I stand at the end of the long, elegant, crystal-and-silver-laid dinner table at the Carlyle hotel on Madison Avenue in Manhattan. It's 7 p.m., and 17 guests are watching me. I hold 17 touches, the paper blotter strips perfumers use, all soaked in a raw material—an ingredient that's one of the building blocks of fragrance. What's unusual is that the material isn't a flower, not a rose or jasmine blossom; it's saffron. Similar ingredients—derived from spices, herbs, vegetables, and fruits—are used to make perfumes called gourmands, a fascinating, underrated category that contains, in my view, some of the best scents in the world. I find the gourmands mesmerizing, and I thought that doing a series of dinners pairing these fragrances with exquisite food might be a way of sharing their seductive pleasures with people who are unfamiliar with them.
When I asked Jimmy Sakatos, the Carlyle's executive chef, to help me come up with a menu, he thought I was a little nuts. To get him to understand my idea, I showed him the velvety, succulent Ambre Narguilé, by Hermès, which smells like caramel and subtle, nutty banana; Délices de Cartier, a delicately fruity confection; and Aqua Allègoria Pamplelune, by Guerlain, a delicious grapefruit scent. Jimmy smelled them tentatively. Then I handed him Bois Farine, by the Parisian house L'Artisan Parfumeur. It's an astonishing fragrance based on the scent of baking flour. Jimmy froze. "Now this," he said. "There's a bread dough I make that smells like this." We had the opening to our dinner.
Ultimately, Jimmy and I created a six-course culinary experience that tours the gourmand perfumes, from what is often held to be the first of the genre, Guerlain's legendary 1925 Shalimar, built on vanilla, to arguably its greatest example, Thierry Mugler's 1992 Angel, which uses ethyl maltol, the molecule that gives cotton candy its smell. (These two fragrances are paired with the dessert courses, one of which includes cotton candy.)
At the dinner, I pass around that touche dipped in a gorgeous saffron essence made by the Swiss company Givaudan. The essence smells of the soft, hypnotic spice, a pungent, burnished, metallic scent like dull platinum. Then I ask everyone to sample a gourmand fragrance called Safran Troublant, by L'Artisan Parfumeur, which takes that raw material, builds on it, and turns the fragrance of saffron into a sophisticated, polished, exotic perfume that smells of spice and gold dust and a breeze through an Indian temple. Jimmy served black bass with fennel and artichoke in a (you guessed it) saffron crustacean jus.
One of the most intriguing raw materials I share with the group is a natural ginger so effervescent, so incandescently fresh and tart, sweetly peppered, and aromatic that it takes your breath away. It perfectly captures the scent of an Asian summer morning. I follow that with the brilliantly crafted perfume Eau de Gingembre, by Roger & Gallet, which transforms the natural ginger into a finished superlative fragrance. I've seen people gasp on smelling this perfume—a balance of sharp and smooth, tart and crisply sweet.
Another brilliant gourmand fragrance we sample is Hermès' breathtaking Un Jardin Sur le Nil; it smells like green mango peel. To create this scent, Hermès perfumer Jean-Claude Ellena warmed the mango peel with a natural carrot essence (sniff the carrot essence by itself, and it's so smooth and buttery and delicate, it's like smelling warm silk). At the dinner, Jimmy paired Gingembre and Un Jardin Sur le Nil with butter-poached rock shrimp, heirloom baby carrots, and carrot-ginger emulsion.