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OP: The Elements of Taste

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by Gray Kunz

This is a book of lasting significance by a brilliant chef. It was high on Nach’s “Most Admired” list from the first day he saw it and its importance will, we believe, only grow in coming years. It is a cookbook, of course, but that is the least of what it is. The Elements of Taste, as its title suggests, is a profound look at the fundamental characteristics of food—a collection of fine, imaginative dishes based on an exhilarating theoretical platform. 

It is the creation of the great Gray Kunz (1955–2020) who was born in Singapore but trained and began his career in Switzerland. He came to New York where, from 1991 until 1998, he was the much lauded chef of Lespinasse. In time he started restaurants of his own, but that was not where his strength lay. He was a thinker who was interested in the underpinnings of the cooking that he offered.

Of course, his book has recipes—many of them—each beautifully conceived and presented with careful instructions, tasting notes, plating descriptions, and exquisite color photography. While the recipes are by no means beside the point, it is clear that they are there primarily to illustrate the ways in which flavors may be used together—sometimes to harmonize, sometimes to establish startling contrasts. 

Reviewing the chef’s work, restaurant critic Brian Miller observed that “Kunz uses ordinary ingredients to weave dishes that are amazingly simple yet with wonderful stratified flavors that just keep washing over the palate.” Some have referred to it as “contrapuntal cuisine.” One could mention, for example, the sole in crisped couscous with watercress, ginger, and asparagus broth or the chilled cinnamon rhubarb soup garnished with toasted pine nuts.

Developed by Kunz, along with food writer Peter Kaminsky, the book’s rationale is to help the cook identify elemental flavors and show them at play. Its table of contents reveals Kunz’s thinking. He identifies fourteen “elements of taste”—those that “push” (salty, picante, sweet), those that “pull” (tangy, vinted, bulby, spiced aromatic, floral herbal, and funky), those that “punctuate” (sharp/bitter), and those he identifies as “taste platforms” (garden, meaty, oceanic, and starchy). 

No one has to accept his specific flavor categories, but the concept of developing and working with such classification, far from simplistic, is immensely stimulating and productive.

Published in 2009, the book is extremely handsome and inviting. It is good to cook from and, even for those whose cooking is not in his style, it is rewarding reading. This first edition volume is a strong Very Good, the jacket showing moderate shelfwear and a small tear on the rear flap corner. Since his unexpected death at 65 in March of 2020, Kunz’s book has been of increasing interest to collectors—and we are pleased to be able to offer this copy, signed by the chef to a previous owner.

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