Chef Tom – Taste vs. Flavor

I heard an interesting story a while back about the difference between taste and flavor. Roughly, taste involves the senses: taste buds, olfactory, etc. Flavor, on the other hand, is about context: where you are, who you’re with, what’s going on, etc.

Let’s say you have a preferred place to get your favorite burger. You love to go back, sit at “your” table, chat with that cute waiter/waitress, and order what you order every time you go.. The burger arrives, you take a bite and there it is! That burst of umami and crunch and savory and juice and yummy that you crave; you want it when you want it and this place always delivers. You get an immediate hit of comfort, of consistency, of continuity. For the moment, you belong to your neighborhood and your family (the waitress, the cook, the cashier, old friends sitting at the counter).

Imagine. Take that same burger and transport yourself somewhere else. You’re still gonna get your favorite burger… but from a different server, surrounded by strangers, in an unfamiliar location. You take a big bite, and the burger is not nearly as delicious and fulfilling. Doesn’t even come close. Same burger, different context, and the flavor is completely different.

That’s why your grandma’s lasagna can never be matched, even by a Michelin three-star chef who’s a genius at technique. You could be sitting at a table set with crystal, silver and linen, being served by an Armani model, and drinking wine bottled in Italy a decade ago. Your lasagna could be made of the best ingredients available. Yet, what’s missing is your grandma – her love and attention – and sitting in her warm kitchen that smells of garlic and baked bread and home. You heart isn’t being tugged by your long, complex history with this gentle woman. Absent are your rich memories of a lifetime of sitting at her table, eating her lasagna. She sets the 100th plate of her secret recipe in front of you and smiles. She looks you in the eye with a look that says “You are my blood and I love you.” You are present to your deep love for her. Her lasagna makes it all very real.

Taste is definitely an important part of the experience, but flavor is the context, and it provides a deeper emotional connection with the food.

Even More Flavor

There’s another story I’ve told many times myself, especially to my allergenista customers, about what gives food its flavor. More scientific this time. What gives food its flavor are nutrients. The more nutrients in a food, the better it tastes. Think of a tomato from Safeway vs. a tomato picked fresh from your garden. One is bland and mostly texture, the other explodes in your mouth in a riot of complexity.

Nutrients come from the soil. Great soil means great nutrients. Over-farmed soil, robbed of most of the good stuff, produces flavorless foods. Simple. Logical. Organic farming techniques nourish the soil and cultivate a rich, nutrient-dense environment in which the food can grow. That produces  intense taste sensations. A tomato that tastes like summer. A melon so sweet and juicy your heart aches in anticipation as you slice off a piece. Peaches, picked right from the tree, lusciously golden, and floral. So good, you eat three quickly, wiping the juice from your chin with your sleeve before you offer one to anyone else.

Honey-roasted Carrots with Tahini Yogurt

Serves 4

Adapted from Chef Yotam Ottolenghi

Tahini-yogurt sauce:

2 Tablespoons tahini (sesame paste)

2/3 cup Greek yogurt

2 Tablespoons lemon juice

1 clove garlic, crushed



2 Tablespoons honey

2 Tablespoons olive oil

1 Tablespoon coriander seeds, toasted and lightly crushed

½ Tablespoon cumin seeds, toasted and lightly crushed

1 Tablespoon fresh thyme leaves

2 pounds carrots, peeled and cut crosswise into two 2-3 inch batons
(I like using rainbow carrots)

¼ cup cilantro leaves, coarsely chopped

Salt and black pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 425°F.

Place all the ingredients for the tahini sauce in a bowl with a pinch of salt. Whisk together and set aside.

Place the honey, oil, toasted coriander and cumin seeds, and thyme in a large bowl with 1 teaspoon salt and a good grind of black pepper. Add the carrots and mix well until coated. Spread the carrots out on a large baking sheet and roast in the oven for 40 minutes, stirring gently once or twice, until cooked through and glazed.

Transfer the carrots to a large serving platter or individual plates. Serve warm or at room temperature, with a spoonful of sauce on top, scattered with the cilantro.

On That Note

I was lucky enough to chef for a young family for a couple of years. Joann was pregnant with son number two and Lawson was/is a pretty famous as a world musician. Both led busy lives so I provided them with tasty dinner choices, taking some pressure off their often-hectic week.

Lawson Rollins. By pretty famous world musician, I mean the man has released eight albums and won numerous awards. He’s had a #1 Billboard radio hit and placed in the Billboard Top 10 World Music Chart. You can read about his numerous accolades here.

It was really special for me to be close to Lawson and his wife, Joann (pictured). As I posted in a previous article, world music is my favorite genre. I found it quite validating to know someone on the front lines of creativity in such a global celebration of artistry. Lawson’s music spans multiple cultures, including those of Spain, India, Persia, and the Arab world. He’s collaborated with big names like producer Shahin Shahida. Shahin even came to visit one week, and I was honored to make a Persian meal for him and the Rollinses.

I could go on about Lawson’s bio and his accomplishments, but it’s all on his website. You can go there and listen to samples, as well as purchase his music. Here are a few of his most popular pieces, including one of his viral videos, “The Fire Cadenza,” where he shows his incredible virtuosity on the guitar.

Santa Ana Wind

Embed code:


Embed Code:

The Fire Cadenza

Embed code:


Chef Tom is currently Resident Chef for a small tech firm in San Francisco. He also teaches cooking classes, caters small parties and leads overseas culinary tours. His specialty for the last twelve years has been cooking for people with food allergies and sensitivities. His motto is “Food should give you pleasure, not pressure.”

Check him out at

2 Responses to “Chef Tom – Taste vs. Flavor”

  1. When I read your recipes I’m always missing one ingredient. Just like my cross stitch projects, out of hundreds of colours of thread, I’m always missing a single colour. My husband was a cook (not a professional one) and researched every recipe and the individual ingredients. He believed in fresh, growing and drying his own herbs (which I still do) We didn’t purchase a loaf of bread for 15 years, he made it. His charcoal bbq’d turkeys were famous. (he was nicknamed the “turkey messiah”). He was willing to try anything (both cooking and eating). He had a way with, and a feel for food, like his photography, and a passion for music. Your columns remind me of him. You bring him back into my kitchen once a week. Thank you for that.

    • Tom Herndon Says:

      Wow, thanks, Pat, for your.kind words and evoking your husband. Sounds like an amazing man. So the missing ingredient, then, is your husband?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: