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Neurogastronomy: How farming, psychology and experiences influence taste

July 21, 2022
Bob Perry speaking in the Neurogastronomy track at the Alltech ONE Conference in May 2022

Bob Perry has served as a chef in a wide variety of restaurant operations and is a past board member of Chefs Collaborative and many other sustainable agriculture organizations. 

The International Society of Neurogastronomy (ISN) brings together chefs, agriculture experts and scientists to better understand the brain's influence on what we eat, why we like what we eat and how we eat. Bob Perry, ISN co-founder and chef in residence at the University of Kentucky, joins the Ag Future podcast to discuss the science of taste, community-supported agriculture and his research work aimed at supporting Kentucky farms through Ubatuba peppers, wheat varieties and rose veal.

The following is an edited transcript of the Ag Future podcast episode with Bob Perry hosted by Tom Martin. Click below to hear the full audio or listen to the episode on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or Google Podcasts.

Tom:            Welcome to Ag Future, presented by Alltech. Join us from the 2022 Alltech ONE Conference as we explore our opportunities within agri-food, business and beyond.


                     I'm Tom Martin for the Alltech Ag Future podcast series, (and I'm) here with Bob Perry, chef in residence at the University of Kentucky, where he also conducts food system research and teaches courses on quantity food production and civic gastronomy. Bob has served as a chef in a wide variety of restaurant operations. He's a past board member of Chefs Collaborative and many other sustainable agricultural organizations and a co-founder of the International Society of Neurogastronomy.


                     Right now, he's exploring the production of paprika from Ubatuba peppers grown on Kentucky farms, and he's searching for a variety of wheat that can be grown in Kentucky for bread flour. He's consulting with the Wendell Berry Center on their rose veal project to support Kentucky farms, so lots of ground to cover on a subject that's near and dear to us all: food. Welcome, Bob.


Bob:              Thank you, Tom.


Tom:            First, some terms to understand here. What is the science of neurogastronomy?


Bob:              I'm trying to figure out how to make this short and sweet. It's basically the study of taste, but you have to differentiate between flavor and taste. Flavor is purely objective. You can measure flavors in foods, the different chemicals and aromatics that provide what you smell. Taste is created in the brain, so taste is completely subjective. You and I could eat the same thing. You love it; I hate it. Flavor-wise, it's exactly the same. The difference is in our minds whether you like it or not.


Tom:            So, it's all in our minds. What is civic gastronomy?


Bob:              Civic gastronomy, it's a class that I taught in the honors program at UK. I took ten freshmen honors (students), and each week, we prepared a meal from a community-supported agriculture share from the UK organic farm. The goal of the class was to cook every single item in the share every week. Each week, we looked at a topic in sustainable agriculture. I brought an expert on that topic to class, except instead of a lecture, the expert was our dinner guest. We all sat down at the table and had a lovely meal, and the students had to ask questions of the guest over dinner and then write a reflection paper.


Tom:            So, signing up for a CSA, or a community supported agriculture subscription, is that a good way to make that farm-to-table connection?


Bob:              That's a great way. It really is, because you're guaranteed to get something different every week, and you're not going to get food any fresher than a CSA.


Tom:            What other ways to connect with local farms can you recommend?


Bob:              Well, obviously, the farmers' market. I'm really pleased; I've been in this place about 20 years now, and it's really heartening to see more and more local products in more and more places. They pop up all over the place, especially in restaurants — which, 20 years ago, it was hard to get local food in restaurants. The infrastructure was just really not there. Now, we've done a lot for the infrastructure. We've got new meat processing plants across the state. We've got a whole lot more produce going through local wholesale channels that can get to restaurants easily.


Tom:            Now, I guess it's a marketing plus to be able to say that you are farm-to-table.


Bob:              Yeah. All the best restaurants are promoting what local foods they carry.


Tom:            The course title Quantity Food Production probably speaks for itself, but what ground do you cover in teaching this course?


Bob:              This is a capstone course for two majors at UK, for the dietetics and human nutrition students and for the hospitality management students. So, we bring those two majors together, and the students actually operate a restaurant on campus two days a week. They rotate through every possible position you could have in a restaurant, both front of the house and back of the house. We serve a three-course meal, mostly with local food, all cooked from scratch in two and a half hours. I tell people that understand restaurants, I say it's like opening a new restaurant with a new staff and a new menu every single day.


Tom:            For those of us who are here in the Lexington area, can we come and dine at that restaurant?


Bob:              I can always get a couple more people in, but you're on your own with parking at UK.


Tom:            As a chef, how does the scientific understanding of the interactions between food and psychology influence or inform the choices that you make in the kitchen?


Bob:              That's a big question. There are so many factors that go into making a plate of food. First is visual. You're always going to look at the food visually first; then, you've got the smells, (and) then you've got texture to consider. Then you've got the interplay of the different flavors to consider. What are you going to drink with that, also, whether it's wine or any other beverage?


                     There's a really interesting gentleman at Oxford, Charles Spence, at the Crossmodal Lab at Oxford. He has done hundreds of experiments playing around with food and eating. For instance, he found that dessert tastes sweeter on a blue plate than it does on a white plate. Coffee tastes less bitter in a black cup than it does in a white cup. He's played with some interesting — that's the reason for the name of his lab, Crossmodal. He's served people seafood dishes with and without sounds of the sea in their headphones to see whether they liked it more or less. So, it's a really fascinating field, and that's a large part of neurogastronomy, too.


Tom:            I'm going back to the blue plate and the black cup. Is that all in our heads?


Bob:              Yes, just strictly psychological.


Tom:            Wow. Bob, you're doing research into making paprika from Ubatuba peppers. How do these peppers differ from the sweet red pepper that's typically used to make paprika?


Bob:              Ubatuba is a sweet red pepper. Actually, it's very sweet. It's hard to describe on the radio. It's sort of a star shape with two domes. It's about the size of a half dollar, if anybody remembers what a half dollar looks like. We've been playing with this for several years. All peppers are from South America, obviously, and it takes a long growing season, so we don't get these peppers until right before frost. The first year I had them, I think I did 12 different treatments. We tried drying them whole, drying them split, with seeds, without seeds, different temperatures.


                     The method we found that worked the best was to dry the peppers (and) cut (them) in half (with the) seeds intact at less than 120 degrees so you don't cook the peppers. It takes about a week to dry them. I've got a commercial dehydrator. Then we grind them into a fine powder using a big Vitamix blender. When we did this without the seeds, my chef friends that I sampled this out to thought it was actually too sweet. It was very sweet. It's a really interesting flavor. It's kind of hard to describe. It's been a lot of fun. It's just something completely different.


Tom:            What happens if you leave the seeds in? How does that change it?


Bob:              It adds a little bit of heat. The seeds can be hot. There are a number of peppers: the shishito peppers from Japan and the Padron peppers from Spain. The Padron peppers, I call the lottery peppers because not all of them are hot, but occasionally, one will be quite hot.


Tom:            That's a great term. Is this paprika commercially available yet?


Bob:              No. We've had a hard time actually commercializing the growing of the peppers. It's a very long-season pepper, and we're not really quite warm enough here in Kentucky to really make a go of it.


Tom:            Oh, I see. I know that you're also searching for a variety of wheat that can thrive here in Kentucky. What conditions present in Kentucky are similar to those in other areas where farmers might benefit from your wheat research?


Bob:              Well, you need to look at that a different way. What grows well in Kentucky is soft red winter wheat, which is the perfect wheat for biscuits, dumplings, pies, cookies — things that you don't want to rise. Things that you want to rise, like breads, you want something that has a lot more protein. The hard white winter wheats and hard spring wheats have a lot more protein and, thus, a lot more starch and a lot more gluten. That makes a good bread. We're trying to find one that straddles both worlds, so it's really an agricultural problem first, but we're approaching it as a taste problem first.


                     Dr. David Van Sanford at UK, our wheat geneticist, grows thousands of varieties of wheat every year. His grad students come to my lab and grind the wheat into flour and bake breads and we taste them. (The) first thing we're looking for is a wheat that tastes good and makes a good bread. (In) the next step, David will work with the Halcombs down in Southern Kentucky on their farm and actually grow the wheat to see if it's — the term we use is “agronomically profitable”. Does it grow well? Does it yield well? Can the farmer make money with it? Because if the farmer can't make money with it, what's the point?


Tom:            Exactly. Well, tell us about your work with the Wendell Berry Center.


Bob:              Oh, I love the Wendell Berry Center. The folks up there are nice, and the work they do is incredible. Of course, most people know Wendell's work. I've known Wendell for 30 years or more. They had the idea of doing rose veal, which is done in other parts of the world. France has a fairly robust rose veal, and some other countries, too.


                     When they explained this to me, the way I thought about it is (that) this might be the most ecologically gentle way to produce beef possible. In the traditional beef market, the cow gives birth, the calf stays with the mama for about six months, (and) then it's weaned. Then it's fed out for another year. Then it goes to a feedlot, where it's fattened. It goes to processing, and then you get it.


                     (With) the rose veal, the difference is when you wean the calf at six months, you harvest it then. There are no feedlots. There's no carryover. You don't have to carry these calves through the winter, so you don't have to feed them. You cut your hay down. It doesn't take any more infrastructure on the farm. You're not building any more buildings. You're not building any houses. It's really just taking the calf at weaning and making a rose veal out of it. It's a lovely product.


Tom:            This is a completely different subject here, but what are some recognizable ways, some ways that we would notice that food advertisers use the science of neurogastronomy to influence our choices, to make us want to buy something?


Bob:              There's something called a structure function claim that the FDA allows food manufacturers to use. The structure function claim means you can say that your product may alleviate some condition. You're not saying it does, but you're saying it might. If you eat this cereal, it might lower your risk of heart disease. They can't prove it. No studies have ever been done. They let them get away with that.


Tom:            So, a good, solid grasp of the science of neurogastronomy, is that something that a budding professional chef wants to have in their toolkit?


Bob:              Oh, definitely. Gordon Shepherd's book that started it all, “Neurogastronomy,” is a fascinating read. Gordon really wrote the book for the layperson, so I encourage anybody that's really passionate about food to look into his book first. He explains how we develop our taste in our minds, but it's not just in your mind. Everything affects taste: your past, did you have a good experience with food, a bad experience with food. The one way we tell students so it's easy to understand is, “You ate something, and you got sick. You generally are not going to eat that food again for a long time, because even thinking of that reminds you that you got sick.” That's one way that your past affects taste. Also, maybe your grandmother made the best snickerdoodle cookies ever, and every time you have a snickerdoodle cookie, you love it because it reminds you of your grandmother.


Tom:            Interesting. Bob, I know that you've been a chef on private yachts in the Caribbean, on My Old Kentucky Dinner Train, the Belle of Louisville, and in the kitchens of various other restaurants, including your own French bistro. From these experiences, what stands out in your mind as having been the most impactful on your growth and development? What really made a difference?


Bob:              I was working to build a French country inn for an investor in the Blue Ridge Mountains, and it was going to be a French Provençal bistro. It's a style that I've been cooking in for a while. It's just a style that I like, and I've read everything I could get my hands on. Prior to opening this operation, I decided that if I was going to cook Provençal cuisine, I'd better go to Provence and see what it was really like.


                     In the early days of the internet — this would have been about 1997 — I went online, found a website in Provence that promoted hotels, and I put it out there. I said, “I'd like to come and work (for) anybody that would trade room and board for labor,” which was not really legal, but I got a call a couple of weeks later. This nice gentleman that owns this little, tiny hotel in Provence says, “You seem like a nice young man on the internet. When do you want to come? How long do you want to stay?” I talked to him, I think, twice on the phone. I bought a ticket. I stepped off the plane in Marseille, France, and they had a sign that said, “Chef Bob”. Pierre and his English-speaking waiter picked me up at the airport, whisked me off to this tiny little town in the French Alps called Monastère Sainte-Marie, the Monastery of St. Mary's. He and his wife owned a little hotel there.


                     The story of them is fascinating. Pierre retired. He was an electrical engineer. He retired from the French national electric company. He and his wife took over her parents' hotel that they had started right after World War II. This hotel was Picasso's favorite stop on the way to Nice in the winter. In the fall, all the artists would leave Paris (and) go to Nice for the light. If you've been to Provence in the fall, the light is really amazing. So, before the interstates (were built), it took three days to get there. The second night — this was Picasso's favorite hotel to stay in — he drew on a tablecloth a caricature of her mother and father, so they have an original Picasso of her parents.


                     Pierre's father in World War II was a Charles de Gaulle aide-de-camp. I got to meet his father. He was a very tiny man, but he was de Gaulle's right-hand man and went into exile with Charles de Gaulle; just fascinating. What I realized once I got there, in my luck — I've had this kind of luck for a lot — the chef they had at the time at the hotel had spent his three-year mandatory military training in France in the Navy stationed in Jacksonville, Florida. He spoke excellent English, which — I did not speak excellent French. So, I lived and worked in the hotel for a month straight. My wife was still teaching at Clemson at the time.


                     It struck me that the chefs over in France, they didn't have any great talent above what all the chefs I've worked with in the U.S. (had), but they had access to so much better food. The food access over there, it was really mind-blowing. We had one woman that did nothing but bring us eggs. She rotated them, and they were never refrigerated. Madame Tosh brought us goat cheese. Her family has been making goat cheese in the mountains for centuries, truly centuries. We had another man that did nothing but bring us potatoes. We had a huge potato pile in one of the basement rooms. It was things like that. All the meat came from the next town over, from a butcher shop wrapped in paper.


                     My first day there, the chef was trying to find something for this American to do. “What can I make him do?” The chef goes, “Oh, mayonnaise. Make mayonnaise.” I'm like, “Okay, that I can do.” I get the ingredients. I've got the mustard, and I've got the vinegar and shallots. I've got it all going. I'm looking for the olive oil, and I'm looking for a gallon tin can of olive oil, which is pretty much the only way I'd ever seen it commercially, and I can't find it. I'm like, “Chef, where's the oil?” He points up a high shelf around the entire circumference of the kitchen, and there are all sorts of bottles and jars filled with this deep, dark green oil. He says, “It’s everywhere.” Martine and Pierre, not only did they own the hotel; they owned an olive grove and made their own olive oil. So, it was just an amazing experience.


Tom:            What a fascinating time. That's Bob Perry, chef in residence and instructor at the University of Kentucky. Thank you so much, Bob.


Bob:              Thanks, Tom. It's a pleasure.


Tom:            For the Alltech Ag Future podcast series, I'm Tom Martin. Thank you for joining us. Be sure to subscribe to Ag Future wherever you listen to podcasts.