Adam Cole has worked in the kitchens of chefs like Michael Voltaggio and José André. As executive chef and pitmaster of Maple Block Meat Co. in Culver City, California, Cole takes a fine-dining approach to barbecue that has earned Maple Block’s brisket the designation of the best in California from Texas Monthly barbecue editor Daniel Vaughn.
He also was born without a sense of smell. I sat down with Cole over beers as he spoke publicly for the first time about his secret.
Most people say that if you can’t smell, you can’t taste. Is that a misconception, and can you explain how you experience taste?
I’ve read that smell is like 80 percent of taste and if you have no sense of smell then it’s almost impossible to taste anything. From my own experience, that’s not true. I imagine smell and taste are closely linked, but they are not completely dependent upon each other. I may not be able to smell anything, but I can still taste and distinguish most things just fine using the basic senses of sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami. My palate may not be as developed as a lot of chefs and may never be, but that’s probably why, when I create new dishes, I pay a lot more attention to balance. And I have no problem creating balanced vinaigrettes or seasoning meat properly. I can do those kinds of things all day; it’s not an issue.
What kinds of tastes present challenges for you?
Things specifically linked to smell can be an issue. Truffles are a good example. I can’t smell truffles. I can’t smell truffle oil. I really can’t taste truffles. They taste like a really mild, slightly earthy mushroom. Truffle oil tastes like vegetable oil. I also have a hard time picking out a lot of delicate flavors like chervil, tarragon, or other fines herbes. But even though I may have a hard time identifying them in a sauce, I’ve learned how to use them based on technique.
If you were to take, for example, some tarragon and put it in your mouth, would you taste anything?
Yes, but I wouldn’t be able to say “That’s tarragon,” because for me a lot of herbs have a very vegetal flavor that I can taste but I can’t pinpoint what they are.
When you were in culinary school, did you tell your teachers you couldn’t smell?
I shared it with one professor, and he asked, “Is this something you feel hinders you?” I said, “No, I think I can figure out how to work around it by paying attention to a lot of other things besides just smell.” Because it wasn’t something I felt was holding me back, his advice was that maybe I shouldn’t tell everyone, because if I told a chef, they might hold it against me and not trust me. So I took that advice to heart and kept the information to myself until I absolutely had to share it.
Was there a time where you absolutely had to share it?
The first person I told was Michael Voltaggio. I was his sous chef at the Langham Huntington hotel. At that point I had been working for him over six years. Our grill cook was out of town, so I was working the grill, and we had a big batch of sous-vide short ribs. The Cryovac machine wasn’t working properly, so some of the ribs were rotten and some were not, and the only way to tell was to smell them. They were very expensive wagyu ribs, and I wasn’t just going to throw them away. The last thing I would ever do is serve bad food. I’d rather give up the secret I had kept for ten years than serve that to a customer. That was my breaking point, the moment I had to tell my chef.
How did he react?
His reaction was funny. He kind of curled his brow, thought about it for a moment, and then asked a few questions. But we were in the middle of service, so we didn’t have too long to dwell on it. And it never came up again. By that time he knew my skill, so it never became an issue of trust. The only reason I kept it to myself wasn’t because I doubted myself, I just didn’t want to give anyone a reason to question my ability.
Since you can’t smell, what adaptations, senses, or skills do you use in the kitchen?
As with anybody who is missing one sense you consciously or unconsciously use your other senses a little more to help. I pay more attention to my surroundings in ways that someone who has a sense of smell wouldn’t have to. For instance, if I’m boiling milk on the stove, I won’t smell it before it scalds, so I have to watch it really carefully. Or if I’m baking bread, I can’t smell it when it’s done, so I have to pay a lot of attention to the timing. I use sight and feel a lot, especially to evaluate something that might be going bad. I can look at a piece of fish and be 95 percent confident determining whether it’s fresh or not. And that’s based on what it looks like, the color or cloudiness of the eyes. I might also feel the texture of a protein and see how it feels in my hands. I have a really collaborative kitchen anyway. It’s not a dictatorship, it’s not an ego thing. I want everyone to have ownership, so I have no problem at all asking someone, “Can I get a nose on this?”
Barbecue has so much to do with smoke, which most of us think of primarily as a smell sensation. How do you navigate this part of barbecue cookery?
We treat barbecue like I would in a fine-dining restaurant, which means I’m very particular about how we season the meat and very specific about how long we cook it and at what temperature. Smell doesn’t have anything directly to do with how it’s going to come out. I have to know and understand how to build and maintain a fire, which is very important. That also happens to control the level of smoke. You can’t keep throwing more wood on it and build a big fire, because that will create too much bad smoke. That’s something I determine based on the fire, not on the smell. It’s a very visual, calculated skill.
There might be some in your profession who consider your inability to smell a disability. What do you say to them?
I say Beethoven was deaf and he made beautiful music. I’m not comparing myself to Beethoven, but there are composers who can’t hear who can write music; there are blind artists who paint pictures. I guess it goes to show there’s a lot more intuition that goes into creating than just our perceived abilities. Technically it may be a disability, but it’s never kept me from doing anything I’ve wanted to.