Flavor—what manifests when you throw taste, texture, temperature, smell and experience in a little mental blender and give it a quick zizz—is a stunning cocktail of hard science and smudgy memory, and it’s a tough SOB to nail down.
A well-executed plate of food has the ability to take you away for a moment, and show you a flash of memory. Is it your memory? Is it the chef’s? Great bartending, too, should transport you. At its best, a brilliant drink transmits a feeling, a reminder of something you can’t quite put your finger on.
What I found myself pondering one night, admittedly after crushing a bottle of wine, was this: what are certain dishes really trying to tell us?
The obsession with discovering inspiration—what inspired this menu, what inspired this dish, who inspires you—tends to downplay the messy complexity of what we mean when we discuss palate expression. While waxing poetic over the noble thalamus gland would be fun in a Magic School Bus kind of way, I wanted to see how the brains in question understand what’s happening up there.
In the spirit of long nights spent earnestly philosophizing in college dorm rooms, a bartender, a chef, and two sommeliers try to pinpoint the cobbled-together imaginary language they speak exclusively with their palate, and how they translate it for everyone else.
When I show up at Trick Dog, a narrow slip of a bar in San Francisco’s Mission District, the staff is smack in the middle of a heated debate on jiggers.
Ringleader Morgan Schick is holding court behind the center well, and someone’s dog snores in a warm slant of sun creeping over the concrete floor. The discussion in question is a tug-of-war between comfort and aesthetic for the assembly of drinkmakers, and once it’s settled (aesthetic, and a brief window of comfort adjustment wins out), they begin to dissect the sweetness of their standard Old Fashioned. Is it too much? Too little? San Franciscans like it dry, someone points out. But how dry?
The pursuit of perfection is a study in minutia for this place. Every flick of the wrist, every turn of the bar spoon, every wisp of flavor is intentional, and that includes the sensory moments in time where Schick hopes their concoctions point you.
“Part of the character of Trick Dog drinks is that they’re not classics, or even takes on the classics,” he says after the meeting has come to a close, lighting a cigarette and squinting in the sun outside. “They’re really supposed to feel loose, and out-of-the-ordinary, and very distinctly like they wouldn’t belong anywhere else.”
For Schick, that character defined itself pretty readily right out of the gate. Among its creators—including founding partner Scott Baird, who eats lunch at the empty bar as we chat—the cultivation of the menu and persona of its offerings all boils down to intuition from its chief palates.
“Drinks that are too calculated feel composed,” Schick says. “There’s something that feels more natural and easy about an emotional and romantic approach to drink-making."
The critical bit is divorcing the actual ideas from anything too structural, then reverse-engineering those abstract ideas into the glass. But it always starts out with a very airy, vague idea. He mentions a drink from their second menu to illustrate: a scintillating concoction of rum, Amaro Montenegro, velvet falernum, aquavit, lime juice, and a tincture of the North African staple, ras el hanout.
“We wanted something that tasted like a dry, hot, dusty day in Morocco,” he says. “That started with Sydney Greenstreet in a fez, in a black and white room with onion windows and slow-moving fans. What’s crazy is that seems to be easier to pull off than, ‘How do we make a good martini?’”
Schick is one of a rare breed of bartenders: blessed with both an innate understanding of what makes a drink stand out from any average swill, and a stark honesty concerning his epicurean prowess.
“I don’t have a great palate, and I have a terrible palate memory,” he admits. “For me, a lot of it is conceptual. I tend to think about flavors in terms of colors, which is funny, because I’m a bit color-blind too. But because I have an art background, it makes more sense to me to layer flavors in terms of color.”
Grapes don’t taste like purple to Schick, like you might imagine—they take on a bright red and olive green hue. A recent sparkling Amaro-based drink was very much an experiment in this color construction; it gained the surprise element of sesame because the Amaro—deep and earthy brown in Schick’s palate paint set—needed warm yellow highlights.
Baird is a self-described fan of the bigger, weirder, stranger flavors, and not much one for subtlety. “My palate likes things that may seem unnatural together, but I don’t like things that are just a square peg in a round hole,” he explains. “If I get excited about something and we try it and it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. Things need to be harmonious, and they need to balance.”
“I think one of the reasons we work really well together on menu writing is that Scott has a tremendous memory for flavors and smells, and can pick out differences that I just can’t, but I can remember every song lyric I’ve ever heard,” Schick explains. “Somehow that combination of that bank of knowledge of tastes and flavors, and this bank of knowledge of things that have nothing to do with that just works.
And then I let him taste everything because I can’t,” he grins, as Baird nods along, “And then I cut the sugar down by half."
It’s early enough in the morning that mine is the only car rumbling up the olive tree-lined path to Meadowood in St. Helena.
The sun has barely begun to penetrate the darkly wooded hills surrounding the resort, and a few ambitious tennis-playing early-bird vacationers stroll along the narrow driveway. The Restaurant at Meadowood, the three Michelin-starred ship helmed by chef Christopher Kostow, is set back from the main road and rises up before you on the approach, a gastronomic temple for the seekers of the sublime who make the pilgrimage here.
Inside, even the silence is incredible; it’s downy and warm, the overall effect only helped along by the shades of charcoal gray and blues in the entranceway rotunda. Wide-paned windows reveal lush redwoods hugging the building, in the kind of dazzling nature display that makes you think, Fuck! How GREAT are trees?! Not bad, this place.
Kostow arrives like an exclamation point. The guy radiates supersonic levels of energy, eyes bright and laser-focused behind the wood frames of his glasses.
“I actually just wrote this long email to my sous chefs at six this morning about all this,” he says, settling into a deep chair and flipping open a leather binder stuffed with notes. It’s most definitely the binder of someone who is firing off emails while the rest of us are still perfecting the pillow lines on our face. “I’m at the point where I’ve been doing this for a while and I know what’s in my wheelhouse. I know what I like.”
When squash season comes, he knows that somewhere in his brain a neuron fires off a desire for brine—sardines, fresh curds. He knows he likes smoke, and vinegar, and big, in-your-face fermented flavors. He favors bavette over filet mignon, every time.
“I’m finding myself doing menu development, right, and I start coming up with what I think are ideas for the next tomato dish and god damn, it sounds like that tomato dish I did last year,” he says. “So, the question is, now that we know what we know, is it time to jettison everything we’ve done and start over?”
He pauses, and the enormity of the thought rushes into the space. How many permutations of the same impulse are even possible? How do you restart your palate’s clock?
“Something that’s occupying most of my thinking right now is, what is ours? What can we do that no one else can do?” he says. “Not because we’re better, but because this is who we are as people, geographically this is where we find ourselves, and this is the infrastructure we’ve built.”
As if in answer to his own question, he shoots out of his chair and disappears, presto change-o, into the dining room, around a corner, and behind an automatic door that glides open, schhhhlick, to the kitchen. Cooks scattered across the cavernous room all look up from their respective, spotless stations. Good morning, boss-man. We pass Tim, a cook industriously making a “cubic shit-ton” of nochino, a spicy-sweet Italian liqueur, from a mountain of unripe green walnuts. Another cook is sealed in a chilled walk-in, meditatively prepping fine wisps of herbs from the garden.
This, all this, is clearly what is theirs. The collective expression of all of these unique palates is wheedled into existence by the constant, Sisyphean push for their Holy Grail—one part inspired creation, one part seasonal harmony, and one part business savvy. “We’re at the whim of things around us…but we also have to be perfect. Good luck,” he snorts, somehow managing to look both ecstatic and exhausted by the challenge.
But while it might look like a dream laboratory for a mad scientist, Kostow is not, to be sure, spending his days gazing up at the clouds composing his next masterpiece. Rather than allow the day-to-day cogs of running a business muddy the visionary freedom of his cooks, he has stationed himself right on the line of what is and what could be. He reassures one side as he fosters the other.
“You can’t let the operation side of things take away your ability to be inspired, right? That is the hardest fucking thing,” he says. “That’s my mountain: finding the headspace to really think about things and come up with new ideas.”
Typically, Kostow has one cook holding down research and development, tasked with keeping things on track in dreamland. “If I’m out of town or something, they're the one making sure we’re still doing tastings, that everyone’s been assigned to work on certain elements of certain dishes,” he reasons. “That way you’re separating operations from R&D. That’s really the only way I’ve found to not allow creativity to not get burdened by everything else. I don’t know how other chefs do it, to be honest with you. I’d be really curious to know.”
I wonder if there’s a moment on the menu where he sees the stars aligning, where he feels they expressed the true nature of a craving. He rifles through a few worn printouts covered in inky notes, allowing the written word to jolt his memory, and settles on a potato dish. With the clean swiftness of a math genius solving a simple proof, he lays it out: a single small potato, cooked in local beeswax, is peeled, and served on a little bed of a puree of those same potatoes. It’s topped with a crunchy gravel of dried sorrel and potato, and finally, garnished with tiny micro-sorrel. It is the Ultimate Potato, the natural sweetness nudged to the forefront of your flavor centers by the brightly acidic sorrel.
“You see all that stuff going on in that kitchen?” he asks, pointing back over his shoulder as we make our way back through the dining room, “I believe in harnessing all those things to make something that’s fucking delicious. It’s deliciousness that gets me.”
“It’s not about what’s the most esoteric, and although certainly some of our shit is esoteric,” he adds, “it’s really about what is incredibly enjoyable to eat.”
Enjoyable though it may be, in the intricate and demanding environment of a tremendously busy and groundbreaking joint like this, the food—and the palate— is not everything. Kostow’s taste buds and way with nature don’t exist in a vacuum, and he’ll be the first to admit it.
“The experience is a lot bigger than me. It’s about my relationship with a prep cook, it’s about how I run the garden, it’s about a million things that are not me,” he says, gesturing to the room at large. “The palate has no value if the rest of the stuff is not in place. I’m just a dot in all this."
“My first memorable wine experience was at a Smith & Wollensky’s when I was 17,” Amy Racine says.
“I’m not sure how I was able to get away with ordering it, but it was a glass of Trimbach gerwürztraminer. I don’t know the vintage, but I had it with steak…”
She grimaces, and breaks out into a laugh.
“It must have been awful, but I was super jazzed. Gerwürztraminer was my favorite grape after that, for years and years.”
Racine is reclined in one of the flimsy metal chairs—the silver ones that morph into supercharged, eye-melting reflectors in the midday sun—at a nondescript café in Union Square plaza. It’s her day off, but Bobby Conroy, decked out in a suit and seated across from her, has yet to start his shift. They are both high level sommeliers at top-notch San Francisco restaurants—she at Sons & Daughters and he at Benu—where lavish attention is paid to the wine and beverage pairings on offer, and the pressure is usually on to blow people's minds.
“There’s this misconception that food and wine pairing is this really artistic thing,” Conroy says. “You have these palates of wine and flavor profiles to work with and you scheme it all together, and magically something happens. It’s really not about that at all.”
Rather than use their palates to manifest something from scratch like Schick or Kostow, they use them like ciphers, tinkering and tweaking until they send a sip of wine careening toward a big ol’ X-marks-the-spot in the dish.
“Every dish has an opening. Every dish has an entry point in which the beverage can come in and either play in a friendly way, just sit there and be neutral, or push the flavors away from itself,” he continues. “All you need to do is find out where that opening is.”
Sommeliers are typically among the first mentioned when you hear talk of Supertasters, those mythical genetic anomalies living among us, existing on another plane of heightened senses. They pick up notes of chicken wire and wilted lilac and exotic sounding chemicals, while you pick up, you know, red wine.
But to hear Racine and Conroy explain it, it’s more about the grunt work. Making the rounds, sitting with wine reps, constantly tasting and re-tasting, in order to better direct the customer to a tailored flavor experience.
“For me, it’s 80% practice with the wine,” says Racine, who originally entered the CIA at Greystone as a culinary arts student, before being lured away by the siren song of the wine program. “I don’t think anyone is born with it.”
Pairing 101 is usually presented as a two-pronged approach. You either go all in on contrast, providing a yin-yang experience for your taste buds, or you bet on synergy, aligning similar flavors that continue to build upon each other. Both require heavy lifting from your palate's memory.
“We had this discussion a while ago, and never revisited it, actually,” Racine says with a hint of mischief, turning to Conroy. “I can’t remember exactly what you said, but it was something like, the flavor of the wine and the flavor of the dish is the most important thing when it comes to pairing. You don’t think a contrast is a pairing.”
“It’s an anti-pairing,” he says, shaking his head. “To me, it would dishonor the hard work of the kitchen to have a wine come in and erase those flavors or take away from them. What I’d much rather have is a wine that can enter in and add an extra layer, but in doing so, elongate what the kitchen is already trying to achieve. It’s about settling in to the flavors that are already on the plate.”
Racine tends to take a broader approach.
“I think the sense of winemaking or terroir is important in how it makes you feel, especially when compared to how that dish is making you feel,” she says. "I pair off structure as well."
“Don’t get me wrong, structure is super important. What grows together, goes together kind of thing,” Conroy agrees. “If you’re doing octopus a la plancha and you pour albariño with it, it’s a no-brainer. Nobody’s going to be like, ‘Man, they really don’t know what they’re doing!’”
But this is major league San Francisco we’re talking about here, land of “You think that’s cool? Watch this,” and most of the food they work with is not so straightforward.
“It becomes more obvious the longer you work with the chef, and understand their aesthetic,” he adds. “You might get an ingredient list that, on paper, looks completely unreasonable, and you wonder how the hell you’re going to pair it, but when you know the chef, you know that everything is going to have it’s place in the dish.”
In other words, if you know the locksmith, the keyhole you’re looking for will be easier to find. Racine remembers pairing malvasia from the Canary Islands, a lean, dry, briny white wine, with abalone. “There were sea grapes on the plate, and a fumé of some sort,” she explains. “The whole thing just tasted like the ocean.”
It’s a textbook Racine pairing: a classic like-with-like (briny wine to match briny seaweeds and mollusks), subtly blended with the emotional heart of the dish. Drink that malvasia, and it’s like you’ve spent the day on the beach, with a thin film of salty air coating your face. The sea grapes are a brackish kick to the dome, much like the first time you ate shit surfing. Suddenly you recall your childhood neighbor who would pry open and tenderize fresh abalone steaks with the butt of a wicked, curved knife, then toss the shells on the porch to use as ashtrays. All of this happens in the micro-space of one bite and one sip.
A crucial part of the success of that pairing had been the flexibility of the wine and its ability to catapult the rest of the meal into realization. Not so intense that it overshadows the next selection, but legitimate enough to throw out the first pitch. Even so, Racine is hesitant to say it was a perfect fit.
“I never think, ‘This pairing is meant to be. I’ve got it,’” she says. “I’m always looking for something different. I’ll change a wine with a dish nine times.”
Much like Kostow’s balancing act between personal inspiration and the trappings of good business, hitting that sweet spot is only one part of palate expression for these two. When your job is to lift the veil and show someone a connection they weren’t necessarily aware of, you’re appealing to their sense of self, their memories, not just taste.
“I always think it’s important to remember that what it means to be a good sommelier very often has very little to do with wine,” Conroy says. “It’s about being a bit of a Jedi. It’s about all those little intangibles that really make a service successful, because people remember how you make them feel.”
There are infinite variations on how you can approach taste—some of them highbrow, some of them decidedly not—but the thrill comes from tuning in. The palate is never receiving missives from just one place. Your inner voice screaming YES THIS PIZZA IS SO GOOD, or carefully sifting through your messy attic of a brain for a specific memory or feeling are two reactions the chef, the bartender, the somm, all want you to have. They’ve crafted you an entire portal and you've got it all to yourself, so you may as well cannonball straight into that puppy and see what you can find.
"I want people to leave like, Holy fucking shit. That was amazing. Like they just saw a symphony. Not just in terms of the food, but how they were treated, everything," Kostow says, before pushing his glasses up the bridge of his nose and squaring off for his next meeting. "It needs to be orchestral in nature, and when we do our job well, it is."
Cassandra Landry is the Editor in Chief of Mise Magazine. She likes when dinner guests come armed with their favorite vinyl, and spent her formative years clad in Danskos and an apron. When she remembers to tweet, she can be found @EatDrinkWrite. She currently resides in San Francisco.