Dennis Paphitis is an Australian-born, Greek Cypriot. He is best known as the founder of Aesop, a botanical skincare company with more than 200 signature stores worldwide. When I first met Dennis in New York, I had just launched Taste of a Scent, my first line of botanical extracts for spring water. I saw Dennis as a pioneering explorer of a road I had yet to take and I wanted his advice. During our talk, I thought to myself, that with Dennis’ striking story and background, it would be intriguing for my readers— not to mention me—if he were to interview me for My Aromatic Kitchen.
Dennis suggested we catch up in Paris, so I packed my suitcase with aromatic blends to make our supper. When I arrived, Dennis was energetic, efficient, and still wearing shorts in December! He showed me his favorite Parisian street for food shopping, where I picked up the key ingredients for our small feast. In return for his generosity and kindness, I cooked recipes from the book, while Dennis brought these questions to the table.
YOUR APPROACH TO COOKING SEEMS MORE LIKE PAINTING A PICTURE, IN WHICH A CANVAS IS FIRST PREPARED AND THEN BUILT UPON. IS THAT THE CASE?
That’s correct. I don’t think about cooking or ingredients—I think about spices! For me, fruits and vegetables are like spices. That is, they are tools with their own colors—and without identity, origin, or history—that can be mixed together to create unique nuances. And cooking with this mindset leads to completely new and different combination possibilities.
WAS THERE A MOMENT WHEN AN INGREDIENT SANG OUT TO YOU AND IGNITED THIS PROCESS OF EXPLORATION?
When I fall head over heels in love with a spice, my mind goes on standby. I can’t remember exactly when this first happened, because I more or less feel that way about everything—not just food. Of course, I’ve had special experiences associated with particular spices. It must be more than twenty years since I first tasted Ceylon cinnamon in a Moroccan lamb tagine. It was liberating to discover that sweet spices like cinnamon—and, for that matter, other sweet spices—are such an elegant accompaniment to meat. Today, I know that Ceylon cinnamon and cassia cinnamon are like night and day, but there was a time when I thought that cinnamon tastes like cinnamon, ginger tastes like ginger, mint tastes like mint, etc. There are many varieties of spices and herbs that share the same name, but the majority are mediocre in terms of their aromatic potential. And very few are phenomenal. It requires detective work, in which you can never be absolutely certain. You have to be very observant and use your instincts, time after time.
TO WHAT DEGREE DO YOU BELIEVE THAT GREAT FOOD CAN HEAL BROKEN SPIRITS?
We know that taste and scent experiences are specifically associated with our behaviors, moods, and emotions. If, for example, I haven’t had spices or herbs for a few days, or haven’t experienced something that tastes good, I become discouraged, restless, dissatisfied, irritated, and very difficult to be around. So, the answer is yes, but if food is going to heal our souls, the combination and quality of the ingredients is crucial. I am convinced that the body can detect and register quality and that it becomes confused and stressed when exposed to the opposite. The use of spices in food is absolutely essential. They evoke vitality in the form of chemical reactions that occur when those spices are mixed with other ingredients. Spices act like bridges, making it possible to access the other ingredients, so you can experience a greater aroma and flavor potential. This vitality is of exceptionally high sensory quality, and can embrace the soul and help it to heal. There’s no doubt about it. But, as I said, it’s the combination and quality that make all the difference.
SOME AROMA AND FLAVOR COMBINATIONS, SUCH AS TURMERIC, CUMIN, AND GINGER, GO NATURALLY WELL TOGETHER YET DON’T SEEM TO BE COMMONLY USED. WHY DO YOU THINK THIS IS THE CASE?
It’s a complicated business to compose something that both feels and tastes natural. It’s not something you experience every day. And perhaps that is also for the best. Chance may, in fact, be the best way. It’s obvious that when ingredients go naturally well together, they make a greater impression on you. Different botanical forces come into play, allowing certain ingredients to step into character. This kind of nourishment for body and soul has a different quality, and is on another level, so it has a unique effect. Food that is merely tasty and filling doesn’t stimulate nearly as much, or strike the nerves in quite the same way. A good meal, in my view, should always contain a dimension—a fleeting irritation—that the tongue and the nose have a hard time accepting. The example you mention may be because turmeric and ginger belong to the same botanical family, and thus often create peace and harmony when combined in a dish. Cumin is also one of the easiest spices to work with in the kitchen. If you dry-roast the seeds and add them in relatively small amounts, they can improve almost any dish.
WHAT DOES ‘WORK ENERGY’ MEAN TO YOU?
Work energy is my most precious possession and greatest love. I would sacrifice everything I have for it. It’s also the only time when I feel there’s meaning in what I do. When I work with spices, it’s like playing chess. Every time I make a move, it changes the rules, and produces endless potential combinations. The challenges I face just bowl me over. I find myself in deep water and maximally stimulated, because the work requires such extreme focus, discipline, and imagination. Right there, an indescribable energy arises that I don’t experience from anything else.
HOW DO YOU BEGIN WORKING WITH AN UNKNOWN SPICE?
I try to ignore everything that’s previously been written about the spice, no matter how relevant or useful it may be. For me, one of the greatest joys is not knowing precisely what I’m getting into—it’s the joy of anticipation. It’s like riding a bike for the first time. You have no idea whether you are going to stay up or fall down. The first thing I do, whether I am working with herbs, roots, bark, flowers, or seeds, is pour boiling water over them. Then, for the next week, I observe how the smell and taste develop. Is it best immediately, on the day itself, or does it improve and develop by being allowed to stand a little longer? Then I start cooking, using the spice sparingly and generously, in sweet and savory dishes. And then I start doing research. Sooner or later, after a few months, I will have found a place for it, though that doesn’t mean it will always be in that place. If the spice is suddenly affected by something else and something new arises that I didn’t register the first time, then I start all over again.
WHAT IS YOUR PROCESS FOR CREATING EDIBLE AROMAS?
It’s mostly spontaneous. Over the years, I’ve created a system that helps me reach my goals, but that’s not what I begin with— it’s more of an emergency solution. If I create an aromatic blend intuitively and it succeeds the first time, or if I discover something I haven’t experienced before and which I can work on, then I know that the sensory quality will be more unique. It’s not something I can explain; I just feel it. Still, I can describe the elements an aromatic blend must contain to make it interesting for me. First is tempo, or how quickly or slowly you experience the fragrance and flavor. Next, is dynamics, the number of ingredients—sometimes three is enough, other times eight might do it. Then there is rhythm, the combination of everything you experience on your tongue and in your nose. The rhythm should not be stable, but should swing, include breaks, and do something unexpected. It’s a bit like music. And if the blend is not convincing enough, I think of Yin and Yang, opposites in harmony. It doesn’t always work, but it’s good to think about when you’re mixing ingredients together. A blend also needs a hint of sweetness, acidity, something strong or stinging, and a little bitterness. But, as I said, I’d rather not think about all this when I’m just starting out the process.
TO WHAT DEGREE IS YOUR COOKING NORDICINSPIRED, AND HOW DID MIDDLE EASTERN FLAVORS COME TO FEATURE SO HEAVILY IN YOUR WORK?
I’ve never felt particularly Danish or Nordic, although I was born and raised in Denmark. I come from an unconventional home. My mother is a painter and ceramist, and traditional cuisine and food traditions—or, for that matter, even something as normal as lemons—were not part of my childhood. On the other hand, we ate according to the seasons. Everything was fresh and often seasoned with thyme and sage. My apprenticeship as a cook was in Danish/French nouvelle cuisine, so mustard, pepper, horseradish, dill, parsley, onion, vinegar, wine, lemon, vanilla, cream, and butter dominated the seasoning. But when I left London, in the mid-90s, after working as a chef for a couple of years, everything I learned was turned upside down thanks to Antony Worrall Thompson. Antony was officially my boss, but he also had the greatest influence on where I am today. When I was just twenty, he gave me the most important advice: “You won’t find the answers you seek in other people. You have to find them and teach them to yourself.” Antony introduced me to Moroccan lamb tagine with marinated lemons, saffron, cinnamon, and coriander and it was an experience that left a strong impression on me in more ways than one. So, no one taught me how to cook with spices, and I don’t think of spices as Indian, Chinese, Moroccan, or Mexican. For me, they are timeless tools that I use to achieve my goals.
WHEN WE WENT TO THE MARKETS HERE IN PARIS, YOU SPENT 80 EUROS ON EXOTIC CITRUS. WHAT WAS THAT ABOUT? WHAT WILL YOU DO WITH ALL THAT FRUIT?
Citrus fruits are an iconic kind of seasoning. They contain large or small concentrations of mellow, floral sweetness in their flowers and leaves, cooling vital acidity in their juice, and deep, warming bitterness in their zest and white flesh. Over the past decade, I’ve used citrus fruits to create aroma extracts for Taste of a Scent. I’ve tried to capture their most interesting aspects, and unite that diversity in a simple aroma extract. So, when I see fresh yuzu, green bergamot, Buddha's hand, cédrat, Seville orange, and citrus varieties I’m not familiar with, I pounce, just as I did today. Winter is also peak season for citrus, so I always substitute lemon and orange zest with bergamot and Seville orange, because they contain more interesting aromatic compounds than the usual citrus varieties.
WHERE DID THE IDEA OF WARM SALAD DRESSING COME FROM? SPECIFICALLY, I’M CURIOUS ABOUT THE ONE YOU MADE FOR ME, WITH DATES, APPLE, SAFFRON, ENDIVE, AND HORSERADISH?
Pure chance. The weather was cold and rainy, so I chose a warm dressing. Also, I know that when you toss cool, crunchy lettuce leaves that are slightly thick with a warm salad dressing, it creates refinement. In the same week, a friend returning from Iran, brought me saffron that I used, along with orange flower water and other ingredients, to make an aromatic blend for perfumed peach sorbet. So, in my mind, I was already in the Middle East, in terms of scent and flavor. One thing led to another, and as chance would have it, when I needed some sweetness, I choose fresh dates instead of cane sugar. I mixed it all together, tasted it, and felt the dish lacked edge, that fleeting sense of irritation. So, I opened the fridge and there lay horseradish, which I quickly grated over the still-warm salad. Bingo! (p. 40 in My Aromatic kitchen).
WHY? WHAT MAKES YOU DO ALL THIS? WHEN DO YOU KNOW YOU’RE ‘THERE’?
The feeling of freedom, a fast tempo, the perfect aroma moment, and the ultimate satisfaction. I’m fascinated by these perfect moments, because they contain authenticity, intensity, and quality nourishment for the body and soul. I’m attracted by a fast tempo in everything I spend my time doing. I’ve been like that since childhood. It’s like a sport. When you’re moving at high speed and doing your best work, there’s no room for triviality and security, so you go through life feeling less worried and more focused. And once in a while, these perfect aroma moments arise, when time stands still and everything makes sense. I know exactly when it hits me—I feel joy and get goose bumps. When I get up in the morning, I expect to have the chance to experience a scent and a flavor, a moment that turns everything upside down.