When IBM approached the Institute of Culinary Education about a collaboration, James Briscione, ICE’s director of culinary research, wound up getting fairly friendly with the supercomputer Watson. It was his work with “Chef Watson” that led to many of the recipes that appeared in Watson’s 2015 cookbook. The partnership sent Briscione into the world of flavor science—how ingredients are chemically destined to complement one another—and he has assembled his research and ensuing recipes in a forthcoming book, The Flavor Matrix: The Art and Science of Pairing Common Ingredients to Create Extraordinary Dishes, co-written with his wife Brooke Parkhurst. The book, which distills Briscione’s findings into infographics called Flavor Matrices that function as flavor pairing guides, is out from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt on March 6.
How did Chef Watson spark your interest in researching the science of flavor?
Working with Watson my first introduction to the Flavor Pairing theory. Which, at the time, was just over 10 years old and only discussed in very small circles. I was instantly fascinated by the idea that chemistry could reveal information about ingredients and ingredients pairings that were new to me even after 15 years of working in the kitchen. It solidified this idea that aromatic compounds and our noses are really the key to flavor. And when you understand how these compounds work, you can both perceive and create flavor in a whole new way.
What exactly is Flavor Pairing Theory?
There are molecules in our food that create flavor, and even if we can’t always taste all of them, they’re there. When we get to look at a map of what molecules are in each food, we can find matches. You take a solution of, say, mashed-up fresh strawberries, boil them off under closed conditions, and measure different substances as they evaporate out of the liquid. Through that process, you can identify the chemical structure of that food. When two ingredients share a high number of compounds, or a small number but in high concentration, those things let us predict when two ingredients are going to be a good match.
The book gets into some unconventional pairings. But can you use flavor pairing theory to confirm combinations we already know to work well?
There’s a chemical common thread that goes through baked wheat, tomatoes and cheese. So, pizza. The line that goes through those three [ingredients] makes them a great flavor match.
What were some of the more surprising combinations that came out of your research?
Blueberry and horseradish; chicken, mushroom and strawberry; asparagus and coconut; blueberry and cumin; caramel and fish sauce.
Caramel and fish sauce?!
In most instances, your tongue is going to be very happy with a salty sweet combination. What you get is that deep funkiness from the fish sauce. That’s a lot of oxidized and rotten aromatic compounds, those are actually the words used to describe the [aromas] that are mainly found in fish. What that gets back around to is it enhances caramel flavor, since the process of caramel flavor is oxidation. If you have the balance right, then you’re making that caramel taste even more roasted and deep without making it tasting burnt. If you have it wrong, it just tastes fishy. We can see that that’s a great combination, but it doesn’t mean it’s a foolproof combination.
Can you describe the research you did to put the book together?
This book took nearly two years to create. It began with a deep dive in the physiology of flavor and taste. Then learning the chemistry of flavor well enough to explain it to others. After creating the template for the matrices, each ingredient was independently researched for basic information like growing season, genetic relations, native climate, taste profile. Next, pairings were created, and then scores for each pairing, 60 to 80 per matrix, were calculated individually. Meaning that over 4,000 calculations were made, by hand, to generate the data for the matrices. Then I worked with a data visualization specialist in the Netherlands to help the bring the Matrix to life.
How do you hope home cooks use this book?
We tried to separate out all the technical information so that the person who is just going to be the average cook, opens their fridge, sees broccoli, and can find what ingredients go with broccoli. For the interested casual cook who wants to learn about flavor, we have that information. For the big food nerds, and the chefs, who want to dig deep into the science of this, there’s the names of the compounds and their aromas. Also, I know some of the recipes sound weird, but they’re all delicious. We encourage everyone to try them!