I had never been to Paris in September before, but had imagined it, prior to my recent visit, to be the perfect time to explore the city’s allure — quieter after the departure of the summer crowds; shoulder-season prices; and the weather still temperate enough for frolicking outdoors. Alas, in 2023, with the men’s Rugby World Cup, an official state visit, and Paris Fashion Week on the cards, the city of light was electric, the prices were unchanged, and there was no time for horseplay as we swept in for the global launch of Johnnie Walker Blue Label Elusive Umami.
This delicious mouthful is the leading global whisky brand’s latest and, arguably, most special limited edition. The joint creation of Johnnie Walker master blender Dr Emma Walker and three-Michelin-star chef Kei Kobayashi, it is infused with sweet, savoury, spicy, smoky, and woody characters, creating something that’s not just about taste “but an emotion”, Kobayashi says.
At the launch, we were to experience many emotions throughout the Japanese chef’s multi-course accompaniment to the main event in the bottle. I was in the company of a small South African contingent, including Johnnie Walker Blue brand advocates digital creator Siyanda Bani and chef Wandile Mabaso.
In preparation for our delightful culinary meander, we warmed up by eating our way through some of the Paris culinary must-dos, starting at one of Instagram’s favourite Parisian haunts, Hôtel Plaza Athénée, for a hearty (and fancy) Sunday roast of grass-fed (and grass-finished) lamb and Bresse chicken, with four desserts and a kitchen tour with cuisine sous chef Reda Ben Hammida, a friend of Mabaso’s. Next, we took in Mun restaurant on the Champs-Élysées (think Kol Izakhaya with Tang energy) with a cracking view of the Eiffel Tower, beautiful staff, and delicious small plates where a simple seabass dish and the glorious sushi were a big hit.
On another day, Mabaso called as I was about to take a power nap before dinner. He was with a small group at THE (my emphasis) Le Meurice Alain Ducasse, Mabaso’s old training ground, the executive pastry sous chef Francois Deshayes was treating them to a selection of their finest creations, and I should get over there. Without a nap, I knew I wouldn’t make it through dinner later.
Understanding, this, your age. I pledged 20 minutes to a snooze before heading out to join them. Naturally, I overslept, and by the time I was about to head their way it was time for them to come back my way. I was shattered, a bucket-list culinary experience that never was. Yes, I had been exhausted, but I regretted the nap. Mercifully, it would be my last disappointment.
Home to poet Charles Baudelaire in the mid-19th century, the Pavillon Vendôme was the exquisite event venue where we were scheduled to be the first to savour umami in a bottle. That’s if we could get there before nightfall, as we realised 15 minutes into our journey that the taxi driver was bound elsewhere: the other Pavillon Vendôme, in Clichy, not the one at Place Vendôme, as we expected. Some cool heads, a new taxi, and diplomacy in fluent French from Mabaso got us to the venue just about on time.
In Japan, they consider umami a “pleasant savoury taste”. It is, at times, also referred to as the “fifth taste”. As well-defined as it is intangible. We set out to discover, or at least try to uncover, these elusive flavours in an immersive eight-course tasting menu that compelled one to think differently about whisky, its taste, and its function. This was whisky not as a digestif, that finisher at the end of your meal, or nightcap at the close of the day — this was whisky as the star, front and centre, in a delicious tangle with an array of flavours.
Kobayashi, whose definition of umami is simply “deliciousness”, conceived the dishes to bring out the complex elements in the liquid — from the savoury and sweet to the tantalising spicy and woody flavours hidden within. Fresh, fruity but also somewhat savoury on the nose; on the tongue, at first, apple and white peach, then mandarin, blood orange, and red berries; then again shifting to savoury, with notes of smoked meat and a lingering wood spice finish. Complexity abounds.
It took the duo 15 months, hand picking “whiskies like ingredients”, says Walker — “It wasn’t just a blending experience, but a gastronomic exploration. Getting acquainted with the intensity of the umami flavour was the key to creating this exceptional Scotch whisky.” Kobayashi’s eight courses — including hay-smoked lobster with mushroom fricassee; buckwheat waffle with Kaviari “Kristal” caviar; gorgonzola foam with muesli; pigeon de Vendée laqué au miso (so sensational there is a video of me literally dancing after taking a bite) — were served with great care as we moved through spaces themed around the elements of earth, wind, and water.
In the earth room we sat on cushions, close to the ground; in the autumnal “wind” room, complete with ochre leaves, we feasted standing up; and, at our last stop, we sat at a table in a Japanese garden complete with a tranquil pond created especially for the occasion, finishing off with chocolate tart sprayed with that elusive umami.
On our way out, still reeling from a quite special immersion, I exchanged details with Fleur De Mur, the DJ who had kept the heads in the pause area bopping all day. She is also a working musician; her band plays stadiums and weddings with equal vigour. Her brand of soulful, uplifting, sexy, sweet, and stank house would go down well in South Africa, I told her. You could call it Umami House. No?
• From the November edition of Wanted, 2023.