If you’re a foodie, there may come a time when you experience something whose flavour is so remarkable that words fail you, hyperbole becomes actual reality, and taste feels like a revelation. That is what happened to me the first time I tried one of Mandy Aftel‘s Chef’s Essences. My eyes grew wide, words didn’t come out in full sentences, and I felt a mixture of awe and disbelief. I know it sounds like an exaggeration but it’s not, and I mean it with absolute sincerity. Some of Mandy Aftel’s Chef’s Essences rocked my (food) world, and I think they’re pure genius. I’m not the only one. Ms. Aftel’s creations are used in the White House, as well as some of the top restaurants in the world.
The Collection is an extensive one, with 15 essential sprays and over 50 essential oils, ranging from basic items like Black Pepper and Cinnamon to funky things like Peru Balsam, Frankincense, Fir Needles, Ylang-Ylang, Magnolia, and Violets. I’ve tried 11 of them now and wanted to share my experiences with you, covering what exactly they are, why they are a remarkable invention, how you can use them, and some of my adventures (or misadventures in a few cases). The ones I’ve tested are: Rose, Ginger, Blood Orange, Pear, Cognac, Cepes (Porcini Mushrooms), Chocolate, Tarragon, Sweet Basil, Coriander Leaf (Cilantro), and Pink Pepper. Today, I’ll start with a background explanation and introduction, then focus on 5 of the Essences: the Ginger, Sweet Basil, Rose Absolute, Blood Orange, and Pear. The remainder will be covered in Part II.
It might be useful to have a bit of background about the role of food in my life. Food has always mattered to me more than any other subject. It has since I was six years old, when I saw L’Aile ou La Cuisse, a film with France’s legendary Louis de Funes about a restaurant critic. Without exaggeration, it changed my life and became my ultimate dream. I was a complete food nut from that point forward, but I’ll spare you the details of what a crazy child I was and how little things have changed from then. The bottom line is that I am really passionate about food, cooking, and chef-y things — which is why Mandy Aftel’s Chef’s Essences had such an impact on me. They are like nothing that I’ve ever previously experienced. (As a side note, I can’t seem to get out of the bad habit of calling them Chef Essences, instead of Chef’s Essences, so I hope you and Ms. Aftel will forgive me for my malapropism throughout this piece.)
So, what are they exactly? Well, they are concentrated essences of a particular plant, flower, or herb. Some come in dropper form, some in sprays, and a few in both versions, but each one is the brightest, most intense rendition of that flavour that you can possibly imagine. All the essences are natural, devoid of synthetics or artificial ingredients, and food-safe. None of them smell like perfume, despite putting being put out by a perfume company. Gourmet Magazine once wrote, “Unlike some flavorings, these all-natural elixirs are clear and true, with no heavy perfumes or off-putting additives.” The reason is simple: Ms. Aftel disdains the artificial ingredients that dominate the scent and flavor industries. As she told The New York Times for their article, “Perfumes to Sip as Well as Sniff,” “It is the synthetic that stinks up the elevator[.]”
The essences were created by Ms. Aftel in conjunction with a Michelin-starred chef, Daniel Patterson of San Francisco’s famous Coi. Together, they wrote the 2004 cookbook “Aroma: The Magic of Essential Oils in Foods and Fragrance.” The Essences seem to have been released around the same time.
Their amazing vibrancy and super-saturated flavour has impressed some of the best chefs in the world — to the point that Bon Appétit magazine calls Ms. Aftel “a flavor-dealer to the stars.” Her Chef Essences are used at The White House, Grant Achatz‘s famous Next, Thomas Keller‘s world-renowned The French Laundry, José Andres‘ restaurants, Chez Panisse, and others. According to a 2005 New York Times article entitled “Of the Essence,” England’s legendary Heston Blumenthal uses Aftelier’s essence of Douglas Fir in his mango and lychee mousse at The Fat Duck, while “Dan Barber, the chef of Blue Hill in New York, makes a mushroom consomme with porcini oil, and a citrus broth for crab salad using blood orange oil.” The former White House Pastry Chef Bill Yosses relied on them too. He told MSNBC that he uses the essences in meringues.
It’s not just chefs with their desserts or food who have fallen hard for Ms. Aftel’s creations; mixologists across the country love to use them in cocktails. The aforementioned New York Times article entitled “Perfumes to Sip as Well as Sniff” explains how the leap to cocktails began with a famous mixologist, Audrey Saunders, “who did much to start the current hipster cocktail culture.” She relies on Ms. Aftel’s Chef Essences to take the “tinctures” she makes for her famous Pegu Club cocktails “to the next level,” but she’s not the only one. Jim Meehan of PDT — chosen as the Best Bar in the World in 2011 — relies on them as well. According to The New York Times article, these high-profile mixologists use the Chef Essences because they
believe the scents add one more dimension to the multisensory experience of a good drink. [¶] Even purist New York mixologists like Audrey Saunders and Jim Meehan, who say they would never reach for any ingredient that was synthetic or stale, are pouring Ms. Aftel’s products into their potions. After all, the powerful aromas and tastes are drawn from the botanical world and not from the flavor and fragrance suitcase. […][¶] [W]hen using scents for flavor, why use a distillation of something as common as black pepper or ginger, when you can reach for a grinder, grater or muddler?
“The essences reveal a floral back note,” Ms. Aftel explained, “which you don’t get with the original material.” […][¶]
Back in 2005, another New York Times journalist was initially highly dubious about all of this. Fragrant oils in food? She says she was flat-out “suspicious,” but she quickly changed her mind because “the truth was in the sniffing.” As Jennifer Steinhauer writes in (previously linked) article, “Of the Essence“:
I was initially suspicious of the use of oils in foodstuffs. But the truth was in the sniffing. The difference between ground spices and essential oils is a matter of depth, intensity and staying power. Dried lavender evokes the powder room of a fancy hotel. Lavender essential oil is a freshly bathed baby breathing hot little sighs into your neck. Cardamom is an Indian restaurant. Cardamom oil is an excursive train ride through Madurai, banyan trees and temples whizzing by. […][¶]
As it turns out, essential oils cannot make bad food good, but they can make good food great. Crab salad with pomelo is instantly fragrant with the addition of coriander oil, which wraps itself around each ingredient and holds on tightly. Litsea cubeba (derived from the small, pepperlike fruits of the may chang tree), when infused in oil, drizzled over a saffron-citrus sauce and paired with black bass and braised lettuce, is both intense and almost impossibly delicate. Blood orange sabayon is a sort of hallucinogen for the tongue — colorful, intense, more orange than orange. ”What I love about these oils,” Patterson says, ”is that they are all about easily integrating the extraordinary.”
Unlike spices, oils tend to float on top of a dish, their clarion call sharp but fleeting. While fresh tarragon, for instance, melds with other flavors, tarragon oil leaves a shroud of aroma. Frisson’s Moroccan daiquiri smells of mango and cardamom rather than the usual top note of alcohol. [Emphasis to names added by me.]
Originally, Ms. Aftel sent me Ginger and Sweet Basil in spray form, as well as the Tarragon in essential oil drops. Just a sniff of the Ginger in the bottle astonished me, while a spray on the tongue made my head spin in circles. (Yes, I sprayed right into my mouth, which may have been a little foolhardy in hindsight, but so worth it for the Ginger!) The same for the Basil. A single spray felt as though thousands of basil bunches had been reduced down to their most concentrated essence, but it was astonishingly fresh, bright, and visually glowing like an emerald. I actually cannot describe it in any way that would do it proper justice; I could use every form of hyperbole imaginable, but none of it would properly capture just how super-saturated the taste is or how vivid. To borrow the New York Times‘ description for the flavour of Aftelier’s Black Pepper in a cocktail, it was “so intense it was a little shocking.” I think that summarizes a few of the fragrant oils, though not all.
Their intensity is such that a little generally goes a long way. I needed only a few, tiny drops of the tarragon to flavour a large pot of stew, while chefs in various newspaper articles say they use eye-droppers to dilute out a tiny portion in a large quantity of liquid. The sprays, however, seem a hair less concentrated or intense, though the flavour is still very rich. I also found them a little easier to use in terms of handling the quantities or amounts. One reason may be because of the fact that they were not as forceful in flavour, but another may be due to personal taste issues. I don’t mind an excess of ginger, so I felt comfortable risking over-spraying the element, whereas tarragon is a trickier flavour in large quantities so I had to be more careful in terms of just how many drops I used.
In the last eight months or so, I’ve used the three Chef Essences quite a bit in cooking, and was really curious about the other flavours, but I didn’t know where to start. As I noted earlier, the full collection is very large, with over 50 different kinds of the drop versions or oils alone. I knew that I couldn’t be the only one who felt a little overwhelmed by the selection, and who might be interested in a small explanation of what some of the Essences tasted like, so I wrote to Ms. Aftel to inquire if there was any way I could test a few others for a more complete review. My goal was not to obtain free bottles, though, so I asked if it were possible to have small samples made up.
Ms. Aftel graciously and very kindly agreed, creating the most adorable minis of four sprays and four essential oils. Several were flavours that I had specifically mentioned being interested in, while others were things that Ms. Aftel thought I would enjoy. The entry page for each one on the Aftelier website has recipes links, but Ms. Aftel also gave me some tips for their use, like how some of them could be dripped or sprayed over ice-cream. (In fact, Ms. Aftel has an actual “Ice Cream Set” of certain Chef Essences that are particularly well-suited for ice-cream.) So, the first thing I did was to go to the super-market with a shopping list, then get to testing.
I thought I would walk you through my experiences — starting today with Ginger, Sweet Basil, Rose Absolute, Blood Orange, and, finally, Pear — but I have to make a few things clear first: I am not a food blogger; I am most definitely not a baker; and I take simply ghastly photos of food in general. (Even with restaurant food!) So, you’re not going to see a ton of photos of my end results. I tried on a few occasions, but I fear I didn’t do much justice to the outcome; none of my images conveys just how good something can taste with a Chef Essence. I’m even more hopeless when it comes to baking, so that limited some of my testing options. Finally, I don’t drink a lot, so there was no way that I was going to test out 11 different Chef Essences in multiple cocktails variations. (I would probably have ended up in the hospital with alcohol poisoning if I had.) I hope you will keep these limitations in mind, because there is a lot more you can do than what I came up with.
The Ginger Essence spray is one of my absolute favorites from the line, in large part because I adore Asian cuisine and the ingredient is such a staple in its dishes. Ms. Aftel had suggested using it in tea, but I’m not a tea drinker, so I went straight for a stir-fry as a first test. I tried two sprays during cooking in one try, then later used it as a final, finishing touch instead. Regardless of when I timed its use or applied it, it made no difference to the flavour which remained intense, fresh, and bright. This is definitely one of the fool-proof Chef Essences that can be used without undergoing an actual cooking process and which can simply be sprayed on a dish. The flavour is incredibly bold, and has worked brilliantly when used in: countless fried rice dishes; as a final touch on top of Vietnamese Pho soup; in dumpling dipping sauces; as part of a honey-miso glaze for salmon; and on chocolate ice-cream.
In general, the quantity I use depends on the quantity of food I am preparing. To give you an idea, I keep about a cup’s worth of Asian dipping sauce in the fridge, made up of sesame oil, rice vinegar, green onions, and soy sauce. For that amount, I used 2 to 3 sprays of the Ginger Chef Essence, but I like a lot of ginger, so I suspect most people would be happy with a smaller amount. In contrast, a dinner plate of fried rice only needed one spray, and that was just bordering on overpowering the rest of the flavours.
Each Chef Essence spray bottle comes with about 230+ sprays, and their prices vary. The Ginger spray costs $22. As I’ve said earlier, the intensity of some of the Essences means a little goes a long way. Eight months of constant, weekly use has depleted my bottle by about one-eighth, which makes me think that I may have another 12-14 months to go, but I’m rather an extreme case given how much ginger I use. Unless you’re the same way, I suspect that most of the Chef Essence full bottles will last you a good number of years. (As a side note, the majority of the essences keep indefinitely at room temperature and don’t go bad, though the citrus ones have to be refrigerated.) In short, the Ginger is pretty economical, financially speaking, and the flavour is simply magnificent. It’s one of the more versatile Essences (tea, sauces, cocktails, and desserts), too, and it’s pretty idiot-proof to use. I recommend this one very, very strongly.
An explosion of green with an astonishing freshness that feels as though you went out to a herb garden, picked every bit of basil there, amplified their flavour by a thousand, and then reduced it down to a concentrated spray. That’s the Sweet Basil Chef Essence in a nutshell. It’s a fantastic item that brings a pop of enormous boldness to every dish, as well as a lovely, lingering fragrancy. When I tried a spray on Vietnamese Pho soup, it seemed to make all the other flavour bloom as well, but the aromatic touch is really what made the Pho taste more special than usual. Food is about smell almost as much as taste, and the Basil Chef Essence is one which works particularly well in this regard.
The Basil is another one of the Essences that is incredibly easy to use. It doesn’t need the heating process, and is quite versatile. I added it as a finishing touch on an Italian Caprese salad; used it in sauces; found it great with lighter proteins; and even sprayed it on frozen pizza before putting it in the oven. It is basically perfect for everything that you would normally use basil in, only better than anything you would ever find in a supermarket.
Turkish roses lie at the heart of this Absolute, one of the Aftelier oils, and the result is beautiful. I don’t really have the words to explain just how well the Rose Absolute works with vanilla ice-cream. It’s so incredibly rich, and with a beautiful (but wholly natural-smelling) floral aroma that lingers in your nostrils as the flower melts into the ice-cream. Every mouthful was pure decadence.
I have a bottle of Middle Eastern Rose Syrup in my larder and I’ve used it in the past in drinks or an occasional dessert sauce, but it’s nothing like the Aftelier Essence. It’s heavily sugared, almost cloying sweet, and with a fructose-like undertone. With Ms. Aftel’s Rose Absolute, however, you only experience a heady richness that feels like pure rose jelly. It swirls perfectly with vanilla, though I noticed that one of the recipes listed on the Aftelier website is: “Spiced Rose Chocolate Pudding.” I don’t make or cook desserts, so I desperately wish someone would make that for me. Instead, I plan to try the recipe for “Duck with Orange Rose Madeira Sauce,” since I do something similar with pork tenderloin. The blog, Lost Past Remembered, made the dish for Valentine’s Day with two drops of the Rose Absolute, and the photos look amazing! You can check out the link for the recipe.
The Rose Absolute is one of the few, really expensive Chef Essences at $54 for a 5 ml bottle, but there are about 150 drops worth in each one. It’s one of those decadent indulgences that a foodie or true chef would really love, so keep it in mind for Christmas if you happen to have a one in the family.
The Blood Orange vies with the Ginger as my favorite Chef Essence. It is simply outstanding! I received a mini-spray and I’ve almost used all of it up in a short time. Quite simply, everything seems to taste better with it. The Aftelier website describes it as an “Essential Oil from Israel” with the “luscious aroma of oranges and raspberries,” but I think its taste is far more than what those words convey. It’s tart, tangy, zesty, bold, and a kaleidoscope of brightness that visually skews orange and crimson-red and whose taste takes over everything, while the intoxicating aroma weaves its way around every bite. The smell, my God, the smell!
I’ve basically tried the Blood Orange in everything I could with the quantity available to me, but I have to start with the ice-cream. If the Rose Absolute was delicious on ice-cream, the Blood Orange was even better. I blinked when I tried it on vanilla ice-cream, but chocolate is where it’s the real star, in my opinion. A basic, simply okay chocolate ice-cream turned into something rich, riveting, and complex. Using two tiny sprays (and my minis put out less than the regular bottles) on about 3 tablespoons, the bland, rather tasteless, generic store brand suddenly tasted like something close to the famous dark chocolate with blood orange that is the speciality of the best gourmet ice-cream place in my city. But when I sprayed the Aftelier Blood Orange onto an expensive, dark chocolate ice-cream, my only description is the very unprofessional but honest: “OH.MY.GOD.” I think my eyes rolled backwards in my head. The taste was jaw-dropping, stunning, and I’m swallowing my saliva at the mere memory of it.
The Blood Orange also worked really well in everything from: chicken salad; mango salsa with salmon; chocolate cognac cookies; plain yoghurt with granola; balsamic reduction sauces; and even coffee. Finally, it added the perfect touch of brightness, zestiness, and counter-balancing acidity to a cooked fruit and nut stuffing that I used inside a pork tenderloin roulade with port, and I think it would do wonders for Thanksgiving stuffing as well.
Obviously, you have to love a citrus, fruity component in your savory dishes, but I think the Blood Orange would be superb in desserts and cocktails as well. In fact, a blogger called DocSconz tried, tested, and experimented with numerous Aftelier sprays in drinks and apparently came up with something called Rosemary’s Baby Cocktail for the Blood Orange one. Alas, I couldn’t find an accompanying recipe, but I love the name. Other drink ideas would be a Campari, Negroni, or Christmas mulled wine.
Bottom-line, I strongly recommend the Blood Orange spray. It costs $18, and is worth every penny, in my opinion. (It also comes in the drop oil form, but I think the sprays are easier to use.) If you order it, I beg of you to try it first on dark chocolate ice-cream. Trust me, it will blow your mind.
The Pear Chef Essence is described on the Aftelier website as: “An artful blend of 100% natural isolates that may also include fruit extracts and essential oils. Smells like sweet, ripe pears.” I thought it had a cool, dewy, nectar-like taste that was sweet but also very bright and surprisingly floral. Equally surprising, it has rather a nutty nuance that reminds me a little of bitter almonds, though it’s very subtle.
I loved the Pear Chef Essence on vanilla ice-cream and plain yoghurt, but I had less success using it in cooking. While it was nice in a few sauces and in a very light broth to accompany chicken, the taste was quite subtle at times, unless I applied quite a few sprays. At times, the floral aroma seemed stronger than the actual flavour in certain dishes. In fact, I thought that the taste was over-powered or completely lost in anything too dark, rich, heavy or spiced, perhaps because it’s not vivid or bold like some of the other Chef Essences. I found that it worked best in conjunction with creamy things (ice-cream!), but I suspect it would be fantastic in desserts as well.
Finally, I found that its delicate aroma provided a great touch to otherwise pedestrian white wine. I followed what some of the mixologists in the NYT article talked about, which is to spritz the inside of a chilled glass with the Essence spray and then pour in the alcohol. They love to add the floral Chef Essences to cocktails, but I thought a tiny bit of the Pear really amplified or augmented an otherwise dry, inexpensive chardonnay, because it added a some depth and fragrancy to it.
Given its delicacy, I don’t think I’ve mastered the Pear Essence in terms of things that involve the cooking process, but it’s so good on ice-cream, I’m not sure it requires an extensive stable of alternative dishes. (Does one need anything more than ice-cream?) Like the Blood Orange, it is available in both spray and oil form. I was sent the spray, which somehow isn’t shown on the Aftelier website at the time of this review, though I could swear I saw it on there a few weeks ago. I’m sure it will be back up soon and that it’s just a stocking issue, so this is one that you may one to keep in mind if you are a fan of pears. [Update 11/16: Ms. Aftel informs me that the spray version was a limited-edition item, but the Pear Essence is always available in the drop bottle form.]
ALL IN ALL:
I think everyone with an interest in cooking, baking, or fun cocktails should try out the Aftelier Chef Essences. Not all of them worked for me, as you will see in Part II, but the very definition of “personal taste” comes from the food realm. Some flavours will simply be a matter of individual preference. (None more so perhaps than Cilantro, which is otherwise known as Coriander Leaf. It will be part of the next review, along with Pink Peppercorn which I have now realised is a taste I loathe.) Yet, when a flavour is to your liking, there is absolutely nothing to top the Aftelier Chef’s Essence version of it.
Even better, many of the Essences are very economical for use. Where I live, a bunch of fresh basil costs about $4. Aftelier’s 30 ml spray bottle of Sweet Basil costs $18; tastes as though 10 of those bunches were reduced down in each spray; and there are roughly 230+ sprays per bottle. The math seems rather clear. Only a rare handful are really expensive, like the Rose Absolute, which makes them more like a decadent indulgence, but everything else is value for your money.
I only wished that Ms. Aftel offered actual minis like the ones she made for me. Even if it ended up costing more on a per ml basis, I would prefer to go that route for some of the more exotic ingredients because it would give me the chance to see if I liked the flavour or could figure out how to use it. Peru Balsam resin in food? Frankincense? How would I do it?! I know that there is a Pinterest board for Aftelier Food Recipes and one for Aftelier Drink Recipes to offer some guidance, but I’m still gun-shy about buying blindly. For such things, I’d like to test them first, even if it cost me $2 or $3 for a sample when the full bottle cost $12 or $22. Plus, such samples would enable me to test more of the line which is really enormously large. Ms. Aftel provides samples of her perfumes and hair elixirs, so perhaps the Chef Essences could be next?
I really hope some of you will try the Chef Essences, and that my two-part piece will make it easier for you to choose which ones. (I strongly suggest starting with the Blood Orange and Ginger!) I also think the Chef Essences will make wonderful gifts for the foodie in your life, so you may want to keep that in mind when you do your holiday shopping. As a side note, Ms. Aftel has a new book out called Fragrant: The Secret Life of Scent, which covers the history of cinnamon, mint, frankincense, ambergris, and jasmine, and reportedly also offers a few recipes and cooking tips as well. The book has received rave reviews from Vanity Fair, Time, and such culinary leaders as Alice Waters and Harold McGee, so it may be a good companion to trying out those Chef Essences in the kitchen.
Next time, in Part II, a look at the Pink Peppercorn, Cepes, Cognac, Coriander Leaf, Tarragon and Chocolate Chef’s Essences, and my misadventures in trying to bake….
Disclosure: My sample minis or bottles were kindly provided by Aftelier Perfumes. That did not impact this review. I do not do paid reviews, and my opinions are my own.