In the small, open kitchen at Brimmer & Heeltap, something mysterious, scientific, and absolutely mouth-watering is at work. Chef Mike Whisenhunt and his team are committed to working with an element of gastronomy that can be immensely challenging to properly harness. It’s been referred to in a multitude of ways, which only adds to its allure; a delicious “flavor-bomb,” or the “fifth taste” are some of its more common descriptors.
So what is it, exactly? It’s called umami, and it’s one of the things that makes the food we serve so deeply satiating and crave-worthy.
Considered separate from the four recognized food tastes – salt, sweet, bitter, and sour - umami is loosely translated from Japanese as "a savory taste" or simply, "yummy," and can be as difficult to articulate as it can be to detect in food. According to Brimmer & Heeltap’s Sous Chef Dallas Dziedzic, common examples of umami-rich foods include tomatoes, mushrooms, nutritional yeast, fish sauce, soy, and Parmesan cheese, most of which can be found on our menu when in season.
“We use fish sauce throughout the menu,” points out Dziedzic, who is on a mission to form a unique umami flavor at Brimmer & Heeltap. “The house-made yogurt with the lamb lardons on the fennel salad lend some of those same mouthwatering, satiating values,” he explains. “Or even the beans on the lamb with the crème fraiche...” It’s exciting to look at the menu at Brimmer & Heeltap and try to detect which elements of our current dishes likely contain umami flavors. Simple ingredients such as locally foraged mushrooms can sometimes pack a powerful punch, and at B&H, big flavors are definitely our thing.
According to journalist Amy Fleming, “umami” was coined in 1908 by Kikunae Ikeda, a chemist at Tokyo University. Writes Fleming, “He had noticed this particular taste in asparagus, tomatoes, cheese and meat, but it was strongest in dashi – that rich stock made from kombu (kelp) which is widely used as a flavour base in Japanese cooking. So he homed in on kombu, eventually pinpointing glutamate, an amino acid, as the source of savoury wonder. He then learned how to produce it in industrial quantities and patented the notorious flavour enhancer MSG.” In addition to its loose association with the more commonly known food additive MSG, Fleming also astutely notes that umami is a “fascinating piece in the jigsaw of our gastronomic evolution.”
Umami is such a fascinating food concept that Chef Mike Whisenhunt has been hesitant to even use the word, for fear that diners wouldn't understand what it meant, and that the menu would feel less accessible to new guests. “I think it is essential that we continue to develop and make this a more conscious part of Brimmer & Heeltap’s style,” says Whisenhunt, who believes that umami has the power to contribute to the fun, bold, and playful flavors that make the restaurant’s food so unique and satisfying. Whisenhunt also acknowledges Sous Chef Dziedzic’s role in bringing umami flavors to life in the B&H kitchen. “I have to give a lot of credit to Dallas for really heading down his path of knowledge on the subject,” he says. “It inspires me.”
Dziedzic’s work with umami at Brimmer & Heeltap has involved extensive research, experimentation, and finding ways to recreate elements of MSG (Monosodium Glutamate) in a more organic way by utilizing ingredients B&H already sources. “For me, adding MSG was kind of cheating, so I looked to more natural options,” explains Dziedzic. “Learning that tomatoes, mushrooms (specifically dried shiitakes), Parmesan, potatoes, nutritional yeast along with dried and fermented fish all contain natural glutamate, was really the base of the umami bomb B&H uses.”
The best example of the “umami bomb” Dziedzic mentions can be found within the Saur Broccoli Salad that’s currently on the menu. The broccoli salad is comprised of a strangely satisfying combination of pickled serrano peppers, sesame seeds, popped quinoa, and black vinegar. The unlikely sum of its parts makes for a flavor experience so intense and nourishing it leaves you wanting more. Don’t just take our word for it – Seattle Refined recently named the salad among the five best vegetable dishes in the city.
Chef Dziedzic explains that umami can be found in dishes that contain “rounded out flavors that make you want to go back for another bite.” Going back for another bite is exactly what umami is all about, and unsurprisingly, Brimmer & Heeltap is genuinely enthusiastic about food and beverages that inspire cravings among our guests. If you’re still unsure what umami is all about, we encourage you to come grab a seat at the restaurant and taste for yourself.
Author: Caitlyn Edson
Images: Will Foster.