Teaching Chefs How to Taste

A chef learning how to taste can help diners develop an appreciation for new flavor profiles.
A chef learning how to taste can help diners develop an appreciation for new flavor profiles. CIA/Keith Ferris

I learn something new in every interview, especially when I’m talking with leaders at the top culinary schools. One of the most interesting takeaways from this issue is the concept of teaching chefs to taste—an idea introduced by Peter Lehmuller, dean of the College of Culinary Arts at Johnson & Wales University. 

As we talked about the evolution of culinary education, he mentioned increasing the focus on subjects like entrepreneurship, social sciences, and gastronomy. And taste, as well.

“Taste?” I was confused, but curious. 

“Something we don’t do,” he explained, “is teach students, right from the beginning, how to taste food.” 

He went on to explain that a professor at Drexel University, Jonathan Deutsch, director of the Center for Hospitality and Sport Management, wrote a paper on the future of culinary education, and in it talked about teaching students to taste like chefs. 

“The idea,” Lehmuller says, “is that you’re not just tasting for yourself, you’re tasting for your customer. Often we teach culinary fundamentals, and think the palate will just develop along the way. But it’s an interesting call to arms of his, to also teach palate development as a formal piece of culinary education.”

So now, I want to ask chefs: Do you need to like the way your food tastes? Or, is menu development more about creating food to fit your guests’ preferences? 

What I hear from a lot of chefs is that they want to lead diners into unknown territories, and help diners develop an appreciation for new flavor profiles. In those cases, perhaps the chef is teaching the guest to taste like a chef. In the end, I agree with Lehmuller: Palate development is something to hone from day one. 

Mark Erickson, provost at The Culinary Institute of America, also shared exciting ideas for the future. The CIA is offering semester studies in specific areas of concentration—first an Asian concentration in Singapore, and, starting in January, a concentration will be offered in Italy. More concentrations will be added, perhaps as early as next year. 

While he says it’s premature to confirm what those will be, Erickson notes the increased focus on health and wellness is a likely candidate. “We think there’s an opportunity to bring a paramedical aspect to culinary education, perhaps in the form of health coaching and teaching people to cook in a way that improves health,” he says. “It may be similar to how physical therapy at one point was not considered part of the medical profession, where today it is very much part of the ways that people receive [treatment] for medical conditions or health.” 

Teaching to taste and to improve health—sign me up. 

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