What to Eat

Tasting Tomatoes with Oliveto’s Experts

Tomato season is about to be in full force here in California, and unlike on the East Coast, we hear it’s gearing up to be a whopper. Probably one of the best-known tomato celebrations is Oliveto’s tomato dinner series, which this year starts on August 26. Over the next couple of weeks we’re going to take a look at what goes into creating that menu, and by extension get some insight into the season’s most prolific fruit. Our guide will be Oliveto sous chef Brian Murphy, who today explains what the kitchen team will be looking for when it begins tasting tomatoes next week.

So how do you decide what to order for these dinners?
“We get a sampling of a few hundred tomatoes a few weeks before the menu is written, and [chef] Paul Canales and the sous chefs (including Murphy, Paul Berglund, and Kelsey Bergstrom), sit down and taste them. We take notes, write menus, then put in our “for real” orders. And that’s when the thousands of pounds of tomatoes start coming in.

How does the tasting work?
We sit down at a big table and there will be boxes and boxes and boxes of tomatoes. One of us has a knife and we cut them up and everybody tastes. We go around in a circle and rate them according to texture, color, acidity, sweetness. The juice inside a tomato can be kind of watery or it can be a really thick green gel like aloe vera. That gel is where a lot of the savory flavor of the tomato lives. That’s the same as umami.

How many do you have to taste?
You have to taste hundreds of tomatoes. If you’ve ever had a hundred slices of tomatoes in a row, you’ll know the gastrointestinal distress. Your whole body becomes this acidic, seething mess. It’s fun for like the first 20 minutes and then it just becomes grueling.

What’s the best dish to experience the tomatoes?
We always have one big heirloom tomato tasting platter on the menu, which is a good place to start—those are the tomatoes we liked raw. Others don’t taste good raw.That gel is part of the equation. If you have a nice fruity tomato with good acid and sweetness and it also has that gel going on, that’s the tomato you want to eat raw.

Tasting Tomatoes with Oliveto’s Experts