Smoke’s New Draw | Flavor & The Menu

Edward Lee, a chef renowned for his approach to modern Southern fare, uses smoke brilliantly (clockwise from left): Shoyu Deviled Eggs at MilkWood in Louisville, Ky., see a finish of bourbon-smoked togarashi; Smoked Soy Shoyu Veggie Ramen, also at MilkWood, gets a meaty sensibility from smoked soy sauce and smoked barbecue tofu; Apple Streusel, at 610 Magnolia in Louisville, Ky., is topped with smoked milk ice cream and smoked Demerara sugar; Beef Carpaccio with gochujang aïoli, also at 610 Magnolia, is served on the interior side of a bourbon barrel plank, which holds rich smoke flavor. With each bite, a bit of that smoke is lifted from the board.

Chefs today are exploring smoke’s potential and pushing the boundaries on how it’s used. As a subtle component, it helps build craveability. “I love using smoke as a wisp of a mystery,” says Andrew Hunter, a culinary consultant based in Los Angeles. “I want the diner to say, ‘Gosh, why is this so delicious? What’s going on with this dish?’ An understated use of smoke can help achieve that.” It can also punctuate a dish or a drink as a high-impact ingredient, a handy tool when searching for contrast, pizzazz or entertainment value.

Thomas Chen, chef of New York’s Tuome, is playing with smoked butter, looking to it as a way to develop deeper flavor in veg-centric dishes. Katie Sutton, a chef consultant based in Orange County, Calif., waxes poetic about hay-smoked chawanmushi, describing it as sweet and soft, building on the smokiness of the dashi that is inherent in the savory egg custard. “I use smoke on smoke as a way to develop subtle flavor combinations, not as a way to create bold flavors,” she says.

Edward Lee, chef/owner of multiple restaurants, including 610 Magnolia and MilkWood in Louisville, Ky., develops unique flavors in ice cream by smoking the milk then adding smoked Demerara sugar when building the recipe. “When I use smoke, it’s with a nuanced approach that brings out its gentle edges and a flavor that’s hard to pinpoint, but tastes amazing,” he says. “Smoke has had this stigma that it was only for burly, hairy men who liked heavily smoked, burnt food—all as a testament to their masculinity. That is changing. There’s an elegance to smoking and there’s technique behind it that makes it pleasant and makes your cooking more complex. The next wave of what we’re seeing with smoked foods is softer, more nuanced.” That energized culinary drive, coupled with a more modern sensibility, make smoke a flavor strategy with broad menu appeal.

Leading-edge chefs are applying smoke to butter, hummus, guacamole, plums, potatoes and eggs; the list goes on. They’re exploring the degrees of smoke’s flavor and finding new ways to draw it out or tamp it down. Smoke is drifting into the forefront of menu strategy—just as we’ve seen with umami.

Interestingly, the deeper dive into umami has mostly been led by global flavor discovery. Smoke, on the other hand, is a very American concept. “This generation of chefs is embracing our country’s culinary traditions. Although we love European cuisine and our European training, we’re going to explore smoke more and bring it up to a higher level,” says Lee.


Brad Danner

At Mako, B.K. Park’s long anticipated omakase in Chicago, the Katsuo features smoked bonito topped with a plate of Akami tuna and king crab. When guests finish eating the tuna and crab, they lift the plate, releasing the juniper-branch smoke that has flavored the star of the dish—the Japanese bonito.

Although chefs are evolving their approach to smoke, they have been leveraging its ethereal aroma and seeking out different sources for hundreds of years. And diners have always been drawn to smoke like moths to a flame. Why? The fascination with smoke runs deeper than flavor and aroma, though both of those are compelling enough. It’s primal. Smoke triggers our personal memories and echoes through our ancestral chambers in ways that are stirring and visceral. Throughout time, smoke signals celebration: Feasts over communal pits, gatherings around backyard barbecues.

There is also poetry in smoke. On the culinary side, there’s lyricism in producing it, taming it and showcasing it. From a diner’s perspective, there is poetry in motion and there is expression in the language around smoke and food. It can evoke a strong sense of leather and campfire and boldness. Smoke can also project romance, elegance or sultriness. That’s a pretty wide range for a single word. It makes the mindfulness in using smoke all the more important. Mesquite-smoked brisket? Bold. Smoked chocolate? Sublime.

With smoke wielding that kind of power and carrying such gravitas, it offers unique opportunity. Craveability is always the goal, but smoke’s deeper emotional resonance can help create a more meaningful guest experience. With the intention of leaving an impression on the diner, smoke lends an advantage by tapping into memory and building on it.

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