How we taste is determined by more than just our taste buds. In fact, each sense plays a role.
That was the point 50 Ocean Chef Blake Malatesta (right) aimed to prove during “Assault on the Senses,” his pairing dinner in which each course enhanced—or tricked—a different sense.
The meal is one in a series of exclusive dinners the Delray Beach restaurant hosts throughout the year. Limited to 12 guests, each experience follows a different theme; up next is “Olde World vs. New World,” a wine-pairing dinner November 13.
Each dinner is thoughtfully planned; Malatesta says he had been preparing for Assault on the Senses for months. “When I was doing research for that dinner, I was looking at psychological and medical journals that talked about the senses,” he says.
Through delicious courses, here’s how the chef demonstrated how the four other senses affect taste. (561-278-3364)
By looking at a dish, “you perceive what you’re eating before you eat it,” Malatesta says. “We always eat with our eyes before we even taste.”
His first course, which involved the use of sight, was inspired by the work of molecular astronomy chef Heston Blumenthal.
Malatesta served two oysters and asked diners to sample the one topped with orange jelly. Most reached for the orange-colored oyster—which was actually beetroot jelly. The correct one was its white-colored partner.
The use of sight—and, in this case, relying on cognitive memory—can trick the sense of taste and expectations, Malatesta explains. It can happen even before the plate arrives: “On a menu, you might see a dish with long words in the description; however, when it’s served, it might look nothing like you thought it would,” he says.
Hearing is an enhancing sense that builds expectation, the chef says: “You hear the popping of popcorn and get that anticipation.”
As a recording of forest sounds played, he served a dish that resembled a miniature ecosystem but was edible down to the olive-tapenade “soil.” The recording enhanced the sense of taste by setting the mood of the forestry atmosphere and dish.
This receptor sense kick-starts taste buds, the chef says. For example, “when you smell garlic, your response is to drink to water,” he says.
For the third course, he presented a dish loaded with sea beans and an assortment of seafood—but no salt. “I wanted to enforce the smell of ocean, brine, seaweed, the seawater, the essential sea oil,” he says. Despite the lack of salt, the smell of the oceanic ingredients tricked the mind into expecting a salty taste.
“You smell it, you think salty and you still have that aroma going,” he says.
To incorporate the sense of touch, Malatesta thought of one thing: finger foods. “When the food’s interactive, it brings guests into the experience more,” he says.
To accomplish this, he served each guest a bag of miniature sugar doughnuts and three squeeze bottles of sauces. Diners were asked to shake the bag to properly coat the sugar, then dip the doughnuts into the sauces of their choice.
By presenting the ingredients, rather than the completed dish, Malatesta passed along the role of chef to the guest—which can make the dining experience feel like accomplishment.
“It’s out of my hands; I’ve put all the components there, and you become this composer,” he says. “You become this creator of what you’re about to eat.
“It’s a little more satisfying, self-gratifying to say, ‘I just made this.’”