Arielle Johnson: “Understanding how flavour works is the quickest way to becoming a better cook”

By Joe Lutrario

- Last updated on GMT

Arielle Johnson on her new Flavorama cookbook and what it offers restaurant chefs

Related tags Flavorama Arielle Johnson Noma Cookbooks

The former Noma food scientist has penned a revolutionary new book that explores flavour from every angle and gives chefs the tools they need to truly master it.

What are chef’s biggest misconceptions when it comes to understanding flavour? 

Many don’t understand that smell is as big a part of flavour as taste. That doesn’t just mean sniffing food before you eat, although that is important. Retronasal olfaction is a bizarre concept. When we eat, we are smelling food even if it seems like we are tasting it. Once you start understanding that you can split things up and understand the different components of taste. Understanding how flavour works is the quickest way to becoming a better cook. 

Your new book has been written with practical applications in mind​ ​in a way that many food science publications have not

I spent many years living in Denmark working at Noma and have kept close contact with chefs and restaurants ever since. I like ideas for ideas sake, but that experience has hammered home that there are lots of different applications for this sort of work. I wrote the book largely with chefs in mind. The concepts are explained in such a way that you don’t need a science background to understand them. The book starts with a deep-dive into what flavour is before exploring how flavour follows predictable patterns. Once these patterns are understood they can be exploited by chefs. Latter chapters in the book include concentrating flavour; extracting and infusing flavour; and creating flavour with heat. The book also contains some of my own recipes that illustrate key ideas.

You trained as a chemist, but your book brings together lot of other scientific disciplines. How did you pull it all together? 

The academic stuff that surrounds flavour is already very interdisciplinary. For example, as a chemist working on food I did a lot of sensory evaluation, which is technically experimental psychology. One of the reasons I like studying flavour so much is that it’s a phenomenon you can’t attack with one tool. If you’re working on - say - the flavour of a particular plant, you have to think about botany and plant science. I like to understand all sides of a problem. It’s just how my brain works. 

At what point did you start to specialise in flavour? 

I've always been interested in food and cooking. Around grad school, I looked to combine my interest in gastronomy with my studies as a chemist. This was about 15 years ago when interest in food science was at an all-time high. Harold McGee had just republished On Food And Cooking and there was a lot of coverage of chefs like Ferran Adrià and Heston Blumenthal in the mainstream media. Despite this, many institutions were sniffy about the confluence of food and science. Eventually, I got on a programme at UC Davis (in California) which has an agricultural and environmental chemistry programme. 

We hear that you pretty much created your own job title and role at Noma?

Yes. While I was still at grad school, I worked with the Nordic Food Lab (a joint project between Noma and the University of Copenhagen). I really hit it off with the chefs, who were essentially self-taught researchers. When I graduated, it was obvious to all concerned that I should work directly for Noma (as the restaurant’s in-house food scientist). René Redzepi is supportive of deeply experimental explorations. The first thing I did after they hired me was to design and build the original fermentation lab. That was 10 years ago this year.  

Food that is overtly scientific in nature has fallen out of fashion somewhat… 

Yes, that’s true. But while places like Noma appear naturalistic and romantic, they would not have been possible if the chefs there had not worked in and experienced places like The Fat Duck and El Bulli that were doing more obvious technological experimentation on the plate. While the food at restaurants like Noma is presented very differently, it is underpinned by scientific research. A lot of my time there was spent trying to work out how to get the most from the very limited produce we had available at any one time (Noma famously only uses seasonal Danish produce). For me, Noma is a marrying of slow food and a sense of place with an appreciation of science. 

What new scientific research is likely to shake up restaurant food over the coming years? 

One of the reasons chefs like fermentation so much is that it’s one of the few techniques that can be used to create new flavours. I predict that more and more chefs will start to appreciate that cooking does not start when your ingredients come into the kitchen. Chefs like Dan Barber (of New York’s Blue Hill Farm) are doing very exciting things with plant breeding. Their work improves flavour, but it also explores the bigger picture of where food actually comes from. This is a good thing because this has applications well beyond fine dining.

The UK launch of your book was at Santiago Lastra's KOL restaurant. How did that come about? 

Santiago and I have been friends for about eight years. He joined the Noma team when we were preparing for Noma Mexico. His approach to flavour and developing cuisine is similar to my own so we always have a lot to talk about. Together we created a tasting menu that explored some of the tastes outlined in the book, including salty, umami, bitter, sour, and sweet. One of the key ideas in the book is that we should stop thinking about ingredients as unitary things. In substituting Mexican ingredients for UK ones, Santiago is doing an advanced form of that. I really like what he does at KOL. And his food is also downright delicious. 

Flavorama: A guide to unlocking the art and science of flavour is out now (HarperCollins, £28)

Related topics Chef

Related news

Follow us

Hospitality Guides

View more