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From Brookline to the best restaurant in the world: author Arielle Johnson’s new book explores flavor

Author and food scientist Arielle Johnson, right, with America's Test Kitchen cast member Dan Souza, left. Photo by Maggie Scales
March 29, 2024

A crowd hungry for knowledge, and maybe more, packed the Brookline Booksmith on Monday night to hear Arielle Johnson, a Brookline native, flavor scientist and author, discuss her new book, “Flavorama.”

After years of studying the chemistry of flavor by conducting research on everything from cocktails to Nordic vinegars, Johnson, 36, wanted to articulate her findings more broadly to help chefs and home-cooks change their outlook on cooking.

“Eventually I got smart and figured out I needed to write a book because there wasn’t one out there,” said the Brookline native, who graduated from the Lincoln School and then Brookline High School in 2005. She was interviewed at the Booksmith by Dan Souza, cast member of the television show, “America’s Test Kitchen.”

“Flavorama” teaches readers how to cook with an understanding of the five categories of taste — sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami — rather than just thinking about ingredients.

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“We can learn to follow a recipe and that’s an important skill for cooking, but if you can understand not just that a recipe works but why and how it works, you have a lot more freedom for working with ingredients that aren’t in the recipe but are similar,” she said. “It’s like the difference between following a turn-by-turn GPS on your phone when you’re driving versus understanding a city’s layout well enough that you can find a back way if you need to.”

In the book, Johnson articulates her five “laws of flavor” and includes various recipes such as how to make brown butter out of heavy cream, or pudding out of a japanese black sugar called kurozato so readers can apply those concepts.

While earning her doctoral degree at the University of California, Davis, in its wine department, Johnson said she “talked her way into” conducting flavor chemistry research at the Nordic Food Lab at Noma, a three-Michelin-star restaurant in Copenhagen, Denmark often called the best restaurant in the world.

Johnson said she is always trying to seek out whoever is doing the “most interesting stuff” in her field, and at the time, she was compelled by the work researchers were doing at the Nordic Food Lab on the fermentation of various vinegars, which Johnson said is a big part of Nordic cuisine. While there, she helped chefs innovate to create new dishes with her knowledge of flavor on a molecular level.

“The best thing for me is collaborating with people and combining my skill set with a chef’s intuition and experience to figure out how to do something that’s never been done before, she said. “It’s pretty fun.”

Johnson also served as the science officer for Alton Brown’s television show, “Good Eats” and was a director’s fellow at the MIT Media Lab. Now, she lives in New York City and is the science director of Noma Projects, an experimental food lab spun out of the restaurant. She also co-founded Retronasal Industries, a culinary consulting business.

Throughout her research, Johnson found herself repeatedly explaining the same concepts to chefs all over the world and wished there was a book she could point them to.

After about five years of writing, Johnson published “Flavorama,” which came out on March 13.

“I hope people take away simple ways to have a stronger connection to their food and what they are doing with it,” she said. “There is something so freeing about walking into a grocery store and just being able to pick stuff and have the confidence that you can make something delicious out of it.”