Book review: “The Flavor Matrix”:
I have beaten the two-time Chopped champion James Briscione by 2 months at his own game!
Celebrity chef and two-time champion of the TV show Chopped James Briscione just released his new book. Turns out it looks a lot like my own book that I released 2 months earlier. My book definitely came first, but the question is: Which book is ultimately better?
Check out my (completely biased) review of James Briscione’s book “The Flavor Matrix”!
How Flavor Math and The Flavor Matrix came to life
Last year I put onto my bucket list that I want to understand flavor as well as IBM’s Chef Watson – the supercomputer that creates recipes and flavor combinations based on the chemical build-up of the ingredients. Obviously doing this in your head is quite an impossible task. As James Briscione put it in the introduction of his new book “The Flavor Matrix”, it will probably take one or even several lifetimes to get that knowledge. But it’s always a good idea to aim high, right?
While being busy with my own journey to understand flavor and combinations better I wrote the book “Flavor Math”. This book was basically a by-product of my personal quest to understand flavor and make delicious food combinations more available to the hobby cook. I wanted to teach my readers in easy and understandable language why certain ingredients work well together to allow them to come up with their own combinations. I had to write this book because there was no book like this out there. Don’t get me wrong, there are books out there that explain why different ingredients work well together with others, but these bulky books are boring encyclopedias that deter even the most ambitious reader.
I released my book “Flavor Math – A guide to understanding and creating delicious flavor combinations” in January 2018 digitally and in February in printed form on Amazon worldwide. And guess what, there was someone else busy with the same topic. Apparently, James Briscione -Celebrity chef, two-time champion of the TV show Chopped and director of culinary research at the Institute of Culinary Education – was working on the identical subject matter and released his book on pairing ingredients just last week, beginning of March.
His book with the title “The Flavor Matrix – The art and science of pairing common ingredients to create extraordinary dishes” sounded too good to be true and -do I dare to say- very very similar to my title. Of course, I was intrigued and immediately ordered a copy.
Trust me, I’m not trying to position James Briscione as a copy-cat here! I wrote this review to point out the overlap, the differences and my deep appreciation for James’ book because it is one of the most inspiring (cook)books that I own.
What is food pairing and what has science to do with is?
All your ingredients are a build-up of chemical compounds and connections. The idea is, the more flavor compounds two ingredients share, the better they go together. For example, 80% of the chemical compounds that can be found in lemongrass can also be found in ginger. That is the reason why the two taste so great when combined. Think of two instruments playing a tune together. They do the same thing but they are also different, creating a harmonious composition.
What does it mean to introduce science into your daily kitchen routine? It means that 5,6-Dihydro-5-methyl-4H-1,3,5-dithiazine smells like fried onions and is one of the prominent compounds that make crustaceans taste the way they do. Combine shrimp with fried onions and tadaaá – deliciousness!
Ever since Heston Blumenthal started applying this scientific approach of food pairing in his three Michelin star restaurant the Fat Duck, science has changed the way we eat. The secrets of food pairing have however remained carefully guarded by the professionals and elites working in food. I tried to change this with my book, and so did James with his.
Overlap and differences between our two books and ideas
Working on the same topic means there is inevitably overlap. I have read devoured James’ book and want to point out the key similarities and differences.
Obviously, we both based our writing on the book “Flavor Bible” from Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg, which is the number one selling book when it comes to professional- and creative cooking. We both consulted scientific literature and articles to truly understand flavor. Regardless to say, James went a lot further in this. Still, we both had pretty much the same goal in mind when writing our books: Teach you the reader about the science behind flavors and let you experience it yourself in the kitchen.
“The Flavor” Math has almost 3 times as many pages as my book and in terms of visuals, it looks utmost professional and on-point. But then again, James had help from his creative partner and spouse Brooke Parkhurst, a data visualizer (Jan Willem Tulp), an additional food tester (Carrie Purcell), a designer (Mark R. Robinson), a photographer (Andrew Purcell), an editor (Alexander Littlefield), as well as his agent (Joy Tutela) and he had two scientists on standby (Matt Hartings and Ali Bouzari). My book was written, edited and published by –ehm- just me? Okay, I had help as well! My former colleague and fellow foodie Sanne Ursem from SesuChops.nl co-read my book and helped to make it better.
James’ model of balancing flavor is more complex than mine and covers more elements. It also includes the difference between balancing and complementing. Mine is a lot easier to grasp and remember, but ultimately I like his better, to be honest.
My book is structured into two big parts: The tried and trusted combinations and then the daring but delicious. You can find somewhat of the same split in James’ book where he lists the ‘Best pairings’ and the ‘Surprising parings’ for each of the ingredients. In both cases, the latter area is where the conservative chef runs away in shock and awe.
For all the different food pairings in my book, I provide 3-4 suggestions for dishes to spark the reader’s creativity, whereas James provides the reader with one innovative step-by-step recipe for each of the ingredients in his book.
Once you open the first infographic in James’ book for the flavor of allium (the onion and garlic family) you see that it pairs well with broccoli. You can find this exact same pairing in my book as pairing #13 (broccoli & garlic). The same goes for cauliflower and curry by the way (#19), and the recipe for cocoa & chili-rubbed beef reminded me of my own espresso steak rub (recipe). Actually, a lot of my food pairings can be found in one way or another in James’ book.
As explained by James, pork and apple go quite well together because they both contain 2-acetylfuran and 1-heptanol. Even though I had no idea of this chemical overlap, my recipe for the apple-pork burger (recipe) still features both of these key ingredients. I guess I was intuitively on to something.
James relied on pure science, chemistry and the molecular structure of ingredients when writing his book. I, on the other hand, started from different cultures, common sense, and deconstruction of existing flavor combinations, before putting them back together again in different ways.
Take for example roasted duck with plum sauce, which is a typical Chinese dish. If you replace the duck with chicken and plum with cherries, you can easily end up with: Samosas with cherries, ginger, and chicken (recipe). Another example, Elotes: Mexican grilled corn on the cob with mayonnaise and cojita cheese. Just scrape the corn from the cob and you can make delicious Vietnamese summer spring rolls with some shredded chicken, corn, mayonnaise, cilantro, and cheese. Third example, while avocados are considered savory in the West, their rather subtle fatty flavor is the perfect base for sweet treats with vanilla and cocoa. Think of smoothies, vegan mousses, and cake frostings.
About The Flavor Matrix and why it’s so good
Combining ingredients based on what has been done in the past (in one way or another) or based on taste memory –like I did- always means looking back. It makes it pretty much impossible to come up with truly ingenious new ways to combine flavors. James’ approach of clustering aroma compounds from scratch and analyzing overlap makes for an awesome approach to come up with great innovative and unconventional flavor combinations.
“The Flavor Matrix” is as intuitive as it gets when it comes to making the chemistry of flavor understandable for the home- and professional chef alike. Even if you have no background in chemistry, nor have a desire to get one, this book makes it easy to grasp the idea of shared chemical compounds and aromas.
James introduces a wide vocabulary to describe flavor that a good sommelier would use. Even while reading these terms you can pretty much taste the flavors and combinations in your head already. I sound a bit like Grenouille from ‘Perfume: The Story of a Murderer’ here, right?
James’ book “The Flavor Matrix” will definitely act as a source of my personal inspiration for years to come. The two parts of the book where the magic really happens for me are the subsections ‘surprising pairings’ and the chemical inspiration section at the end of the book. Even while reading I had to take notes and came up with tons of dishes that I want to try, based on dominant chemical compounds and complementing aromas. You can find them at the end of the post.
My only two critique points for this book are truly on a visual level, not on a culinary one. The spiral background on the first 12 pages makes it quite hard to read as the design draws your eyes away from the line of text you are trying to read. The food photography is no-fuss and looks like it comes straight from the lab. It is all black plates on a black background with full focus on the food pairing in question. While this looks very professional it makes the dishes feel quite clinical, distant and cold.
My final thoughts
Don’t get me wrong, I’m still unbelievably proud of the book “Flavor Math” that I have written. For the beginning chef, my book is a much safer choice as it is much more straight-forward and gives several concrete dish suggestions for each the food pairings. Then again, James book “The Flavor Matrix” goes much more into depth and gives even more levers to come up with new dishes. His book picks up where mine stopped. In that sense, our books can be seen more as complementary rather than contrasting flavors. If it was to be a sprint I won, but James went for the marathon.
5 out of 5 stars
On a more personal note: James, you have written the book I was looking for when I started my journey to understand flavor in 2017. When I’m in NY or you are in NL we should grab a cup of coffee and talk food pairings!
For everyone that’s more interested in ChefWatson and how it generates imaginative but sometimes unusable new food pairings: Check out my fun experience with ChefWatson in the past
PS: Dishes I came up with while reading the book, all of these should be working from a chemical and aroma point of view:
- Sliced asparagus-potato chip-frittata with sautéed mushrooms and brown butter sauce
- Almond crusted pork cutlet with banana-tomato salsa
- Avocado, apple, banana, and pineapple smoothie
- Beet, litchi and almond jam
- Sautéed shredded Brussels sprouts with grated apple and toasted coconut shavings
- Brussels sprouts and apple dumplings sprinkled with chopped roasted hazelnuts and coconut dipping sauce
- Glazed carrot with blackberry, cumin and pistachio gremolata
- Corn polenta cooked with vanilla, topped with grated apple and crushed salted pecans
- Crawfish pumpkin gumbo with okra, green bell pepper, and pork sausage
- Grilled eggplant with blue cheese guacamole, walnuts, and corn
- Fresh strawberries with lemongrass, Thai basil and orange dressing (sprinkled with sesame)
- Garlic, leek and hazelnut pesto on a cocoa-crusted pork chop
- Ginger, blueberry and lime muffins
- Grilled green asparagus salad with tomatoes, olives, and mustard sherry vinaigrette
- Grilled lamb with corn, vanilla, honey, and pecan salsa
- Muffins with white chocolate, chopped black olives, and walnuts (Update: I settled for cookies instead)
- Pizza with red bell pepper, garlicky shrimp, blue cheese and chopped walnuts
- Potatoes au gratin with pistachio bark
- Healthy creamy potato salad with avocado, Greek yogurt, and caramelized onions
- Grilled peaches with jalapeno soy bacon bits and toasted coconut shavings
- Grilled squid on a bed of garlic cauliflower mash with tempura fried thyme
- Pan-fried scallop on a bed of sautéed cucumber carpaccio with blueberry and pistachio gremolata
- Pan-fried scallop with vanilla and whiskey flambéed cubed beets
- Grilled shrimp with cherry-avocado-lime salsa and fried onions
- Shredded raw carrot and radish with passion fruit vinaigrette (and a hint of curry)
- Tomato and passion fruit infused consommé
- Greek yogurt with grilled red bell pepper, cinnamon and butter relish
Can’t wait to finish this post and get cooking!!
If you want to learn more about flavors and how to combine them, check out my second book “Flavor Math” which is available digitally (PDF)!
Legal mumbo jumbo: I’m not affiliated with James Briscione. Photos of the content of James Briscione’s book “The Flavor Matrix” are purely for illustrative and review purposes. Copyright for photos and content of the book remain with him, Brooke Parkhurst and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing