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The Mathematics of Taste

Here’s something good from across the street.

Across the street means MIT, not Salt, Craigie on Main, Area Four, Catalyst, or Rendezvous. Those are nearby famous restaurants.
Chefs and others in the food business spend huge amounts of time using informal methods to guess about flavors that might prove popular. Recently I was discussing popular ice cream flavors with a manager. Some of the flavors we began making within the last five years are very popular, like B3, Goat Cheese Brownie and variations on Khulfee. He said we should make more of these unusually popular flavors.

As though we chose to make less popular flavors, or forget the goal of creating flavors people love so much they will go out of their way to come to Toscanini’s

The article in question is by Larry Hardesty of MIT’s News Office.

“The Swiss flavor company Givaudan asked CSAIL principal research scientist Una-May O’Reilly, postdoc Kalyan Veeramachaneni and the University of Antwerp’s Ekaterina Vladislavleva to help interpret the results of tests in which 69 subjects evaluated 36 different combinations of seven basic flavors, assigning each a score according to its olfactory appeal.

“For each subject, O’Reilly and her colleagues randomly generate mathematical functions that predict scores according to the concentrations of different flavors. Each function is assessed according to two criteria: accuracy and simplicity. A function that, for example, predicts a subject’s preferences fairly accurately using a single factor — say, concentration of butter — could prove more useful than one that yields a slightly more accurate prediction but requires a complicated mathematical manipulation of all seven variables.”

This not how we proceed. New flavors have come about because of accidents, including Burnt Caramel and Bourbon Vienna Finger Cookie. Returning to ideas of the past like our revived interest in Saffron flavors including Salty Saffron. Some flavors may work better or be more appealing years after their introduction. During a trip to Philadelphia I had a great Avocado Sorbet at Capogiro. Since then we have been working to make something as good. Years ago we made Avocado ice cream but avocado works better as a sorbet. Nocciola and Gianduia were suggestions from a vendor and ratified by an MIT student from Italy. Most of our South Asian flavors were suggested by a Harvard professor but one came from an MIT student who grew up in Kenya.

“At MIT after all the functions have been assessed, those that provide poor predictions are winnowed out. Elements of the survivors are randomly recombined to produce a new generation of functions; those are then evaluated for accuracy and simplicity. The whole process is repeated about 30 times, until it converges on a set of functions that accord well with the preferences of a single subject.

“Because O’Reilly and her colleagues’ method produces profiles of individual test subjects’ tastes, it can sort them into distinct groups. It could be, for instance, that test subjects tend to have strong preferences for either cinnamon or nutmeg but not both. By marketing one product to cinnamon lovers and another to nutmeg lovers, a company could do much better than by marketing one product to both. “For every one of these 36 flavors, someone hated it and someone liked it,” O’Reilly says. “If you try to identify a flavor that the whole panel likes, you end up settling for a little bit less.””

Some readers will be reminded of Malcolm Gladwell’s reporting on spaghetti sauce.

It is possible to pursue the Great White Whale of popular flavor ideas with purpose but I think it is equally valuable to be more alert to existing ideas that may be transformed or tweaked. And some times companies have great success by ignoring the conventional wisdom. At a time when everyone in America was proclaiming a national urge to eat healthy, Ben and Jerry introduced Cookie Dough.

Our Black Bottom Pie recipe was inspired by a Jeremiah Tower cookbook. Early in the store’s history when I was discussing flavor ideas with a professor he encouraged me to use the term “appropriated” rather than “stole.”

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