August 2009

Perfume for the Palate

  • Palette of colorful macarons: violet-cassis, jasmine tea, rose.
  • Trio of gazpachos: tomato-geranium, carrot-lavender, beet-rose.
  • Essential elements for pleasing potions.
  • Rose mojitos.
  • Gérald Ghislain enjoys a moment between courses.
  • Magali Sénéquier prepares roses for the buffet.
  • The dining table awaits guests.
  • Strawberries soak in hibiscus syrup, topped with cubes of mint jelly.
  • Grayson Wilder sips a refreshing beet-rose gazpacho.
  • Amaury Nolasco and Jennifer Morrison drink it all in.
  • Tamara Dunn puts the finishing touches on the buffet.
  • Grayson Wilder, Tamara Dunn and Matthew Wilder compare notes.

At this party, you’ll want to stop and taste the flowers  by LORA ZARUBIN / produced by EVE GERBER / photographs by CORAL VON ZUMWALT

A party menu that’s inspired by infusing fragrance into the dishes? What a fabulous idea—and why is this the first I’m hearing of it? It makes good sense: Taste is greatly dependent on smell. I guess it’s only fitting that the architect of this cocktail party is a Parisian restaurateur who became a parfumeur. I can’t wait to taste the results.

The masterminds behind this scent-driven fete are Gérald Ghislain and Magali Sénéquier. Ghislain, who refers to himself as a fragrance creator/cook, is passionate about both perfume and food. He lives in Paris, where he owns three small restaurants and, in 1999, launched a perfume venture, Histoires de Parfums. Sénéquier is a product designer who teamed with Ghislain 10 years ago, working with him and conceptualizing both the perfume line and the restaurants.

The inspiration for this fragrance party sprang from a brainstorm Ghislain had one morning: Since he was coming to L.A. to introduce Histoires de Parfums’ fragrances, why not stage a cocktail party and bring together the two things he loves—food and scents—to mark the occasion? He wanted to share his experience of how profound the power of fragrance can be in food, “because without the aroma, there is no flavor,” he says. Sénéquier, who is the practical half of the partnership, knew this was a big idea and jokingly suggested that the next time he had a brainstorm in the morning, maybe he should stay in bed. This push-pull dynamic between the duo is how they operate—it is Sénéquier who transforms Ghislain’s flights of fancy into reality.

So, a group—including fashion designers Jenni Kayne and Henry Duarte; actors Stuart Townsend, Jennifer Morrison (on hiatus from House) and Amaury Nolasco (from Prison Break); and Histoires de Parfums’ stateside distributors Andrew Bernstein and his wife, Jenny Chase—gathers at Matthew Wilder and Tamara Dunn’s stunning compound in Malibu’s Ramirez Canyon. Ghislain’s ideas for the recipes are ambitious: He wants every dish to be infused with either an essential oil or herbs that complement the ingredient. Meanwhile, Sénéquier concentrates on designing a spectacular presentation for each. They come up with a menu of bite-size tastes for a cocktail party, so guests can sample a range of dishes, all inspired by fragrance.

The evening starts with a round of rose mojitos. Ghislain muddles mint and lime juice, adds rose syrup, rum and a splash of soda. It’s a wonderful, refreshing summer libation. The taste of mint, lime and rose is like sipping the best of the garden.

Then there’s the buffet: shrimp carpaccio in individual petri dishes atop a rose gelée. There is a trio of individual gazpachos: carrot paired with lavender, beet with rose and tomato with geranium. There is also an earthy and aromatic green ratatouille made with zucchini and asparagus and infused with lavender. The confit de canard—a leg of duck braised and preserved in its own fat—is served alongside a sauce that incorporates the essences of tobacco and cocoa. Both delicious and unusual, it works magnificently.

For dessert, Ghislain has fresh strawberries macerated in a hibiscus syrup. I never thought the essence of hibiscus would elevate the taste of strawberries without detracting from them—it does, and the result is memorable. (There are also trays of violet-cassis, rose and jasmine-tea macarons from Paulette, a bakery in Beverly Hills.)

Not everything is an unqualified success, though: Ghislain’s homemade pâté, done with cardamom, doesn’t entirely work—he readily admits it’s the first time he has ever attempted the recipe. And that is one of the remarkable things about him: He’s not afraid of failure.

Ghislain’s idea of cooking is not to improve on what is already perfect but to come up with creations that haven’t been thought of before. I understand: Creativity is about being curious and experimenting. When certain dishes work, like the strawberries with the hibiscus syrup, it’s transcendent; when others don’t, it’s not important enough to worry about. In truth, it has never occurred to me that cooking with essences derived from flowers can enhance food so well. It would seem that it would overpower the flavors. But it turns out the genius is in the right combinations, whether savory or sweet.

What I love most about the evening is the sheer inventiveness of Ghislain and Sénéquier’s beautiful party. I’m sure from now on, whenever I catch the scent of a strawberry, I will be reminded of hibiscus and magically transported back to the events of this day.