Your flavor box, or flavor personality, consists of your life experiences and their effect upon the emotional aspect of your tasting process. Your flavor box derives from your present environment as well as all of the previous environments in which you have lived. The method in which you taste is an outgrowth or product of these environments. It is part of your flavor personality.
Family often has the biggest impact on an individual’s flavor personality. Your family, your town, the surrounding community and region, and the way in which you were raised all join together to form your flavor box. I grew up in the Midwest, surrounded by a family with deep Croatian roots. At home we ate a great variety of Croatian dishes. Throughout my childhood, this style of food was simply part of our family life and I grew up assuming that other families were eating similar foods. I was in school before I realized that my colleagues had never heard of, let alone tasted, dishes like paletchinka (a type of thin pancake filled with cheese and jam), sarma (sour cabbage stuffed with ground pork and veal), or paprikash (a stew rich with paprika, vegetables, and chicken). These dishes were normal dinner fare in our house. Their flavors were subconsciously defining my taste personality, my flavor box.
Your flavor box is not a stagnant entity. Think of it as a box with constantly moving walls and slightly fluid. With each new taste experience the walls of the box are inexorably altered. As an adult my flavor box has expanded beyond my Croatian heritage. I have lived in many different regions of the United States as well as in Europe. These experiences have influenced my flavor box. Each physical change of locale has brought me into contact with new ingredients, new cooking methods, and new ways of tasting foods. All of these factors serve as the foundation for new food memories.
Consider how tomatoes can be made into a sauce in Italy . . . in Mexico . . . in California? Each exposure to new cultures or new ingredients adds depth and breadth to your flavor box. For instance, the Japanese have dozens of words to define the textures of tofu. For most Americans, this is somewhat hard to comprehend; yet such descriptors are inherent to the Japanese flavor box. Tofu, and all its varieties, is intrinsic to the Japanese culture. It is important to be aware of the limits your culture places on your flavor box. Strive to keep your mind and palate open to new taste possibilities, to new ways of expanding your flavor repertoire.
As a chef it is vital to be aware of and able to define all of the components of your flavor box. It is essential to be cognizant of your prejudices, likes, and dislikes, as well as their sources. This knowledge will help to make you a better taster. Perhaps the flavors you have always labeled “good” are, in reality, triggers for positive food memories while the flavors themselves are flat and underdeveloped. You may love the supermarket birthday cakes of your childhood. Each bite fetch with it great memories of birthday parties and a table full of presents. In reality, the cakes are usually overly sweet with a waxy, vegetable shortening-laden frosting. The flavor is too sweet and ultimately flat and undesirable; the vegetable shortening coats your tongue and the roof of your mouth. However, since your perception of the flavor is good because of the happy memories it recalls, this sweet flavor is then labeled good in your flavor box. It is therefore imperative that chefs are aware not only of the contents of their flavor box, but also of the emotional and personal context of those flavors.