A few months ago there was some buzz about the idea of being a super taster. It can be defined anatomically as an increased concentration of tastebuds. Some people got really excited about being super tasters, as if tasting things were some sort of super power. When I was sick a few months ago I realized that the whole idea is completely absurd.
Taste relates to those things we all learned about in elementary school – salty, sweet, bitter, sour and arguably a few other sensations. And we’re all taught that most of what we perceive as “taste” is through the sense of smell. But it’s hard to believe until you completely lose or alter that sense. The New Yorker article about Grant Achatz alludes to it, and I experienced it first hand. Having a stuffy nose is pretty much a permanent state of being for me, but it seems that my sense of smell is generally strong enough to overcome that. So when I got really sick there was a period of several days where even though my nose was clear something had occurred that prevented me from being able to smell anything at all. I would eat a cookie and all I could taste was sweet without any of the complexities of that cookie, or it challenged my notion of the taste of a cookie. I would eat a bite of hummus and the garlic would power through, but I mostly tasted acidity and a touch of salt, but not much else. Everything tasted wrong and a lot of times awful.
So super tasting, not so much. Super smelling? Much better. Although the ability to super smell does not guarantee the ability to discern or taste better. It’s about your brain being capable of making out the differences and identifying them. You can train your brain through repeated exposure and build up a sort of olfactory library, much like wine tasters slowly begin to train themselves. But just having super senses does not make anyone naturally better at “tasting.”
The first time I spoke to Chef Eric Ziebold was when I was trying to get to the bottom of the issue of the Parker Rolls. From that experience, I discovered what a nice and humble guy he is. As we started an interview series on DCist, I knew that he would definitely be one of the first chefs that I would want to interview. He definitely has the picture in mind. During our interview, he told me that he doesn’t own a TV; he doesn’t have enough time to watch TV. He indicated that he doesn’t understand what other people do with all their free time after working 9-5 jobs, probably watch TV. He doesn’t really keep up too much with all the internet chatter either. From talking to him, I get the impression that he wouldn’t know what to do with himself if he couldn’t keep busy as a chef. He seems like a dedicated soul who sees the bigger picture and is intent on building his knowledge base to the benefit of his diners. I know that the meal that I had at the Lounge was a reflection of that.
What’s very striking is that he is intent on touching off emotions very much the way his former TFL colleague, Grant Achatz, describes in the recent New Yorker profile. However, the methods by which the two of them go about it are completely different. Even Thomas Keller discusses similar ideas in his interview on Charlie Rose. Is the desire to strike certain emotional chords with people what separates the greats from the humdrum? It hits not only the five senses, but some greater deeper intuition. Perhaps that is why I appreciate the food in these restaurants, but still feel slightly less satisfied because the more Western-style food strikes my Chinese food-tempered palate in a different way. And I seriously doubt anyone at a four-star restaurant is going to be feeding me some rice and peanut butter combo or Velveeta that will set me to tearing up. You can’t win them all.
Anyway… this is what y’all are possibly looking for. Some more complete paragraphs from my interview with Eric Ziebold:
If you’re grounded enough in what you’re do you can take inspiration from just about anything. The inspiration for the Parker House rolls was the discussion of bread service, and we didn’t know what we wanted, but we wanted it to be warm bread. To make a long story short, I was in Georgetown and there were these leather Italian cigar boxes. That was what made me think of the Parker rolls. We’re going to bake them to order and proof them to order so when you take them out of the box, you have to pull them apart. And that was the whole thing, I wanted people to have to pull them apart. Where did I get the idea from, and I saw this box and something clicked. You don’t need to copy it. It’s not copy and paste, instead you get inspired by it. Instead of I’ve had something like this at Taillevent or something like this in Thailand. You go oh this is something really good and it can conjure up some emotions. and you can conjure up a connection instead of I had this dish at Taillevent or Bangkok, instead this reminds me of something. Certainly some people have taken some inspiration from CityZen. And I’m alright with it. I’m more than alright with it. If you’re going to take something I’ve done at my restaurant and adapt it at your restaurant that’s something interesting for me to see. If we’re looking at a Picasso, if probably makes you feel different from the way it makes me feel. I like dialog and being able to talk about something. And I think that’s a way to have a conversation about food.
It’s been a while, but I’ll be back soon. Definitely will have more to say about the Ziebold interview. I temporarily leave you with this awesome comic strip from Patches. It reminds me of my childhood.
This interview with Eric Ziebold went up on DCist today. Overall, I am happy that I managed to get it published at the length that it is at. I’m posting a few paragraphs that were omitted from the article. These are some unedited comments that really show the scope of what Ziebold is doing with his suppliers, and a little more about who he is. I’ll probably come back to this at some point to discuss all this in greater detail.
On street food:
When I travel I always go for street food. I want to see it in its most unrefined state, because with most cultures it starts with peasant food. And then it’s refine, refine, refine until you get to haute cuisine. So many times it’s an adaptation or interpretation of something that was a tradition or something that people had attachment to and that’s what made it special. So now you do your own interpretation of that. And you update it to how people live, eat and think today. To your personality and those that are dining. If you’re going to Thailand do you want to see someone’s interpretation of someone’s interpretation or do you want to see the real thing? It’s like if you’re a painter and you want to copy a Picasso. You want to copy the original. That’s why I eat an enormous amount of street food. A friend of mine who cooks for the Four Seasons in Thailand said the best cooks are the street cooks: it’s some man or woman who is 45 years old who has been making this dish for 25 years. If you’re doing the same thing for 25 years, it’s going to be REALLY good. Whereas if you go for a cook in a restaurant, you rotate through the stations. So you’re trying to do all these different things instead of learning one thing really well. Continue reading