To celebrate 10 years of Tom Ford’s iconic Black Orchid, critic Chandler Burr and a team of chefs created a complementary meal to tantalise all the senses.

“Start with the deepest mystery of smell. No one knows how we do it. Despite everything, despite the billions the secretive giant corporations of smell have riding on it, and the powerful computers they throw at it, despite the sorcery of their legions of chemists and the years of toiling in their labs and all the famous neurowizardry aimed at mastering it, the exact way we smell things — anything, crushed raspberry and mint, the subway at West Fourteenth and Eight, a newborn infant — remains a mystery.”

The opening salvo of Chandler Burr’s book The Emperor of Scent is at the epistemological heart of a spectacular dinner at the apex of the Rockefeller Centre in New York to celebrate the mystery and sheer delight of 10 years of Tom Ford’s Black Orchid.

Estée Lauder’s Malaika Alf and Aspasia Karras
Estée Lauder’s Malaika Alf and Aspasia Karras
Image: Sarah Pezdek Smith

Burr, the one and only New York Times perfume critic, is hosting the intimate dinner in a beautiful room that revels in all the heady glory of New York’s insane neon nightscape.  I am the ridiculously fortunate person seated next to him, and I can confirm that his encyclopaedic mind and charming-perfume laced banter is suitably delicious.

The idea for his marvellous scent dinners evolved naturally when he thought about the category of perfume called “les parfums gourmands”, in  other words, the culinary scents as they are known in France. Many perfumes over the ages have used food, spices vanillas, and peppers as intrinsic elements and Tom Ford has a number of them  in his stable: Café Rose, Tobacco Vanille, and, not least, Black Orchid.

Burr explains that: “Ninety-five percent of what we perceive as taste is, in fact, smell. Ninety-five percent of what we think we’re tasting on the tongue, we are actually registering in the olfactory receptors of the nasal epithelium.” So it makes perfect sense to eat the smell. Burr hosts these sublime dinners around the world —  he describes the experience as  a “combination of fine dining and a  stimulating interactive master class in scent and perfume — two parallel dinners, one olfactory and invisible, the other gustatory and edible.” 

Each of the edible courses on tonight’s menu reflects some of the elements in the trio of the Tom Ford Black Orchid scents that appealed to the chefs.  Each course makes manifest the sublime and surprising ingredients that feature in the chemistry, as Burr presents us with scent strips of some of the wilder and unexpected elements that feature. There are more than 30 raw materials in each scent, and the chef and Burr have opted for the surprising and the witty.

For example, a key molecule, ethyl maltol, in Black Orchid is the molecule you taste when you eat cotton candy. The chef created a cotton-candy pop of foie gras, paired with a comforting tea broth. The absolute of rum in Velvet Orchid becomes a wild shot of rum chowder presented with wry humour in a small, amusing bottle of rum. Sicilian mandarin, which Burr explains is like pouring light into a scent, when it is correctly used, features in another pairing. A nature identical synthetic that mimics heliotrope, and which smells of almonds, also makes its appearance. Hydroxy ethile methile, which smells like nothing and everything, is, if I am not mistaken, the yeasty taste we experience, along with Balsam tree extract from Peru, followed by pink peppercorn and, of course, vanilla, which apparently all humans are hard-wired to love.

Image: Sarah Pezdek Smith

The evening unfolds like a parlour game for scent aficionados as we test our noses against the scent strips. Some people are remarkably adept at picking out the scents. Eventually I start to trust my nose. I am delighted to see that our very own DMZ chenin blanc is the wine of choice tonight. I tell Burr that the wine makers play music to the vines in the vineyard and he seems suitably delighted. It is another mystery to compound the joys we are experiencing.  

Ten years ago, when Tom Ford launched Black Orchid, he was interviewed by Burr, and said: “No one can say I’m going to create an iconic fragrance that will last for 50 years, but everyone aims at it. We want to move away from minimalism. We want ornament, luxe tassels, but we have to find a way not just to regurgitate it. You have to put your stamp on it.”

Burr’s conclusion at the time was that Black Orchid was “absolutely huge, as edgy as daring as off-the-rail (more actually) as anything produced by a niche house.” Ten years later, with a satiated stomach and an olfactory overload second to none, I can safely say that I am in full and perfect agreement. I cannot say exactly why — just that I know it is so.  

Image: Sarah Pezdek Smith
© Wanted 2016 - If you would like to reproduce this article please email us.