By MATTHEW WEAVER
KENNEWICK, Wash. -- A top chef hopes consumers will eventually study potatoes for flavor and aroma with the same intensity they view wine and apples.
Retired Portland chef Leif Benson is a public member of the Oregon Potato Commission, culinary ambassador for the state and was twice named Chef of the Year by the American Culinary Federation Chef Society of Oregon.
As a chef and consumer, Benson believes flavor should rank higher as a priority when developing potato varieties.
"It's been all of the other things that were important, disease resistance and yields," he said. "As a chef, (flavor) ranks the highest for me."
The commission held its second Goodness Unearthed awards at the Washington-Oregon Potato Conference in Kennewick, Wash. The chefs Benson gathered as judges for the awards program were amazed by the variety of tastes.
"It's extremely rare for anybody, industry, culinary or consumer-wise, to actually have the ability to taste all these varieties at one time," Benson said. "The chefs are blown away -- they've never understood the flavor that existed in a whole range of potatoes."
Flavor already ranks high in Europe, Benson said, and potatoes having the best flavor are marketed at premium prices.
In the last decade, Benson has seen flavor gain a foothold in the U.S. industry.
That means developing language for what potatoes should taste like.
"Right now, if I asked you what that potato tastes like, you'll probably say something like 'potato-ey.'" Benson said. "There's really no words for it."
Goodness Unearthed judges considered 19 competing potato varieties, determining whether they were earthy, flaky, or had umami, a term Benson describes as the round, meaty sort of flavor found in soy sauce or mushrooms. Other flavors included sweet, sour, bitter and salty.
Bill Brewer, executive director of the Oregon commission, said taste, texture and appearance will have a lot to do with continued use of potatoes. All those criteria go into whether a customer likes a product, he said.
Brewer pointed to the concept of terroir in wine, or the impact of location, soil and climate on taste and texture. Potatoes won't reach the highly specific level of identifying a particular part of a property, but Brewer would like to get people thinking about varieties and where they're grown.
Brewer said the commission wants to let consumers know many choices are available. The contest included six entries in the Russet category.
"I could set all six of them side-by-side and you wouldn't know the difference by looking at them, and they all taste different, have different texture and cook differently," he said.
The industry is on the cusp of mapping the potato genome that determines flavor and aroma, Benson said, which could lead to developing varieties based on those characteristics.