Saturday, January 30, 2016

A Menu With Perfume at Its Core

From left, Chandler Burr, Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Gregory Brainin smelled over 26 composite scents for inspiration — then planned a five-course menu to recreate each of the odors. Credit Amy Lombard

Chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten put another perfume blotter to his discerning nostrils — the eighth of 26 he would sniff on a recent afternoon. His eyes rolled up in concentration, looking beyond the dining room ceiling of his flagship restaurant. What was his encyclopedic mind of flavors seeing? “Berries,” he guessed tentatively.
As sommeliers will say of tasting wines, scent experts advise that there is no right or wrong answer to what one smells in a perfume. Each nose will pick up on something meaningful from the constellation of molecules that make up a fragrance. So Chandler Burr, the former New York Times scent critic and author of two books on the topic, mostly refrained from correcting the great chef on the rare occasions when his guesses did not line up with what was on the bottles’ labels.

Samples of scent industry materials and perfumes peppered the table. Coffee beans and grinds cleansed the palates, though a traditional method — putting the nose to wool or one’s own skin — was more effective. Credit Amy Lombard

“No,” Burr said apologetically, having been moved in this instance to state his opinion. “It’s a synthetic called ambrettolide. It’s supposed to smell like warm sun on clean skin.”
The reason for the marathon sniffing session is a five-course dinner Vongerichten and his director of creative development, Gregory Brainin, were asked to create. Each dish would be inspired by some of the hundreds of composite raw materials that make up Thierry Mugler’s Alien line of perfumes. Usually experienced as a whole, in a puff from an atomizer, the idea of this dinner was to examine the individual odors used to create the final product.
As the two chefs smelled the 26 fragrance-industry flavors — some, distilled essences of things like cardamom and mandarin, others, lab-made scents — they called out guesses of wet wood, scorched citrus and pink peppercorn. After the session, they retreated to the kitchen with their notes to draw up their recipes.

Brainin smells a seared scallop, which sits in a broth he made by reducing pink Bubble Tape gum to match a synthetic scent called coumarin. Credit Amy Lombard

Burr, Vongerichten and Brainin regrouped the following week to preview the dishes. For a synthetic scent called coumarin used in Alien Eau de Parfum, the chefs reduced a roll of pink Bubble Tape gum into a delicate broth to serve with a seared scallop. Salmon, they encrusted with hot buttered popcorn and served with a jasmine-tea reduction as a representation of another synthetic called mandarin aldehyde and the essence of Moroccan jasmine in Alien Eau de Toilette. And though Alien Oud Majestueux contains substances with names like ethyl caproate and benzaldehyde you’d never guess, because Vongerichten’s dessert was a subtly sweet combination of mango compote and almond pudding.
Burr had some suggestions for the chef: Ditch the lavender on the salmon and amp up the butterscotch they had glazed onto a daikon radish. But mostly he was stunned. “He’s inventive,” he said. “He’s technically spectacular. He’s someone who is paying attention to every single detail.” That’s why he called upon Vongerichten, he said — someone who could distinguish the scent of Buddha’s hand from bergamot, discern a dark rum from light and identify the odor of saffron blind.

Clockwise from top left: lobster with a daikon radish imbued with the butterscotch flavors of dark, aged rum; veal with bergamot in three forms; dessert; though mandarin aldehyde sounds like it would smell singularly of citrus, Vongerichten and Brainin picked up toasty notes of buttered popcorn, which they used to crust wild salmon. Credit Amy Lombard

At the official dinner, held last Thursday, at Perry Street, whispers filled the room each time Burr passed out blotters dipped in a new scent. Diners smelled vitamins, chest hair and doughnut peaches in the various odors, then enjoyed Vongerichten’s corresponding courses.
When a man-made potion called Damascenone went around, and one guest called out, “Green apple!” Burr dropped his neutral stance: “Are you insane?” he exclaimed. “This is absolutely red apple.” Perhaps scent is not so subjective after all.

How much should we kick folks after they die?

A MINOR media kerfuffle followed the recent passing of the Eagles guitarist, songwriter and co-founder Glenn Frey.
Amid the admiring assessments and farewells, Gersh Kuntzman declared in a column in The Daily News, “No disrespect to Glenn Frey — whose death this week is a cause for genuine mourning — but the Eagles were, quite simply, the worst rock and roll band.” Mr. Kuntzman proceeded to score Mr. Frey and company as too mainstream, too soft, too generic.
The backlash was immediate. A day later, Mr. Kuntzman reported receiving an “avalanche of hate mail” and even calls for his own death.
This took place atop the dissing of another acclaimed and departed musician. Even as David Bowie’s life and work were being celebrated, a friend of mine noted online that some Facebook acquaintances felt obliged to say in effect, “I never cared/listened/understood the attraction.”
Is it O.K. to publicly dump on the newly deceased — or for that matter, to offer them not-quite-heartfelt praise? It’s a tough call. No one likes a hypocrite. Just the same, there is surely a time and a place for everything.
The journalist and cultural critic H. L. Mencken had no doubts. When William Jennings Bryan died in 1925, he denounced the muddle-headed three-time presidential candidate and notorious opponent of evolution as “a charlatan, a mountebank, a zany without sense or dignity.” He added: “He was a peasant come home to the barnyard. Imagine a gentleman, and you have imagined everything that he was not.”
Today, plenty of naysayers are aping Mencken.
In an elephantine piece for Salon in 2011 on the “protocol for public figure deaths,” the journalist Glenn Greenwald scoffed at the effusive coverage years before of Tim Russert, the moderator of “Meet the Press,” and of Ronald Reagan. Dismissing the former as “awful” and “power-worshipping,” Mr. Greenwald complained, “We were all supposed to pretend we had lost some Great Journalist.” The latter’s post-mortem “canonization,” he charged, virtually ignored the Iran-contra scandal, exorbitant military spending, indifference to AIDS, vast income disparities, implicit racism and the Supreme Court nomination of Robert Bork — all in a sentence of about 160 words.
The proximate peg for this invective, incidentally, was the expiration of Christopher Hitchens. Rejecting the “remarkably undiluted, intense praise lavished on him by media discussions,” Mr. Greenwald exhaustively savaged Mr. Hitchens for his “repellent” advocacy of the war on terror.
Mr. Hitchens most likely would have loved it. In 1997, baffled by the worldwide grief over Princess Diana’s fatal car accident, he ripped into her as “a spoiled child bride, a sulky wife, a narcissist, a borderline airhead with zero interest in books, history or tradition.” After the Rev. Jerry Falwell departed, he said, “I think it a pity there isn’t a hell for him to go to.”
The Internet age and postmodern decorum being what they are, kicking at folks when they’re permanently down will surely continue. Myself, having written hundreds of obituaries in my career, I tend to tilt toward balance and qualification — as called for, that is.
Of course, much depends on the personality. “When it comes to private individuals,” Mr. Greenwald suggested in Salon, “it’s entirely appropriate to emphasize the positives of someone’s life and avoid criticisms.” By contrast, he felt this tone “completely inapplicable to the death of a public person.”
But who’s to say where private ends and public begins? And how much posthumous opprobrium should be shoveled without tossing a posy or two, if only for decency’s sake? Even the crusty Mr. Hitchens allowed that Princess Diana opposed anti-personnel land mines, enjoyed children, was kind to an AIDS-stricken friend of his, disdained excessive ceremony and “was quite nice-looking.”
Perhaps the best tactic in these cases is to keep mum. Silence, after all, can speak volumes. When Senator Joseph R. McCarthy died in 1957, this newspaper’s publisher, Arthur Hays Sulzberger, told his editorial page editor, Charles Merz, “I don’t think we need an editorial on this.”
Mr. Merz agreed. “Why dignify the bastard,” he said, “let him pass from the scene without more attention.”
Or, if you feel the need to speak out about a contentious individual, consider this advice from Dean Acheson, the secretary of state in the Truman administration. Asked to comment about McCarthy, he replied, “Of the dead, nothing unless good.” (Although he said it in Latin: “De mortuis nil nisi bonum.”)
Assuming that truth will ultimately prevail, it probably can’t hurt to pause before speaking too ill or too well of certain dead, lest we embarrass ourselves. As my friend put it, “Hey, it’s O.K. to not like the Eagles. It’s also O.K. to shut up about it for a few days when one of them dies.”

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