Put Cocoa on Your Avocado Toast, and Tea in Your Pasta Sauce


When it comes to wacky food combinations, you might think you’ve seen it all before.

As it turns out, there’s much more to eccentric flavour pairings than late-night fridge raids and haphazard drunken feasts.

In fact, there’s a whole world of science to it, as celebrity chef and author James Briscione illustrates in his new book: The Flavor Matrix.

“With flavour, it really comes down to the fact that most of what we taste is made of different smells,” he explains.

“When you start to understand those smells and how they are constructed in food you can begin to seek out the best combinations,” he told The Independent.

One surprising combination that Briscione came across while writing the book was tomatoes and tea, something that he insists works wonders in sauces.

“There is a very strong pairing between these two. We have become fans of seasoning our tomato sauce with a small pinch of black tea. It’s really quite complex and delicious, but be sure to add it in small quantities as it can easily overwhelm the sauce too.”

If that doesn’t tickle your pickle, why not try revolutionising your avocado toast with a pinch of cocoa powder? According to the New York City-based chef, it goes very well with a dash of coriander, chilli and salt.

Chopped strawberries and mushrooms is another innovative pairing that he cites in various recipes in the book.

If you’re feeling really adventurous, you could try adding some ground coffee granules to your roasted carrots.

“It really accentuates the deep, earthy flavour of carrots,” said Briscione, who uses coffee in a number of savoury dishes.

“Think of coffee as a seasoning, or as a roasted flavour booster.”

According to Briscione, unexpected flavour pairings are best created when a food’s aroma is measured - yes, that’s a thing you can do.

This can be done via chemical sampling techniques, the most common one being solid-phase microextraction.

“We couple that information with the knowledge that two ingredients share a high number of compounds, then we can accurately predict that they are going to taste good when combined,” he said.

However, Briscione admits that a lot of the flavour combinations chefs create are a result of trial and error, adding a mixture of textures can also be crucial.

“All of our senses factor into our enjoyment of food. We are genetically programmed to especially enjoy crisp or crunchy textures, they signal to the brain that a food is fresh and therefore more wholesome,” he explained.

However, these combinations are not about shock factor, insists Briscione, who began experimenting with flavour pairings on the US TV show Chopped, where he was the first-ever two-time champion.

Shortly after, he got involved in the creation of Chef Watson, IBM’s artificial intelligence cooking app.

He now works as a chef-instructor at The Institute of Culinary Education in Manhattan.

“Working with Chef Watson was my first introduction to the science of flavour and the role that food aromas play in creating great combinations,” Briscione said.

“I was fascinated by the concept and wanted to learn more. I quickly realised that no resources for this information existed, so I began my own research and set out to create The Flavour Matrix.”

As for the bizarre food pairings that Briscione enjoys himself: “That is an impossible questions!” he remarks, before confessing his deep affinity for Italian cooking.

“One of my favourite things to eat is a simple Roman pasta, be it cacio e pepe, carbonara, or amatriciana; when it’s done right it's amazing,” he said.

“I love it because of the textures - chewy pasta with creamy sauces - and the comforting tastes.”

However, Briscione admits that even with these classical dishes, complete culinary compliance is not his beat, adding that he amps up the flavour with Japanese furikake seasoning.

“Furikake has sesame seeds and seaweed in it so it adds an extra satisfying intricacy to simple pasta.”

Not quite so simple after all.