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Smell Is a Challenge for Professional Chefs

As a cook, smell is quite problematic, because we spend most of our time thinking about flavor—not smell—combinations. But flavor is actually inseparable from smell, a motion that happens at the same time while we taste our food that we need to pay...

My hatred for perfume began to blossom in culinary school. Prolonged exposure to it gives me a headache. It's not that I loved it before, but simply walking through the first floor of a department store or being stuck inside of a taxi with a nice vanilla-scented tree hanging from the mirror has become quite dreadful. Food-wise, however, I do not seem to have that problem, except for raw eggs, maybe. I simply dislike the aroma, especially when you let it sit around in the sink for a while. Even though ingredients like lavanda or tonka beans are regularly used in the perfume world, they are thankfully much more mellow in their natural states.

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Smell is the most underrated sense, one that we do not exercise consciously on a regular basis. Most moms don't really like it when you smell your food at the table, which is widely considered bad table manners. In the kitchen, it is OK though, and in the food market, too. Few people have the habit of doing so, of smelling things fully; even some chefs don't do it as often as they should.

I have heard that you tend to fall in love with the scent of someone. I don't know if that is true, but what I can assure you of is if someone smells bad, I need to leave.

Smell is a matter of training and memory. I am not saying you should go into a tasting studio to train your nose, but one must be more alert of the environment, of the city, of food, of people. I have heard that you tend to fall in love with the scent of someone. I don't know if that is true, but what I can assure you of is if someone smells bad, I need to leave.

As a cook, aroma is quite problematic, because we spend most of our time thinking about flavor—not smell—combinations. Smell happens in the kitchen, and flavor happens at the table. But flavor is actually inseparable from scent, a motion that happens at the same time while we taste our food. I laugh at the cooks that smell a pot and think they know if it is well seasoned. Not because you shouldn't do it, but smell is disassociated from flavor. One does not know if a sauce needs more salt by just smelling it. There is simply no way.

Flour is fairly odorless, but combine it with eggs, butter, and sugar and you have one of the most delicious things—not only smells—in the entire world. The same thing happens with tomatoes, which have a completely different perfume raw than when cooked. Cooking can make things smell better. A piece of meat smells much better over the wood burning grill, the scent of nixtamalized corn being turned into masa, the wafts of toasted chicatana ants being made into sauce.

Memory definitely plays a huge part on our smell preferences. What wafted through the kitchens that we were raised in will continue to give us comfort a few decades later. Especially with funky smells… I remember the smell of maturing bananas in my grandmother's house just as a kid in Thailand might remember fermented fish sauce or a French kid might find comfort in a cheese that too many people around the world might simply consider to smell like ass.