At every step, a chef controls the flavor of a dish. At the same time, every chef is limited by his or her customers’ expectations and what they are willing to pay. Regardless of what type of budget or kitchen is at the chef’s command, any cook worth his or her salt knows that a mediocre chef can ruin high-quality, expensive ingredients, but a talented chef can turn ordinary or inexpensive ingredients into something fabulous.
This control begins with selecting the best ingredients the budget allows, from reliable purveyors. Once the best ingredients have been selected, the chef must make sure they are stored properly. Food safety and flavor extend then to how food is handled as it is prepared for cooking. Foods that are seasoned before cooking taste different from foods that are not. Whether the chef grinds spices fresh every day or relies on containers of ground spices matters.
One of the biggest areas where chefs influence flavor is in choosing the cooking technique. Heat alters the chemical structure of food, breaking down cell walls, releasing flavor compounds and nutrients and making the food more tender. Dry-heat cooking techniques attain temperatures higher than moist-heat methods. These higher temperatures allow foods to brown and develop a crust. Moist-heat cooking methods are typically gentler. Because foods do not brown, their flavors tend to be simpler and purer.
Balance is something that we often assume to be the ultimate goal in the creation of pleasing flavor combinations. This is not always the case, however. Colors, sounds, textures, tastes, aromas and temperatures can either complement or contrast with each other. Sometimes perfectly complementary flavors are desirable, as in the case of a lentil stew. Here, balance is the goal because the desired result is the melding of several ingredients into a singular taste experience. If the stew isn’t cooked long enough, the ingredients may still retain their distinct flavors.
Other times, though, the chef may wish to highlight a particular flavor. In this case, contrasting flavors can be used to let one or more elements come to the forefront. Pesto, for instance, showcases the flavor of fresh basil or other herbs and uses the contrast of garlic, pine nuts, Parmesan and olive oil to round out the flavor profile. The amount of time that a flavor lingers on the palate after we have swallowed also influences our perception of the dish’s overall flavor. We refer to this as the flavor “finish.” Consider, for example, a clear soup versus a puréed soup. The clear soup has a lighter and cleaner finish than the thick and creamy puréed soup.
Finally, the chef controls how flavors are perceived through the texture and presentation of foods. A silky smooth bisque and a chunky potage may have the same ingredients, but the puréed soup’s flavor may be subtler than the flavor of the potage, where each ingredient remains distinct. Imagine, too, the difference in flavor between a crab cake with large, meaty chunks of crab and one with small shreds. Because all of our senses are involved in tasting, food that looks attractive on the plate is more appealing than a carelessly arranged dish.