The diary of a pastry chef in loss of taste and smell Covid-19

Anna Li knew something was wrong when she took a sip of her morning coffee in December and all she tasted was hot, slightly bitter water.

“My roommate and I have a coffee subscription, and it’s not uncommon to have a misfire,” said the 24-year-old chef de partie at Smyth, a Michelin-starred tasting menu restaurant in Chicago. “But then it hit me, and I went wild in my apartment, sniffing out all the candles I know were nasty and eating peanut M&Ms and olives at the same time.”

It was days after the start of a week-long closure at Smyth and the sibling of downstairs bar/lounge The Loyalist by chefs/owners John and Karen Shields after several members of staff were tested positive for Covid-19. Li, who was vaccinated and boosted, thought she had Covid even before getting tested, as the smell and accompanying loss of taste became telltale symptoms of the virus.

Affecting between 30 and 80% of patients, according to McGill University in Quebec, the loss of smell is frightening and isolating for anyone – let alone someone whose livelihood relies on these deeply intertwined senses. During Li’s surreal week of no smell or taste — which coincided with New Year’s Eve and the busiest duty week she had ever seen at Smyth — she leaned on her team (and their collective penchant for gallows humor), discovered an unfounded confidence in her own abilities and learned never to take her senses for granted again.

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As chef de partie (essentially a pastry chef), Li is part of a small team of chefs in charge of all pastries for the two restaurants – which encompass everything from rolls and baguettes to cakes, macaroons, custards, syrups and sorbets. Menu development gives them access to an enviable toolbox of superlative ingredients expressed in every form imaginable – peak-season white truffles and citrus fruits ranging from tart bergamot to lemon; bittersweet Seville oranges; and sweet pine limes. Black malt oil made from wheat berries is house sprouted, blackened and blended with beeswax to co-star in a rich foie gras macaroon. A fig leaf crème brûlée will go through dozens of iterations just to figure out the best way to soak the bitter leaves in the liquid.

Li relies on her nose to determine when things are done; she tastes dishes at every stage of development – tweaking in the microscopic realm of 10 grams of extra lemon juice.

“What I realized – which, when I think about it now, is common sense to me – is how well I am able to offset brain power by relying on olfactory cues when cooking. or cook something,” she said. .

Suddenly lacking these crucial sensory pillars, she returned to work after a 10-day quarantine, knowing she had to execute a special New Year’s Eve menu. Oh, and did I mention that her Sous Chef Brian – who she was supposed to spend six hours with making a chocolate and hazelnut opera cake – had tested positive in a rapid Covid test on the same day?

“I was like, cool cool cool. I’m just going to make this cake myself without being able to taste or smell,” Li said.

Some desserts are reappearing in different versions and will thus benefit from model formulas, such as the opera cake. But iterative development is always crucial for every station of a gourmet kitchen throughout the service, not only to create the most delicious item, but also to achieve consistency. Li leaned on her team even more to make sure everything went smoothly to top off a $265 tasting menu.

“Jenna, my station partner, and I tasted a lot of stuff — just another taster, a pair of eyes, and check and balance over everything,” she said. “But I doubted myself so much, and it also made me feel so useless. Why am I here if I can’t taste things?”

Fortunately, his colleagues found some humor in the absurdity of the situation, carried by the high probability that it was temporary, since Li was boosted.

“People were so mean!” Li said laughing. “We had this new dessert on the New Year’s menu, a mushroom cream with royal sauce. And people were dipping slices of shaved white truffle in this wonderful royal sauce that my chef had made, like, ‘Oh my god , this might be the best white truffle I’ve ever had. You should try it – oh shit, I forgot you can’t taste anything.'”

What does the rare white truffle from Piedmont, musky and garlicky, taste like if you can’t taste anything? “Nothing scraps of leather.” And how about that expensive dollop of brine, tasty and refreshing caviar left over after serving? “Tiny little cold, bland tapioca pearls.”

Besides setting timers, using temperature gauges and color confidence as cooking cues.

“Li began to look to other tools in his arsenal as indicators that the dessert components were on the right track: Does it feel good in the mouth like it did when it tasted just before? How do the salivary glands react? Does it coat the tongue the same way? Is there enough sugar in this salty component to make it round and spread across the palate? She even found bursts of carnal joy, which also gave her hope.”

“There was a time when we were closing the restaurant after New Years – it was probably 1:30 a.m.,” she recalls. “We have apple nectar that we make – cold, made with Honeycrisp apple juice that we spice and cook at home. so I had to drink half an hour of course of this nectar, and it was so delicious – I think partly because it was fresh It was the first thing I had consumed since I had lost the taste that had triggered some sort of visceral delight or joy. I remember thinking, this is so bright and sweet and refreshing and I could have so much.”

Over the next week, Li’s taste and smell gradually returned, starting with salty things. Only recently has she finally recovered the ability to discern subtlety in sweet things – floral, fruity, etc.

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But is she a different cook now?

“I’m almost hesitant to say I don’t think so,” she said. “I think I maybe take less for granted in the sense of the carnal, visceral pleasures of flavor that make the eating experience so delicious. And for me personally, someone who grew up with the ability to taste, Finding him is amazing.”

It may not be such a bad thing to quickly forget, or even unlearn, some of what we relied on to endure a traumatic time. Scientists have recently discovered that neurons in the brain, in addition to containing nanomachines designed to build new memories, have a different set dedicated to the careful dismantling – and therefore forgetting – of certain components of our stored memories. . In an opinion piece for the New York Times, Scott A. Small, director of the Center for Alzheimer’s Disease Research at Columbia University, wrote that while remembering the toll of the pandemic and to take the lessons with us, forgetting is also normal and crucial for mental health:

“Memory and forgetting work in unison,” Dr. Scott wrote. “We depend on our memory to record, learn, and remember, and we depend on forgetting to balance, sculpt, and stifle our memories. This balancing act is, in fact, vital to our cognitive functioning, our creativity, and our mental.” health.”

For Li, what goes on in tangent with his deep sense of gratitude is a reinvigorated confidence in his abilities and his leadership instincts. She savors her practice – religiously tasting each component of her mise en place to discern if the essential oils are weaker in expression today than yesterday, to decide if the warmly spiced rum syrup needs the vanilla hazelnut of the bean. tonka, to figure out how to get the perfect balance in this little liver macaron with flavors as powerful as foie gras ganache, blackened lime, pine syrup, black malt wax and pickled golden enoki mushroom.

“A lot of the things we plate require a sense of balance and delicacy,” Li said. marinated or two? How big? How strong is this pickle? If I add too much, will it overpower the ganache?

“Part of that is feeling comfortable in my role, knowing that we should be better at executing every step of the way. But I’m also taking more ownership. I’m confident in my judgment of balance and in what I live in. And it’s such an empowering tool.”

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