A Berkeley Weekend with Mandy Aftel

Last weekend, I had the privilege of taking a 3-day class from perfumer, teacher, and writer Mandy Aftel.

Mandy lives in a lovely house right behind Chez Panisse. In the sunny front room, where she teaches her classes of eight, she has her “organ” of naturals and isolates. She works with full-strength absolutes and essential oils, whereas I use 10% dilutions. While the class is a bit of an investment, Mandy—who used to work as a psychologist—is profoundly generous, not only with her time and her beautiful substances, but with her spirit. She holds nothing back. The class was easily worth what it cost.

My big fear was that Mandy was going to hand out complicated mixtures and expect us to identify what was in them. Everyone else would know everything; I would know nothing. But it wasn’t like this at all. While there was plenty of practical information, this was not the most important thing I got out of the class. It was Mandy’s emphasis on the evocative and emotional character of perfume that led me to a fundamental insight.

In the 1970s, I spent years working in restaurants in France learning the technique and esthetics of French cooking. But it wasn’t these things that ultimately mattered. What was central to my learning to cook well was the realization that it’s all about the products I work with. 

The ingredients, which should always be the best, must be treated with love and reverence to bring out their natural qualities. If beautiful ingredients are approached without ego and without the need to “succeed,” they guide you and show you how to prepare them. The trick is to listen.

It is this spirit that guides Mandy’s classes. It is all about the ingredients and our relationship to them.

In my next post: Our first assignment.