Tuesday, 3 March 2009

Heston Blumenthal and me

Phased flavours: an idea too far?

In the early part of this decade, I enjoyed a short correspondence with Heston Blumenthal of The Fat Duck. I'd met him through a rather negative review of the Fat Duck I'd posted in March of 2001 on the food website I ran at the time called The Food Store, a forerunner of the countless amateur restaurant review websites that are around today.

There was quite a debate on chowhound.com at the time about the restaurant and Blumenthal posted on the forum to invite anyone who wanted to eat at The Fat Duck as his guest to try and change their minds. I was the only person to accept and had a fantastic meal followed by a pint with Blumenthal at the Hinds Head.



We kept in touch by e mail and the odd phone call. I was still working for BT at the time and spent an awful lot of time when I should have been auditing daydreaming about food. In February 2004, I came up with the idea of Phased Flavours which I thought would be perfect for the Fat Duck and sent Blumenthal the following proposal:

Phased Flavours – Development Proposal

The Theory

Phased flavours is a theoretical proposition which suggests that foods or extracted or synthesised flavours could be presented to the diner in a series of carefully assembled combinations, regulated by the degree to which their flavour profiles match, thereby producing a “phasing” effect on the palate. The combinations would be designed to move in and out of synchronisation in order to short circuit the diner's expectations and create a disorienting effect, quite dissimilar to the usual dining experience.

The Inspiration

The inspiration for this idea comes from the minimalist or serialist music of Philip Glass and specifically his use of circular rhythms. A technique borrowed from classical Indian music, circular rhythms are created by the interaction of two or more cells of different lengths being played and repeated at the same time. For example: pattern A consists of four eighth notes, whereas pattern B contains only three. When the two are played and repeated at once, the two patterns starting eighth notes will sound at the same time every twelve eighths. This produces a phasing effect which Glass describes as “wheels within wheels”, turning at different speeds, falling in and out of synchronisation or phase with each other.



On first hearing minimalist music, the average western listener may well find the experience bewildering, being used to hearing music in 4/4 or ¾ time. It is possible that, without a memory of music played outside of these standard time signatures, the listeners brain may struggle to make sense of the signals it receives from the ear.

It may be that the brain attempts to reconcile what is being heard to what it understands as music and this increases the dizzying effect of the circular rhythm. In a similar way, when a diner encounters Molecular Gastronomy for the first time, they may find the experience jolting and confusing as their usual reference points are taken away from them or manipulated or changed.

Phased flavours would therefore seek to replicate the experience of hearing minimalist music by “playing” combinations of flavours across the palate in order to stimulate the brain to taste in a new way.


Proposed Methods

There are three initial, untested proposed methods of achieving phased flavours:

i) A “baseline” ingredient is combined in series with other ingredients whose flavour profiles match that of the baseline profile to a greater or lesser degree. For example, white chocolate might be paired with caviar, then olives, then capers, then chilli and so on in a series of small bites, with each combination becoming progressively less well matched. The series would then continue, with the combinations then moving closer together in terms of flavour profile match. The diner would work their way through the series in a defined order, thereby experiencing the phased effect on their palate.

ii) Flavours are combined within a single bite (in flavoured paper form perhaps in the manner of WD50’s lemon paper) and engineered to be revealed against the baseline flavour in turn, so that the phasing effect is produced in one hit, resulting in a dramatic impact.

iii) Flavours are suspended in liquids of varying density so that they can be layered. These are built up in a dual straw-like glass tube to mimic the structure of a phrase of minimalist music, for example four flavours repeated three times in one side of the tube and three flavours repeated four times in the other. A diner would then suck up the two columns of layered liquids simultaneously and experience different combinations of flavours in a phased sequence.

Potential Barriers

What we eat and drink can potentially effect and influence the flavours of what we eat next, therefore this may interfere with the desired phasing effect. It may not be possible to predict how the combination of flavours will taste to all diners and therefore the phased effect, should it be practically achievable, may not be experienced by all diners. It may not be economic to produce the required delivery systems/apparatus.

Potential Benefits

If successfully developed, phased flavours may constitute a genuine innovation in the presentation and delivery of flavour in the restaurant setting and could present the diner with a unique and memorable experience. The development of a purely hypothetical idea may move in previously unforeseen and potentially fruitful directions that could deliver results over and above or indeed quite different from those anticipated.

Methodology

A practical methodology of identifying the most appropriate foods, extracted or synthesised flavours would need to be defined, and would probably involve an iterative process of trial and error initially based on known flavour profiles. It would be necessary to confirm that the theoretical phasing effect could in fact be detected by the palate and brain which might be determined from a combination of existing research on the subject and field trials. Finally, it may be necessary to design new delivery methods and systems if those existing are found to be inadequate.

© Andy Lynes 2004

Blumenthal was interested and sent me an e mail the following day (interestingly, his reply hints at the beginnings of the now famous hot and cold tea):

Hello Andy,

Thanks for that. I think that the main issue here will be to try and minimise or at least control the amount of variables and work on something as simple as possible to begin with.

I have forwarded this to three or four friends of mine, a flavourist who writes music (believe it or not), a professor of flavour technology, the head of research of the flavour company that we work with and an experimental psychologist in Oxford.

I will leave them with it for a few days and will think some more on this myself.

In the meantime, I am also trying to work on an adaptation of what is called synthetic heat.
This is when adjacent warm and warm and cold stimuli produce the sensation of heat.

If you want, you could try and have a look at this more on Taylor and Francis health sciences site.

I came across a paper on the desk of a friend of mine called Synthetic heat at mild temperatures (Somatosensory and motor research 2002; 19(2):130-138

I hope that this is enough info.

Basically I wondered whether it would be possible to taste two temps of an ingredient that would both, on their own be varying levels of cold-warm but when you ate them together, they would produce a mild burning sensation.

Speak to you soon

Regards

Heston


I was delighted that Blumenthal had taken the idea seriously and replied:


Heston,

I'm thrilled that you like the idea enough to pass it on to others for further consideration, I'm really glad I didn't let this one slip away! I think that somewhere in all this there is a beautifully simple and elegent solution struggling to get out, but that complexity has a role to play. For instance I was thinking about the way a great wine reveals itself as you drink it, layers of flavour and aromas seems to appear one after the other, the same thing with a properly made civet. I dont know exactly how that could apply to this idea, but it might be useful to capture it anyway,

Andy


The final e mail I still have on record from Blumenthal on the subject, dated 22 February 2004 is as follows:

Hello Andy

Regarding the phased flavours, I do think that the answer to this if there is one will have to be quite simplistic.

There are so many factors and variables involved when looking at the interaction of foods that one could get totally tangled up in this whole idea.

It known that for example, a sip of water after a piece of lemon can make the water taste sweeter. Some residual salt in the mouth when eating or drinking something bitter can reduce this bitterness. A sip of a particular sherry taken just after eating a particular blue cheese on a particular piece of crusty bread will eat very differently when the order is changed around and even things like the type of crunch from the crust will have an effect.

This really is scratching the surface so we will have to wait and see but I reckon that this could prove to be a pretty tricky job.

Anyway, if everything was that easy then we would all be doing it!

Speak to you soon

Heston


In the end, Blumenthal considered the idea too complicated to persue. I had intentions of approaching other cutting edge chefs, but then my personal circumstances changed and in April 2004 I was working hard on my new career as a freelance food writer and didn't have time to follow the idea up further.

I'm still not sure if the idea was utterly ridiculous or is the one that got away. It will be interesting to see if the sort of techniques Blumenthal applies during his new Channel 4 series Feasts that starts tonight will be quite as out there as Phased Flavours. I'm sure he'll have outdone himself as usual.

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