How do Santa Maria educate chefs about the importance of flavour?

When you ask any National Chef of the Year judge what they are looking for in a winning chef they will ultimately agree it’s about the flavour on the plate. We caught up with one of our sponsors, Santa Maria to learn more about the work they do to support chefs.

Tell us about some of the ways you educate chefs on flavour combinations.

It is important to understand that there are no rules when it comes to flavour combinations. Global flavours have been colliding for years, fuelled by the growth of street food and the fact we are now exposed to a multitude of cuisines through travel.

To really understand flavour you have to look at the science behind it. Ingredients contain many flavour compounds, which also vary in terms of quality. Just look at sun-ripened organic tomatoes compared with greenhouse tomatoes. They taste and sometimes look completely different. This is because of how they were produced, meaning they contain different flavour compounds. When it comes to pairing these ingredients, it’s all about balancing the basic tastes into something our senses enjoy. Not too sweet, not too sour. Your sun ripened tomatoes may well be sweeter and could compete with a slightly more acidic, fatty cheese, than the greenhouse tomatoes for example.

Crucially, flavour pairings are classified into either congruent or complimentary pairings. Congruent pairings are defined when different ingredients taste similar and work well together, i.e. contain the same flavour compounds. Complimentary pairings more interestingly don’t taste alike and contrast each other creating the balance our palates like, for example sweet and sour sauce. Wine pairing with dishes will utilise both methods.

Spices play a significant part in overall flavour, so we challenge chefs to really experiment with flavour combinations - rhubarb and crushed green peppercorns, strawberries and cardamom or caramelised bananas with star anise for example. This way they can see for themselves what works and what really doesn’t – when a spice will elevate a dish, or overpower it.

There will always be a place for traditional flavour combinations, but if we look at the younger generation and what they are eating out of home, we can learn what the flavour combinations of the future may look like.

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Describe to us a way to ensure a plate of food is full of flavour.

The core ingredients are key, whether the dish is primarily made up of meat, fish or vegetables. The provenance of each ingredient, how it is reared or grown, will significantly impact the flavour.

A good example is a home-grown tomato or strawberry with perfect balance of sweetness or umami, versus a pre-packaged and mass-produced version. In our industry, it’s not always possible to purchase home-grown, fresh, organic ingredients, so chefs can also create great taste and flavour using certain cooking techniques.

Slow cooking, roasting, basting and caramelising can all increase the flavour of a basic ingredient. Marinating is also a great technique to pack as much flavour into an ingredient as possible.

Our sense of smell helps us to define and identify flavour, so it’s really important for a dish to have a delicious aroma. This can be created by using rich and aromatic spice blends, roasting, grilling, BBQing and adding fresh herbs to a plate just before serving.

Texture can also be an important factor in creating a flavourful dish. Adding spiced nuts or seasoned crumbs will create a nice crunch, whilst chewy and caramelised ingredients also add a new texture that intrigues as well as tastes good.

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What tips can you share for making sure chefs are creating dishes full of flavour?

Understanding your individual ingredients and what they bring to the party is important when building a dish. This comes with experimenting, tasting and trying again. Trial and error is key.

A chef also needs to understand the best way to use their ingredients. This may be the method of cooking, or the temperature or a combination of both. Sometimes roasting an ingredient will add depth of flavour, whereas boiling will simply retain its pure natural taste. Timing is key – how long to cook something and equally important when. Flavour can be achieved by layering, understanding when to add certain ingredients and seasoning to maximise the flavour.

When it comes to replicating a specific cuisine or flavour i.e. smoked BBQ dish, need to identify what key flavour notes, textures and aromas should be present in the dish. It’s important to stay authentic to the cuisine but it’s also great to add a personal touch. For example, using maple syrup or local honey instead of sugar in a BBQ sauce or using bog peat to create a smoky flavour rather than charcoal. A mentor (head chef) can educate younger chefs about this, showing how a dish or a sauce is made and critically, why. A keen young chef should experiment as much as possible with basic ingredients to understand how they react to different cooking methods. Just look at the flavour profile of raw onion compared to a fried onion. Completely different! And it’s the same story with garlic.

Food is so closely linked to storytelling and sharing stories, it’s a great conversation starter and the more interesting you make a plate of food the more enjoyable and memorable it can be.  

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