New Frontiers of Taste Umami Symposium

August 2008

The panelists on stage

  • The much-anticipated New Frontiers of Taste Umami symposium, which took place in July in San Francisco and was hosted by the Umami Information Center (UIC), was declared one of the most informative and enjoyable UIC events to date.

    Organized by the Umami Information Center to commemorate the centenary anniversary of the discovery of umami, the New Frontiers of Taste Umami symposium was held on July 21, 2008 in San Francisco. Following the event of the same name held in the U.K. in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire over 3 years ago, this symposium took things to a whole new level. It was the largest event that the Umami Information Center has hosted to date. A total of around 250 people, including chefs, culinary professors, restaurant owners and managers, journalists, food researchers, food manufacturers and distributors, and members of the general public interested in umami gathered to take part in the event.

    The main event, which was divided into two parts -- a panel discussion and a four-course luncheon through which umami could be experienced in its various manifestations -- was preceded by a reception where attendees could meet one another and engage in friendly discussion. With informational banners about umami and the activities of the Umami Information Center on display and "Ambition," a documentary drama about Professor Kikunae Ikeda's discovery of umami being aired, participants were able to start thinking and learning about umami even before the event had officially begun.

    The panelists included highly reputed culinary experts, journalists and chefs from the U.K., U.S., Australia and Japan. While conversing with panel discussion chair Professor Kathy Sykes, each panelist was able to provide information and perspectives about umami that were unique to their respective fields. Dr. Gary Beauchamp from the Monell Chemical Senses Center in the U.S. began by saying that human breast milk is very high in glutamate. "So from a young age, we have all been exposed to umami. Not only is umami a taste, it gives body and depth to food. It is different from the other 4 basic tastes in its persistence and mouth feel." Dr. John Prescott from Australia's University of Newcastle explained that cross-cultural research has identified that human response to umami is the same across different populations. "Our bodies naturally develop a liking for any flavor that is made with glutamate. Japanese people tend to be more familiar with umami because glutamate is the main component of dashi. People from Western societies are less familiar with umami because bouillon contains more amino acids and has a more complex taste profile."


    Master of Wine Tim Hanni told of when he first learned about umami about 18 years ago and how knowing about umami enabled him to discover why certain cheeses make wine taste different. Understanding umami enabled him to be able to explain this and other phenomena he had been unable to explain before. Five years ago, when Japanese chef Kunio Tokuoka first learned about umami, only professionals were aware of umami. Understanding umami enabled Tokuoka to challenge himself to combine new and interesting ingredients. Food writer Dr. Harold McGee touched on the importance of choosing the right ingredients to begin with ― when cooking ― and not losing umami during the cooking process.


    The highlight of the New Frontiers of Taste symposium was the luncheon, which took place after the panel discussion. Master of Wine Tim Hanni began by explaining the three wines he had chosen to be served with the courses, and the different ways in which wine can enhance the umami in food if properly matched. An engaging speaker on a new and little-understood topic, Hanni held the attention of the event attendees. With the three chefs Tokuoka, Sone and Keller representing Japanese and American cuisine, and showcasing their talents while incorporating umami into their dishes, the four-course luncheon was perfectly presented and delicious. The luncheon included a course of five hors d'oeuvres and brought together a huge range of different ingredients. With each new dish brought out to the table, each chef gave a short introduction to his umami dish, detailing its origin. This allowed audience members to experience the umami in the dishes to the fullest as the flavors unfolded in their mouths.

    Tim Hanni
    Tim Hanni (Master of Wine)


    The Luncheon
    The first course of five hors d'oeuvres was created and prepared by Chef Kunio Tokuoka from Kitcho restaurant in Kyoto's Arashiyama district. Speaking at the event about umami, Tokuoka commented that the crucial thing was not to consider umami alone, but to ask what it should be combined with -- that is to say, how it should be eaten. Tokuoka saw the event as a valuable opportunity to get people to think carefully about the importance of food as it is the food industry that enables everyone to enjoy the food that we eat. He asked if anyone had ever thought about who was producing our food, how they do it, and where. He then suggested everyone take the time to think about these things, and appreciate the importance of the ingredients of the dishes they were eating. Chef Tokuoka also discussed the crucial yet somewhat mysterious quality of "body" in food, which is ever present in his own cuisine, saying that when food has a deep and complex taste, we often refer to this as body. This is the taste of a combination of a number of ingredients.

    The dishes presented by Tokuoka were Kombu Broth-Simmered Onions with Chicken and Pickled Plum Gelee; Seared Spiny Lobster with Tosa Vinegar Gelee, Fried Rice Grains, Ginger and Bonito; Steamed Savory Egg Custard with Japanese Pepper Leaf Bud, Smoked Chicken Mousse and Parmigiano-Reggiano; Kombu Broth-Simmered Beef Shabu-Shabu with Red Pepper Dipping Sauce and Potato Frites Topped with Salt-Pickled Vegetables. These spectacular dishes, each utilizing umami in an innovative and inspiring way, were delightful to the eye as well as the palate, and were served together with Tokuoka's special daikon radish lantern presentation made from hollowed-out giant, white daikon radishes and lit from the inside. Tokuoka explained that in Japanese tea ceremony, the balance between tension and relaxation is of crucial importance. And that it was reflected in the contrast between light and dark. The presence of a flame amid the darkness enabled the guests to become conscious of what was occurring inside them and provide the opportunity for rediscovery. When the lights in the room were turned back on, everyone's field of vision broadened and they were able to notice that there were many people around them, but when only the small flames of the candles were burning, they were able to closely connect with the people next to them. The tea house is a place where people are able to connect with one another honestly and purely.

    The salad course was presented by Chef Hiro Sone, owner chef of Terra and Ame restaurants in California who made Ginger-Poached Georgia Shrimp and Watermelon Salad with Lemongrass Vinaigrette. When introducing his dish, Chef Sone mentioned that he had been really nervous about the prospect of cooking alongside Chefs Thomas Keller and Kunio Tokuoka. He thought about what he could contribute alongside Tokuoka's Japanese cuisine and Keller's French, and decided to make a salad incorporating Thai fish sauce and tomatoes as its umami component. In his restaurant, he uses three different kinds of fish sauces. In Italy, they have been serving a kind of fish sauce since the ancient Roman Period, and he uses that as well as a Vietnamese and a Thai fish sauce. For Sone, umami is the base for producing a complex, deep taste in his food. He is Japanese, and was brought up with umami, so incorporating it into his cuisine has always been natural to him.

    Thomas Keller, owner of The French Laundry ― a restaurant that has been described by some as the best restaurant in the world ― presented the luncheon entree Rib-Eye of Elysian Fields Farm Lamb "Cuit Sous Vide" with "Confit Byaldi," Roasted Fennel and Pickled Shallot Sauce. Speaking at the event, Keller noted that traditional French cuisine makes excellent use of umami. For example, the ratatouille that he cooked was a recipe which has been used for hundreds of years. "Trying to describe umami is almost impossible. We just have to accept it, and say it is there. It is part of what we feel, part of what we taste and part of, most importantly, what we enjoy about food."
    Chef Keller talking about the umami components of his dish Lamb roast with ratatouille, fennel, and pickled shallot sauce
    Chef Keller talking about the umami components of his dish Lamb roast with ratatouille, fennel, and pickled shallot sauce

    The symposium lasted five hours in total, raised interest in umami amongst the attendees, and helped to promote a high awareness of umami cuisine. It ended with a general feeling of success and enthusiasm. For the Umami Information Center, the event was an important springboard for future umami-related advancement and education in the U.S.

  • The panelists on stage

    MC Dr. Kathy Sykes

    Dr. Gary Beauchamp

    Chef Kunio Tokuoka

    Dr. Harold McGee(left) Dr. John Prescott(right)

    Tim Hanni (Master of Wine)

    Chef Tokuoka talks about his radish lantern presentation

    Appetizers (anti-clockwise from top): Potato Frites, Kombu Broth-Simmered Shabu-Shabu, Steamed Savory Egg Custard, Seared Japanese Spiny Lobster, and Kombu Broth-Simmered Onions

    Attendees admire the daikon radish presentation

    Chef Sone talking about umami in fish sauce

  • MC Dr. Kathy Sykes

    Dr. Gary Beauchamp

    Chef Kunio Tokuoka

    Dr. Harold McGee(left) Dr. John Prescott(right)

    Tim Hanni (Master of Wine)

    Chef Tokuoka talks about his radish lantern presentation

    Appetizers (anti-clockwise from top): Potato Frites, Kombu Broth-Simmered Shabu-Shabu, Steamed Savory Egg Custard, Seared Japanese Spiny Lobster, and Kombu Broth-Simmered Onions

    Attendees admire the daikon radish presentation

    Chef Sone talking about umami in fish sauce