How much do your taste buds rely on your memories and emotions? For Christina Tosi of Momofuku Milk Bar and Eric Ripert of Le Bernardin, two chefs making waves in our current food scene, they have everything to do with the everyday, and have become the starting point for both their culinary innovations and careers in food.
Brought together by moderator Christine Muhlke, executive editor of Bon Appétit, along with FIAF (French Institute: Alliance Française), the event culminated a series of talks on flavor, and people who think about food in innovative ways. Both chefs, Ripert and Tosi, discussed, recalled, and recollected memories, tastes, emotions and feelings, and connected them to their current culinary practices, evolution of their careers, and obsessions with food.
Tosi, a dessert chef, recalling cookie dough and sour-cream-and-onion chips as some of her earliest food memories, and Ripert, a French chef remembering both rustic and intricate Mediterranean influences, connected in each’s quest to create an emotional response in the eater; a creative process that can’t be taught, but one that heavily relies on the fusion of learned technique with emotion. “Eating creates emotions and flavors and memories in your mind,” explained Ripert, “but technique by itself is nothing. It needs the emotional power behind it.”
The two chefs hail from starkly opposite backgrounds, Tosi from what she termed “low-brow” America, an already-picky eater savoring junk food and everything prepackaged, and Ripert from a slightly more refined French home, experiencing every meal with four courses and consequent mid-meal changes in china. Yet despite these cultural differences, it was intriguing what both chefs held in common, and on how many levels they seemed to connect throughout the conversation.
Both currently working at achieving “umami” in their kitchens, a Japanese term understood slightly differently for all, but as Ripert so eloquently put it, translating literally from Japanese as “yummy,” each strives to understand and recreate that indescribable “wow effect” in each of their creations. Also carrying what is deemed as an “earthy” taste, a savory feeling or state of mind created by a combination of ingredients, this aspect can be a real challenge to achieve.
Yet both chefs cling to their backgrounds to help them get there. Their earliest childhood memories serve as starting points for the feeling associated with their foods, and the tastes they hope to either impart to others or build off of in the kitchen.
“Your experiences ultimately end up in a variety of flavors,” said Ripert, when asked of the influence of his travels. While he joked that every trip makes him want to become a chef of that country, Tosi helped explain that despite the intrusion and collective influence of all that is around you, in the melting pot that is New York City, and all other travels, it is the basics, your roots, in her case described as “those staple pantry ingredients,” that take the base for everything one creates. “The flavors are in my mind,” explained Ripert, comparing them to notes in the head of a musician, or colors in the head of a painter; “they are a very abstract and innate thing.”
Ultimately then, finding and imparting flavor is a creative journey, unique to each his own, according to the two great food minds. Whether French, American, Japanese, or one of the other many influences that make up America as it is, the range of emotion backing each culinary dish is a product of influences from childhood to a growing repertoire of experience and new feeling. The basis, however, is decidedly in the memory of taste, the desire to use those emotions in creating for others, and the ever-evolving newness of what tastes may be born in the process. We’re all looking forward to what “wow effects” are to come.