When a Chef Can't Taste His Food


Photo by Lara Kastner

To browse the other posts in Grant Achatz's eight-part series on wine pairings, click here.

CHOCOLATE passionfruit, lemongrass, soy

In the fall of 2007 I lost all sense of taste perception due to radiation therapy I was undergoing for stage four tongue cancer. I was told from the beginning by everyone on the medical team that they were going to take me low, almost kill me, while trying to rid the cancer. This included weeks of intensive targeted radiation treatment on my tongue, jaw, and neck that would burn the inside of my mouth and throat like a scorching sunburn. The skin covering my tongue and throat peeled off like sheets of wrapping paper, taking with it my taste buds. Of all of the side effects of treatment, this is what I feared the most. If I could not taste, could I really be a chef?

The absence of this sense started slowly as treatment began, but within three weeks I could taste nothing. I recall returning to Alinea after a radiation session one afternoon and entering the kitchen like any other day. Upon I arriving at my station, one of the chef de partie came up with a beige-colored sauce on a spoon. "Chef, is this what you were looking for?" he asked.

This happens continuously whenever we introduce a new dish. We refine and refine until the recipe and plating are second nature, tasting constantly along the way. I grabbed the spoon, put it in my mouth, swished it around, and winced slightly from the pain. But that was not the issue--I was used to the pain by this point. I looked at the chef, checking his face to make sure it was not some sort of joke, and then grabbed another spoon and took a second taste out of the pot.

I grabbed a pinch of salt, put it directly on my tongue, and it tasted--no, felt--like slowly dissolving sand. And just like that my sense of taste was gone.

I called over to Dave Beran, one of my sous chefs at the time, and said, "Chef, give this a taste and tell me what you think." A few on the line noticed and worried briefly that something was amiss. He hurried over, tasted it, shrugged and said, "Seems fine to me. Maybe a bit more salt." I shrugged, tossed the spoon into the bain marie and said, "Seems fine to me."

And I panicked.

My mind raced at a million miles per hour. I grabbed 5 tasting spoons, walked over as casually as possible to the stove and randomly tasted a few of the pots simmering away. Nothing. I grabbed a pinch of salt, put it directly on my tongue, and it tasted--no, felt--like slowly dissolving sand. And just like that my sense of taste was gone. It felt like one day it was there, the next it had vanished completely.

I had no idea how to react, other than to try to mask it to the kitchen staff, at least for the time being. I called together the sous chefs in the front dining room and said, "As I go through this treatment I am going to need to begin relying more on you guys to taste the nuances in the food." Dave looked at me and knew the truth. He had seen it in my eyes. I could not taste, and he knew it.

It was a precarious time for me to say the least, and I found myself relying on my sense of smell to guide me through the creative process. As I mentioned, my time at La Jota proved that scent was an incredibly important component to taste. Strangely, as a chef I had overlooked this for years. The fact is, wine is made solely from grapes, yet we have the ability to detect a plethora of flavors on the palate. Cherry, currants, chocolate, hay, and even dirt find their way into tasting notes; of course none of these items is actually in the bottle.

One afternoon in December of 2007, my sense of taste long gone, a purveyor brought us some amazing Shoyu straight from Japan. The ink black soy had an incredibly complex nose of earth, caramel, seawater, coffee, and even, to my surprise, dark chocolate. I immediately reached for the 72 percent chocolate and gave it a whiff. Sure enough, nuances of brine, molasses, brown spices and yes...soy sauce were present. The seemingly odd pairing of dark chocolate and soy sauce made sense only because the two focal ingredients shared a similar aroma profile.

Once the two ingredients were assembled on the plate, their affinity became even more logical. The salinity of the soy balanced the sweetness of the sugary elements in the dessert while counteracting the bitterness of the dark chocolate. From there we honed in on other ingredients indigenous from Asia to play the supporting roles such as passion fruit for a bright acidity, and kaffir lime leaves for the herbaceous/floral notes.

Chocolate desserts are some of the more challenging wine-pairing exercises if taken seriously. In some cases the obvious choices like Port or Banyuls work well enough, but very often their tannic natures clash with the tannin level of the particular chocolate in play. We find that matching chocolate desserts requires trial-and-error tasting sessions, with at least as much emphasis on finding wines of complementary texture as flavor and, of course, sweetness.

This particular dessert brings into play such elements as the saltiness of the soy and the acidity of the passion fruit. A very sweet wine would come off as cloying. The Moscato Rosa from the Abbazia di Novacella did the trick nicely. It is only mildly sweet, has fine light tannins, bright clean acidity, rich berry flavors, and a fascinatingly floral aroma.

Everyone who has eaten a meal at Alinea knows that aroma is an important aspect of the experience. But when I look back at the period when my taste was lost, it takes on even more significance. Without the ability to taste, dishes were still created. Aroma became the sole creative impetus.

To browse the other posts in Grant Achatz's eight-part series on wine pairings, click here.