Jeremy Chan on the theories of sauces

Jeremy Chan on the theories of sauces

by Jeremy Chan 04 May 2020

The head chef of London’s Michelin-starred restaurant Ikoyi writes a love letter to sauces, exploring how they combine the imagination and creativity with more rigid scientific culinary principles.

A deeply thoughtful and analytical chef, Jeremy Chan takes the scientific principles of flavour and applies them to create undeniably delicious food at London's Michelin-starred Ikoyi.

A deeply thoughtful and analytical chef, Jeremy Chan takes the scientific principles of flavour and applies them to create undeniably delicious food at London's Michelin-starred Ikoyi.

'Sauces help the cook feed our perpetual hunger for stimulating sensations, for the pleasures of taste and smell, touch and sight. Sauces are distillations of desire.'

– Harold McGee

My first memory of cooking was making a sauce – I must have been six years old. I boiled some bananas with Rice Krispies, added sugar and chocolate, then cooked the formless concoction down to a caramelising, bubbling slime. I dipped the wooden spoon in and beckoned my godfather to taste it. ‘Mmm, delicious,’ he said. I felt patronised by the doting encouragement; even at that age I knew the resulting potion hadn’t lived up to my feverish desire at the onset of the experiment. Since then, however, I’ve never lost the passion to create recipes with my imagination – there’s something special about that childlike ability to indulge curiosity, while remaining blind to the risk of failure and embarrassment.

The core of my passion lies in creating sauces that blend elements of the familiar with more novel, playful combinations. The first ‘decent’ sauce I made was a ragout. It was the fascination with time that caught my attention; the notion that the depth of flavour, the melting textures and the intense brown colour of a ragout could only be achieved with long, slow cooking. Creating a sauce wasn’t simply the act of throwing together a handful of well-suited ingredients, simmering them and then hoping for the best, I realised. Instead, it requires carefully treating each component at different stages in the process: the confit of onions, carrot, celery with no colour to bring out sweetness; the Maillard caramelisation of meat in batches; the addition of cooked-out tomatoes to heighten acidity and glutamic acid. Only then do these different elements come together to create something greater than the sum of its parts.

This particular ragout was based on a recipe of whole meat cuts, namely beef shin, smoked pancetta, pork mince and oxtail. I added red wine and milk to the base to create a more rounded flavour, followed by chicken stock. I baked the sauce in the oven for twelve hours at a little below 100°C. When I opened the lid the next morning, there was a profoundly sweet aroma emanating from the casserole dish, intense enough to induce mouth-watering reactions without my even tasting the sauce.

My realisation in that moment was that this particular taste and texture could not have been achieved by rushing – that the hours of braising were fundamental in generating this level of gelatine release and complex flavour compounds. I’d certainly learned a lot since my first foray into cooking as a child, most importantly that for all the romance and excitement brought by the imagination, sauces nevertheless require a technical, calculated basis to achieve the clearest flavour.

Still, part of the beauty in making a sauce is this paradox of trying to calculate the unknown. I start with a very clear idea of what I want the sauce to be: my ‘innovative concept’. Specific factors, such as volume of liquid, ratio of fat, density of solid matter and temperature remain scientifically constant in the basic principles of making a sauce which means, at least to some extent, I can predict what it will taste like. A good example of this approach of combining the known with the unknown would be the pumpkinseed sauce we serve at Ikoyi – a careful ratio of fats and proteins emulsified into a rich kombu and mushroom stock. The sauce is silky and totally smooth, but contains some fairly unstable elements that require fragile balance.

The flavour combination can be anything I want it to be, but however hard I try to determine the perfect ratio, there is always an element of the unimaginable. Let’s take the coffee sauce we serve at Ikoyi as an example.

When I first tasted the Cameroon Boyo coffee from our producer Matti, I knew I had to cook with it. At the time, we were working a lot on developing the umami in our sauces, playing with acidity and sweetness to balance them out. I figured why not aim for an umami-rich sauce that was harmonised with bitterness? The earthy, dark chocolate flavours of the coffee were richer than any other I had tried, so I knew these would stand up well against other powerful ingredients. In this case, that element of the unimaginable would be to harmonise the richness of umami with the bitterness of the coffee.

As with a simple ragout, the coffee sauce recipe calls for distinct cooking techniques for each step. Shallots are gently confit in an equal weight of neutral oil until translucent, sweet and aromatic. Aubergines are burned over the grill until smoky. Tomatoes and chillies are fried to intensify acidity. Cod fillets are caramelised very slowly until all the water content has been released, yielding a golden brown, buttery and umami-rich crust. The composite parts are then emulsified for up to twenty minutes in a high-powered blender, brought together by a steeping of coffee, black garlic and octopus stock. While the last two elements are the basis for savoury flavours, the black garlic adds an almost balsamic tanginess. Tasting this sauce for the first time was that ‘unknown’ I had so carefully calculated, and it turned out to be everything I had desired: sweet, sour, savoury and bitter all at once.

Although flavour will always be the central theme, texture and appearance fall closely behind, as it is only when all three elements are at their best that a sauce generates its most powerful synergistic effects. The emulsions at Ikoyi are not only acidic and smoky, but their texture is clean and bouncy with an almost extra-terrestrial-like sheen. Other sauces, such as our version of groundnut sauce, use nuts not only for their protein-based umami, but also for the rich fatty oils that produce an incredibly smooth but rich mouthfeel. I’m always urging my team to be uncompromising in their production of a smooth sauce, as it’s how food looks when it is set down in front of you that gives you, as McGee puts it, ‘an anticipation of pleasures to come’.