Tom Klare
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Stop and Smell Your Dinner

Laura Stanley / May 2006

New York City—Quick, what would you rather be smelling right now: fresh-baked pain de mie or fresh-picked lilacs? Wine-braised pot roast or white gardenia? If you waver before answering, you're not alone—most of us find food aromas as intoxicating as the fragrance of flowers. Perfumers know this and have long been in the habit of mixing into their potions the smells of things we like to eat.

Perfume people have a great deal in common with food people. And that is why The James Beard Foundation decided to bring together two dozen fragrance and culinary professionals early last March for an evening of guided inhalation and aromatic dining. The class, the first in the foundation's "Educate Your Palate" series at New York University's School of Continuing Education, was cosponsored by Josephs by Citarella restaurant and organized by Josephs' pastry chef, Bill Yosses.

What causes the release of fragrance (or odor) is a mystery to most of us, even those whose craft depends on it. For explanation, this crowd turned to food science guru Harold McGee, who offered a presentation entitled "The Chemistry of Pleasure," that included, after many an image of scent molecule chains, a slide entitled "A Recipe for Ambrosia: Strawberry Aroma Chemicals." Over 250 substances were listed, a vivid illustration of the complexity of fragrance and the skill required to create a new one lovely enough to wear. The "recipes" for floral scents are similarly lengthy, said McGee, and rife with surprises—one key compound we adore in jasmine, for instance, is the same thing we abhor in rotting meat.

The floor was then turned over to perfume alchemist Christophe Laudamiel, the so-called enfant terrible of the fragrance industry (looking very much the part, clad head-to-toe in day-lily orange, with hair dyed to match). Laudamiel, creator of an ethereally fruity milky scent called Mimosa, among other top-selling modern fragrances, noted that perfumers commonly use pepper, citrus, and vanillan. Roasted or savory notes, while not generally used, would be (he slyly suggested) interesting to try.

Coffee figures prominently in a lush "gourmand fragrance" called AngelMEN, said perfume industry consultant Michelle Krell Kydd. And what makes coffee smell so good?

Kydd passed out scent strips bearing some of the key aroma molecules found in a cup of joe, including furans (for the scent of caramel) and pyrazines (toast). Natural perfumer Mandy Aftel explored the potential of spice, brewing before the class her Parfum de Maroc, featuring a dozen ingredients one might find in a classic ras al hanout, including cardamom, nutmeg, galangal, and saffron. Aftel, who recently collaborated with chef Daniel Patterson (formerly of Frisson, San Francisco) to write Aroma: The Magic of Essential Oils in Food & Fragrance, drew this recipe from the book, using only nonsynthetic essential oils and absolutes, which are even more concentrated than essential oils.

Dinner followed, away from the scent-saturated classroom, where the evening's first wine, a heady, honeyed Condrieu, would have smelled like nothing much and tasted like tap water. Yosses had prepared a scallop seviche in chamomile and lime-infused melon broth and pine-smoked duck breast in a lavender/plum sauce. Dessert was a selection of hibiscus-poached red fruits and pineapple marinated in saffron and orange blossom honey, served alongside a lychee/hibiscus sorbet and agar-agar gelées of shiso and ras al hanout. Guests lowered their faces to their plates to breathe in each course before eating, a ritual of enjoyment that, in truth, every good dinner deserves. Food and fragrance should always be considered together, Laudamiel observed, "for a better, bigger experience of anything you find on your plate, on your skin, or in the air."