Flavor Balance by Chef Robert Wiedmaier

Salt, sugar, and fat: the three culprits that make processed foods so irresistible. I use them all in my cooking too, just a little differently than the large food companies—to coax out the flavors in my proteins.

The palate loves salt, sugar, and fat, and that is basic to human instinct. Salt is an essential compound in our
bodies that we naturally crave, fat is an extremely dense source of energy, and our taste for sugar is born out of a primitive craving for ripe fruit. When it comes to incorporating these elements into my cooking, I take it back to another primal basic: whole animal butchery—breaking down the whole animal and extracting all those flavors very naturally, and then balancing the flavors on the plate with those in the glass of wine accompanying it to bring out the best of both worlds.

If I am creating a dish with medallions of venison, the flavors that end up on that plate are the result of careful
preparation. For this dish, a whole saddle of venison was brought in and butchered. The bones were chopped into little pieces and caramelized. A mirepoix was added and then left to cook and cook and cook, until we get these amazing concentrated-venison flavors. As I think about what wine will pair best with this venison demi-glace, I add a little bramble to the sauce for its sweetness and some beets for their earthiness. And then I add wine that will reduce down and finish the sauce with a gastrique—a little bit of caramelized sugar and vinegar—to wake it up. Your cravings will be satisfied in a completely organic way.

Wine pairings are not easy—but when done well, it’s magical. A big part of learning to pair food and wine comes from simply tasting them, which I always encourage my staff to do. And given the amount of wine dinners we have, the opportunities to taste are endless. If you are a bona fide chef, you have to understand wines. And that is especially true for the saucier.

There is also a processed component to what happens in our kitchen: technique. And that technique is time and love, a lot of both, especially when it comes to making a sauce. The right flavors in a sauce are essential because they have to complement not only the rest of the dish but the wine as well. For a lamb sauce we might start off with a fond blanc—a white lamb stock that has been cooked and skimmed for 24 hours. Then we caramelize the bones from a second lamb, add the chopped vegetables, and bring out all the natural sugars. To that, we add the fond blanc for fortification and let that cook for another 24 hours, skimming constantly. From six to seven gallons of liquid, you might end up with about two pints. But you only need one beautiful, glistening spoonful of it in a saucepan, with a little butter and fresh tarragon or other herbs, to make a dish explode with flavor! It’s a lot of work, but seeing our guests’ satisfied expressions make it absolutely worth it.

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