great. However every once and a while you would see where smoke came into play. Some things they would try as they walked around teh kicthen they would say that needs more salt or seasoning. When infact in really didn't it was the ciggerette they just smoked that numbed there tastebuds.

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I am so glad someone brought this up - it's always intrigued me. The overwhelming majority of chefs i've worked with smoke. Male, female, it didn't matter - i'd say 80% of them are heavy smokers. Never made sense to me, for the same reasons pixelchef mentioned.

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First, a technical point -- smoking impairs one's sense of smell, not the actual taste buds. But, of course, the two senses are so intertwined that an impairment of the sense of smell would definitely affect one's perception of flavor.

I also know a lot of chefs who smoke -- some occasionally and some heavily -- and I find that they either like relatively spiced and salty foods, or they lean to the other side to the point that their food is noticeably undersalted. I'm not sure what the difference is.

I do wonder, though, how much the smoking behavior derives from a basic oral fixation (no jokes, please). It seems to me that the two might go hand in hand, so that, in effect, those people who get a lot of satisfaction from oral stimulation turn to smoking but are also very gifted in blending tastes, flavors and textures, because, in a very real sense, it turns them on. So maybe the inhibition of a smoker's sense of smell is compensated for by his or her extra sensitivity toward the pleasures of the palate.

Edited by JAZ (log)
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Smokers have a tendency to be heavy handed on the salt.

I agree with this..in fact, I remember many dinners where my chef/ husband would say to me in an aside, " you can tell this guy smokes, there's too much salt".

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Hard liquor does, but not wine - Reason why Charlie Trotter does not serve the hard stuff...  Wine, unless abused by severe over consumption, actually stimulates the palette and enhance flavors especially if paired properly.

Awbrig,

Are you under the impression that there is a different type of alcohol in liquor than there is in wine? :blink:

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I think it's important that us smoking chefs realise our taste is different and adjust accordingly.

And what about the guests that smoke???

In a perfect world, we would cook better if our hours were better, if we had a social life, drank less, didn't smoke, and generally had a better time of it.But then theres the real world :wink:

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First, a technical point -- smoking impairs one's sense of smell, not the actual taste buds. But, of course, the two senses are so intertwined that an impairment of the sense of smell would definitely affect one's perception of flavor.

Well, I've always thought that was the case. But as I've mentioned elsewhere, my partner was born with an impaired sense of smell, and we're damned if we can figure out how it's actually affected his perception of taste. I've seen strong evidence that he really can't smell very much (my infamous snorting-handfuls-of-fresh-crushed-herbs test), but when it comes to describing how things taste he seems to have the same perceptions I do.

The taste/smell link is something I was taught in school years ago and have never questioned, but lately I've been thinking it's been over-emphasised.

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Ones ability to smell is crucial to tasting. Its the most important aspect of tasting.

To see the difference take a bite of food and breath through your nose as you chew and savor it. Then take a bite and hold your nose until you swallow. You will barely taste the second bite at all.

Miss J, I am sure your partner has learned to compensate over the years.

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Yes Ron, I've done the pinch-the-nose comparison - it was part of the school lesson all those years ago. But I think your point about "compensating" is interesting. How does one compensate for something that isn't there (and in some cases never has been)? And in the case of smoking chefs, do they compensate too? Doesn't that contradict some of the comments made about smoking and its effects on smell/taste? How long does one need to have an impaired sense of smell before starting to compensate? And to what degree can someone do that, anyway?

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while i realize that sometimes salt content can stem from a recipe, which is presumably created by a chef, don't chefs have a team of people around them doing the actual cooking and adjusting salt levels? don't a lot of chefs, especially some listed in this thread, not do a whole lot of day to day cooking anyway? and even if they did, wouldn't someone on that team around them, a team presumably comprised of cooks who know taste and flavor, say something like "chef tommy, i know you're stoned off your ass today, but this fucking stock is way too salty"?

in other words, how often is there really a direct correlation btwn one guy who smokes and the level of salt, or balance of flavors, that come out of his kitchen?

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Of course, if all the cooks smoke, well, where are you then? :wink:

I also think that feedback from customers (as to whether something is overseasoned or whatever) would make its way to the kitchen and chefs might adjust accordingly. I don't know, though, having never worked in a kitchen that actually prepares anything.

Jennie

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Next thing you know someone's gonna ask if eating too much spicy food will impair a chef's taste perception. Personally, I smoke, not a ton, but enough. I still taste and salt just fine. You still know what tastes good to you and other people. Yes, maybe immediately after a butt isn't the best time to tell some whiney line cook his Coq au Vin is more peasant than pleasant.

So, let's hear it: better cut down on those serrano peppers or you might not be able to taste.

:wacko:

"Always do sober what you said you'd do drunk. That will teach you to keep your mouth shut." -Ernest Hemingway

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I always like to show up on these threads and remind people about olfaction, which is a little different from smelling. When food is in your mouth, and on its way to your throat, chemical compounds volatilize from it and make their way up into that big cavity, back of your soft palate and up behind your nose. This is encouraged by chewing, or in the case of wine and other liquids, by sloshing it around your mouth. You can almost get your tongue in there if you try (be careful). Up in that cavity is a fantastic set of chemical receptors, way more numerous and smart that the boring old taste buds on your tongue. This is your olfactory gear, and it's responsible for our ability to distinguish flavor notes above and beyond sweet/sour/salt/bitter/meaty. It's why we have problems when we have a cold, and doutbless you can also screw it up by playing with your nose while you eat.

Of course, odours taken in through the nostrils end up in the same place, but there are two different processes going on here which are worth distinguishing.

As for the original question, I suspect heavy smoking was not uncommon among famous French chefs of the past, and indeed recent past. I can offer Alexandre Dumaine as an example of a legendary chef who was a heavy smoker. As for drinking, I assume nine out of ten chefs are tosspots. Yes, I doubt these factors matter nearly as much as knowing how to cook the food in the first place.

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