By Yuki Murata
It’s barely April and juniper has already poisoned the Santa Fe air with its rusty pollen intoxicant for weeks.
Walking into local pharmacies or natural food stores is like a clip from some sort of b-rated pollen zombie movie. Red-eyed, half-conscious and stumbling, these poor locals (myself included) queue at the Rx pickup and crowd the drug and homeopathic aisles looking for any variety of spray, syrup, pill, potion, tincture, drop or inhalant that might promise some ounce of relief. Allergy season—this one is certainly one of the worst in recent years—not only affects the general health of many of our locals, but also affects our eating habits.
My snout is useless right now, completely and utterly knocked out of commission due to pollen allergies. So with my olfactory aptitude at rock bottom, my taste buds have to take the starring role of chief flavor detector. Sadly, they can’t come close to achieving that Edible Oscar without the clever and nuanced supporting sense of smell because between 70 and 75 percent of our ability to taste relies on our sense of smell.
Anosmia (yeah, I had to Google it too) is the medical name for having an inability to perceive smells. And while I am probably overstepping my bounds by self-diagnosing, I’m pretty sure I’ve got it, albeit temporarily, due to the juniper, ’cause I can’t smell or taste a damn thing: not the banana I ate this morning nor the chipotle sauce slathered on my sandwich yesterday.
Those blocked nerve cells in my nose have turned cooking and eating into rather anticlimactic tasks. Actually it’s worse than that, eating seems 100 percent pointless, unless, of course, one cares about long term self-preservation. That mere detail aside, I began to ask myself, “What do chefs do when they can’t taste? Aren’t chefs human? Don’t they get sinusitis, head colds and pollen allergies like the rest of us?”
In the back of my mind I remembered a story about renowned chef and restaurant owner Grant Achatz of Alinea in Chicago. Achatz is a pioneer in pushing the boundaries of modern cuisine and technology since he graduated beyond his sous position at The French Laundry with Thomas Keller and began to command his own kitchen at Trio in Evanston, Ill. But a chronology of the last few years is a triumphant but twisted tale doused in sick irony: Achatz is an acclaimed chef who lost his ability to taste.
In 2007, two years after his Alinea debut, he was diagnosed with Stage IV tongue cancer and the resulting treatments of chemotherapy and radiation may have saved his life, but they temporarily left him incapable of tasting anything. When his taste was completely absent, he had to believe the food he was inventing and serving was not only edible but extraordinary. He was like a deaf composer crafting his magnum opus without the ability to ever hear it for himself.
Achatz had to rely on skill and remembrance to forge unforgettably luscious food. But particularly throughout his illness, he relied heavily on his sous chef and support staff.
Similarly, local chef and cooking class maestro Johnny Vee (Vollersten) reminds me that most chefs have a few trusted colleagues to consult, so perhaps good food is like a good kid: It takes a village.
Brian Knox of Aqua Santa says he cooks not just by smell, taste and appearance, but also by sound. And isn’t it logical that culinary alchemy will arise from skilled hands that also have a lot of experience to back them up when other faculties might be compromised, say by some dreaded blooming spring juniper?
Achatz claims that flavor is memory and with that I concur. In this pollen season, without taste and smell to give context and association to my cooking and consumption, I am left relying on my own tender memories to fill my belly and soul.