Even though I really wanted to go home and chill after work yesterday, I hopped off light rail early to walk to the Columbia City PCC Natural Markets for a “Elements of Taste” cooking class. As I suspected, I was glad that I did, because the class was awesome, with awesome food and some awesome tips that will improve my cooking. And I will not use the word “awesome” again during this post!

Chef Darin Gagner was our guide in this hands-on class (participation was not required, fyi). His local credentials include the much-loved but now defunct Carmelita and the also defunct Earth & Ocean. He was funny, knowledgeable and super-organized (“This will save your life” he said about mise-en-place and creating a recipe “shorthand” cheat sheet with key instructions when you will be preparing multiple dishes), and I appreciated how he made restaurant-quality food accessible to the home cook, and in fact talked about some of the differences between how he would do something in a restaurant and how he does it in his own home.

He said that one of the biggest challenges for home cooks is understanding how the physiology of taste can empower spontaneous cooking, and we discussed the five flavors (salty, bitter, sour, sweet and umami) and how they factored into the evening’s dishes, and we also talked about mouth-feel, including the importance of contrast in a dish (combining warm and cold, smooth and crunchy, raw and cooked). He recommended the book The Flavor Bible, which I admit I bought a few months ago, based on another ardent recommendation, but haven’t had a chance to delve into.

He pointed out that taste and flavor are two different things. “Taste is very boring. Taste is about survival. Flavor is where all the magic happens.” He had us hold our noses and put two jellybeans in our mouth. All anyone could taste is “sweet.” When we unplugged our noses, we could distinguish the citrusy flavors. In other words, flavor is in the nose (no surprise, if you’ve ever noticed that food is less appealing when you have a cold).

Sadly, he said that around age 20, our sense of taste starts to drop and drop fast, but if you breath out through your nose when you eat, you maximize the flavor of the food. “If you go to an Indian restaurant and don’t breath out through your nose, you’re only getting about 30 percent of the flavor.”