Making Dinner and Making Perfume

In the 1970s, I went to Paris, eager to learn classic French cooking and new methods that were evolving along with la nouvelle cuisine.

After much study, emulation, reading, and dining, my confidence grew. None of this mattered, however, compared to one insight that not only taught, but inspired my approach to everything olfactory-related: Respect the ingredients, keep cooking and processing to a minimum, and use only the finest products. I don’t depend on recipes but instead, improvise based on what I have and what grabs me in the markets. 

Expert perfumer and teacher Mandy Aftel recommends taking one ingredient and becoming familiar with it. Only then should it be combined with another substance and their interaction carefully explored. When making Green Iris, I wanted to magnify the subtle aroma of the best orris butter. After building up a base of natural orris butter and synthetics, I decorated it with ancillary ingredients and aromas. These, in much the same way as side dishes for a dinner, bring the main course into relief.

While cooks don’t describe them in these terms, sauces are constructed with bottom, middle, and top notes. When a sauté pan is deglazed with shallots, wine, and herbs, the mixture is reduced and becomes the base accord for the sauce. Meat or seafood glaze is added to give body, savor, and complexity. More herbs, spices, truffles, mushrooms, or other ingredients become the heart note. Butter and/or cream are often added to hold the sauce together and give it texture. Last, the head notes are added—quickly volatilizing mixtures such as Cognac, fines herbes (chives, parsley, chervil, tarragon). The sauce is seasoned and served immediately.

Cooking is a study in contrasts, dissonances, and harmonies. Flavors and textures interact. Some support each other and others take away. Nothing stands alone; all contribute to the whole.

Perfume, in this way, is just the same.