just stick it in your mouth

Saturday, Apr 25th, 2015

There are very few moments when I will sit down and eat dessert just for the sake of it. It seems counter intuitive, a pastry chef who doesn’t eat dessert. It’s not that I don’t like desserts, I do! But day after day after day of mixing, tasting, baking, tasting, freezing, tasting, blending, tasting, testing, tasting, and more tasting, desserts aren’t always very appealing. My body practically begs me to avoid sugar, wincing at cookies and cakes at parties, cringing when the dessert menu comes and I know I will order something to support the cause.

And I will order dessert, every time. Yes, to support the pastry chef in house. And yes, to satisfy my professional curiosity. But mostly, I order desserts because it’s my job to eat them.

When younger cooks ask for advice, one of the little tidbits I like to give is “stick it in your mouth.” It always gets a few laughs, and when the chuckles fade, I explain further.

The only way you will build a good palate is to taste things. Over and over and over. Taste good desserts, bad desserts, mediocre desserts. Taste strawberries in season, out of season, in jams, in ice creams. Taste everything, all day, every day. You might have noticed some of the older chefs in the kitchen snacking. You see them taking three peas from your mise en place, swiping a quick spoon in your deli of ice cream, or dropping a dot of sauce on the back of your hand to accompany a few candied hazelnuts they quickly shoved in their mouth. It might even annoy you.

It’s not snacking. It’s also not greedy, or gluttonous, or self satisfying. It’s tasting. And after years it becomes habitual, without thought, to reach for what is in front of you and stick it in your mouth. This is a good thing. These chefs are on palate building autopilot.

The thing is, you don’t know what something tastes like unless you’ve tasted it. And every time you do taste something, a new little beacon of light flashes in that little corner of your brain that stores flavor information. I can remember the first times I tasted things like papaya, or foie gras, the little lights beginning to illuminate the dim corner of my brain filled with childhood flavors. I imagine the greatest chefs brains are blinding inside.

When it’s your turn to develop dishes, the more those flickering lights in your brain brighten your palate, the more nuance you can build into your dessert, the more you’ll be able to pair unexpected flavors. You’ll taste things that remind you of other things, that you tasted with another thing way back when. Cheese will remind you of passion fruit. Passion fruit will remind you of brioche. Brioche will remind you of the time when you couldn’t taste the difference between an over yeasted loaf and one delicately left to rise with just the right amount, and gosh darn it this loaf tastes like it wasn’t stored properly, lets get another round going.

But this essential ability only happens one way. by tasting.

My sous chef Janet Tong used to give me nibbles, something we called her daily bites. These were random combinations of mise en place from the line, assembled out of curiosity. Sometimes they weren’t great. In fact, sometimes there were so bad they made us laugh out loud. But sometimes they were amazing, like the pickled apple with a little spoonful of milk tea ice cream. She did this every day without fail. It became a fun game for our cooks and helped us light up little beacons of light in our flavor brain that I never would have come across otherwise.

Now here’s the kicker. Sometimes tasting sucks. It’s tiring and unpleasant. Especially if you aren’t hungry. There are times when I feel like I would rather stab myself in the leg with a fork than eat a piece of cake. Other times I know the rough draft of a dessert I put up isn’t going to be delicious and I practically have to plug my nose and force it down just so I know how to start adjusting it. And boy are there a lot of times, particularly right after staff meal, when I absolutely do not want to taste the mise en place on the line to check for quality.

But, there are no buts. It’s our job. Just stick it in your mouth. It will pay out over the long run, more than you can imagine.