Me: Here. Try this: a yummy almond cake. I think it needs a sour glaze though…
Hannah: Mmmmm… yeah. How about tamarind?
Me: *scrunches face* Nah, sounds weird…
Hannah: How do you know? Have you tried it?
Me: Nah, I just don’t think so… it’d be weird.
It was a rare occasion when I would sit and have dessert just for the sake of having dessert. This may sound funny coming from a pastry chef. I mean, what kind of pastry chef doesn’t want to eat sweet things? I dilute my orange juice until it mostly resembles water with an almost-imperceptible orange tinge! But, day after day of baking and tasting, freezing and tasting, seasoning and tasting, scraping and tasting, blending and tasting, tasting, tasting, tasting, and TASTING, I just cant find it in me to bring anther morsel into my mouth.
And yet, I will always order dessert. Always. There are several reasons for this: first and foremost, we pastry chefs have to support our own. (Haven’t you heard we’re a dying breed?) Part of it is to satisfy a professional curiosity. (Fermented black bean mochi donut holes? Bring it!) Mostly though, I will order dessert every time because it is my job to eat.
Invariably, on the occasions that a young cook or curious person asks for advice, I will give them this juicy bit: just eat it already! I might get chuckles, I might get an expression filled with shock or dismay; I might get the occasional: “Hey, don’t you tell me what to do.” But then I explain and it makes perfect sense.
You see, the only way to develop a good palate is to taste things: eat them, swish them around in your mouth, pay attention to the details: is it slimy? Buttery? Smooth? Fatty? Gritty? Tannic? Try to get beyond just the sweet, sour, bitter, salty and REALLY taste something.
Again and again and again. Taste, taste, taste. I say: try everything! Eat great desserts, eat bad desserts, eat middle-of-the-road stuff. Knowing what you don’t like and why is just as important as knowing what you do like and why. Try local produce, try the stuff that traveled from halfway around the world, try fruit in season and then go and try the fruit not in season. Try them in sauces, jams, pickled, roasted, and charred. Taste things all day, every day. Do it until you don’t have to think about it anymore; taste until it become second nature. Green almonds? Yes, please. Vietnamese coriander? Don’t mind if I do! Blueberry umeboshi mustard? Umm, YES!
You see, only in this way do you start filling that circular Rolodex of flavor in your mind. Each new combination is another card added. And only through tasting a range of ingredients and experiencing new flavors and textures can you get to the point where tasting one thing might remind you of another thing: perhaps you start with that buttery almond cake that Hannah and I spoke of, only it makes you think of a tangy passion fruit glaze, before you remember the passion fruit curd you tried at that little shop in Boston with a faint whisper of orange blossom water and how they also served those super deliciously flaky pistachio croissants with black sesame seeds and how much they rocked your world even before you’d had your morning coffee, OH!, and then you think of that hot afternoon that Saskia made the. most. delicious. iced horchata lattés and how you would give your first born child for another tall glass of that heavenly ambrosia because, mmmmm, the ground almonds, and cinnamon with brown rice, and do I detect just the tiniest bit of clove?… Mmmmm, clove! THAT would pair splendidly with a vanilla and passion fruit braised pineapple and perhaps there we could even incorporate a little tamarind paste! That would be delicious!
…But not with the almond cake cause that would just be weird.
You get my point.
Only through tasting anything and everything can your brain get to the point where it can start making those kinds of powerful connections. It is those connections that will propel you forward with a broader range for creativity, that will allow you to approach your cooking, sweet or not, with a greater degree of nuance, that will ultimately make you a better cook and in turn, a better chef and teacher.
But, let’s be honest, sometimes tasting sucks. So what do you do when you just cannot stick another bite in your mouth? Had one too many helpings at staff meal? Reached flavor overload and you. just. cannot?! Well, to that, I say: trust the process and just eat it already!
— April Robinson, Pastry Chef, BaoBao Dumpling House