Exercising the Mental Mouth

by Jennifer Iannolo

I’ve just received the first set of menu ideas from the Roger Smith Hotel chefs for my Sex on a Plate event, and as I review the flavor profiles, my mental mouth is hard at work to determine what I think will work, and what I might like to tweak. So I thought this was a good time to talk more in depth about this phrase to which I’m constantly referring.

When I talk about the “mental mouth,” I mean your little inner chef, who goes to work when you are hungry, or are planning a meal. He’s the one who calls to you when you’re craving something like honey-roasted figs stuffed with whipped blue cheese and pine nuts, or who takes stock of your fridge’s ingredients and says, “We’re having a Gruyere omelette with sauteed onions, a side salad with honey Dijon vinaigrette and grilled bread.”

He’s also the one who craves things at the most inconvenient times, like homemade Chinese dumplings at 2 AM. (Incidentally, my brother Phil, whose palate blows mine away, will get up and indulge that craving. His dumplings are some of the best I’ve ever tasted.)

That little inner chef is the keeper of food memories. The storer of flavor profiles. The master of indulgences. And the more you exercise him — by tasting, exploring, sniffing, touching — the more skilled he becomes. After many years of training, I can now confidently open any fridge and plan a meal (except for Chef Mark’s, which has little to work with but bottles of foreign ingredients I can’t decipher). For example, if I see eggs, flour, cream and some vegetables, it’s time for pasta primavera accented with whatever herbs and spices I have to work with.

Sometimes the mental mouth can fool us. It can say “Yes! Try the abc with the xyz!” — and it’s a disaster. Sometimes it’s a win — think dark chocolate-dipped bacon.

The mental mouth is what has led us to evolve as a cooking and eating species. It has created the winning flavor combinations of lime, cilantro, chile and beef, or pasta, Pecorino Romano cheese, butter and truffle shavings. Someone had to take a risk — and we get to benefit. The more you taste, the more data you store in that inner chef’s recipe files, so when you stumble upon the perfect tomato he goes to work. Do you want to eat that juicy ruby with citrusy cilantro or spicy basil? With red onions or sweet white ones? Alone or with some bread?

As you develop his repertoire, you can then look at a dish named Beef medallion with celery root puree, confit garlic foam and spiced port reduction and give it a “Hell, yes.” Right now my inner chef is dancing in the combination of the delicate celery root and sweet garlic foam, knowing a little punch will come from the spicy reduction, all blending together perfectly with the richness of the beef. I can taste it in my head.

So if you want to develop your own little inner chef, start paying closer attention when you eat. See how the flavors play on your tongue, and your palate. Take note of what specifically you like about the flavor or texture. Do avocados make your tongue sing with their delicate, silky texture? Do you like the way noodles feel as they slide down your throat? Does the smell of fresh oregano make you swoon? The world is your laboratory. Go play.

And yes, I’m serving that beef dish at the event.

Photo: Kelly Cline

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