As a chef in the late 1980s and early '90s, at legendary restaurants such as Hong Kong's Plume at the Regent (now InterContinental) and, in New York, Adrienne at The Peninsula and Lespinasse at St Regis, Gray Kunz was making fusion cuisine. Other chefs were doing it, too, but badly, because they were adding Asian ingredients to European dishes without considering if the flavours worked well together. Kunz's food was different. When Ruth Reichl, then food critic for The New York Times, reviewed Lespinasse in 1994, she wrote, "It is no surprise, of course, to find Thai, Chinese and Indian foods turning up in your favourite French restaurant … Gray Kunz … is ahead of the curve. A Singapore-born Swiss who trained in the kitchen of Fredy Girardet near Lausanne, Mr Kunz uses these herbs and spices with extraordinary confidence … Mr Kunz has an almost Asian fascination with texture, and he loves to play with temperature as well."
In The Elements of Taste, published in 2001, the authors set out to change the way we think about taste. "All of us have, at one time or another, salivated over a picture in a cookbook and, by dint of hard work and following the directions to a T, turned out something just a cut above a braised running shoe. Following a recipe by rote requires little more than an ability to fill a measuring cup and read your watch. A cookbook is only a road map: it doesn't tell you if the ingredients in your local market are trucked in. Are the strawberries sweet or tart this year? Was the hog fed on apples or acorns? Was the fish frozen or is it fresh off the boat? All of these qualities influence taste, and they change from place to place, week to week, year to year … The accomplished chef understands how taste works, what its components are, how it can be layered, how it must be balanced … This book is, we hope, a step toward a new way of understanding cuisine …
"Given a lack of literature about taste, we sat down and tasted … We had two goals, both of them equally important: the first, to devise a system that includes most of the tastes in the modern palate; the second, to simplify this system so that we didn't end up with so many tastes that we would confuse more than we explained."
They narrowed it down to 14 flavours, starting off with salty, sweet and picante (spicy hot), then moving on to others that included tangy, "vinted" ("the taste of wine when used as an ingredient"), "bulby" (the flavour of garlic, shallots, onions and leeks that are "transformed by heat into one of the most effective carriers and enhancers of taste]), meaty, oceanic and starchy.
Kunz combines flavours in unexpected ways. About his recipe for lobster in syrah reduction with aromatic grits, he writes, "Going by the old red-wine-with-meat and white-wine-with-fish rule, lobster is forever thought of as being prepared with white wine. But lobster has a rich, buttery-tasting flesh that can stand up to a big red wine sauce." He pairs steak tartare ("a very predictable dish") with unexpected ingredients of pickled papaya and kecap manis to brighten up the flavours. Other inventive combinations include honey-glazed celery root with ginger curry sauce; summer squash with tomato and cheddar in chardonnay and lemon thyme emulsion; and sole in crisped couscous with watercress, ginger and asparagus broth.