The Current

This chef says losing ability to taste, smell due to COVID left him 'completely just lost'

Loss of smell and taste have become well-known symptoms of COVID-19. But for chefs and other people working in the food industry, losing those senses can be especially devastating — both personally, and professionally.

Expert says smell training can help people whose senses have been distorted because of the virus

Justin Burke is a pastry chef, food writer and recipe developer in South Carolina. He lost his ability to taste and smell after catching COVID-19. (Carter Short Photography)

Story Transcript

When Justin Burke realized he'd lost his ability to taste or smell due to COVID-19, he thought his career was over.

As a pastry chef, food writer and recipe developer in South Carolina, he's relied on those senses for over a decade in order to do his job.

He'd just sat down to his first real meal in weeks, after eating mostly noodles and rice while recovering from the virus. But what was supposed to be a delicious dinner of steak, roasted squash and garlic rice didn't taste like food at all.

"The steak tasted very metallic, like I had just licked the side of a car, and the cooked squash tasted … like rotting flesh. And then I picked up nothing from the rice — no garlic, no nothing," Burke told The Current's Matt Galloway.

"I, at that point, was so mentally, emotionally and physically exhausted from ... the case of COVID that I had, that I just broke down and started crying."

According to the journal Nature, studies show loss of smell is a common symptom of COVID-19. A recent study from the Journal of Internal Medicine that looked at more than 2,500 coronavirus patients from 18 European hospitals found nearly 86 per cent of patients who had mild cases of COVID-19 experienced loss of smell.

But for chefs and other people working in the food industry, those symptoms are especially devastating — both personally, and professionally.

"When the pandemic started, I was working the most that [I] had in the past two years, because so many publications were looking for … simple, at-home recipes," said Burke.

He said his COVID-19 symptoms left him feeling "completely just lost of what to do."

People don't necessarily want to hear from a sommelier or a writer who can't actually taste- Suriya Bala, sommelier and food and wine writer

Losing the ability to taste or smell was overwhelming for Suriya Bala, too.

When she got sick last fall, the U.K.-based sommelier and food and wine writer said she felt a great deal of fear about whether her symptoms would ever change, and how it would impact her job.

"People don't necessarily want to hear from a sommelier or a writer who can't actually taste," she told Galloway.

She said she recognizes, however, that there are people whose loss of taste or smell has been far worse or prolonged than her own.

Suriya Bala is a sommelier and food and wine writer. (Priya Dabasia)

Bala and Burke have since recovered the majority of their ability to smell and taste.

But throughout their recoveries, they've been haunted by phantom smells — and they aren't always pleasant. It's a condition known as parosmia.

"I'd never smelled anything that putrid or foul before. It was sort of [like a] farmyard and metallic and musty," said Bala. "It only for me would hang around for the first 20 minutes in the morning and then it would go."

Burke, on the other hand, would typically recall the smell of wet dirt.

"I'll walk ... into Target and I'm like, 'Wow, it smells like a garden in here.' But I know that's not true," he explained.

The science behind smell

Barry Smith is the founding director of the Centre for the Study of the Senses at the University of London's School of Advanced Study. 

He told Galloway that a major infection site for the coronavirus is in the nose. The virus binds to cells that house hairs in the nose's mucous membrane, which recruit odour molecules and then attract them into the olfactory receptors.

"Now, when [those cells] are damaged, it's as if you just can't get the molecules into the receptors, so we lose our sense of smell," he explained. And the loss of smell affects a person's ability to taste, he said.

Smell training is one way to help people recover their ability to smell, says Barry Smith, with the Centre for the Study of the Senses at the University of London's School of Advanced Study. (Mauro Scrobogna/LaPresse via AP)

Smith said experts are still puzzled about why the phantom smells that COVID-19 patients experience are so terrible. But there's been a huge upsurge in research aimed at finding out, he said.

And the funky odours aren't all bad news.

"When you have parosmia, it is a sign … of regeneration of the olfactory neurons," Smith said. "They're starting to be active again, but it's almost as if they're rewired in the wrong way. You're connecting them to the wrong ports, so things are not smelling as they should."

One thing that can help people recover from parosmia or anosmia — which is the partial or complete inability to smell — is to practise smell training, said Smith.

All people have to do is try sniffing a couple of essential oils (the classics are lemon, clove, eucalyptus and rose), first thing in the morning, and last thing at night, he said.

"This helps to regenerate the pathways, the connections between the regenerated receptors in the brain," Smith said. "And we know that people recover … more quickly by doing smell training."

Burke has now recovered most of his ability to smell and taste, but he says it's been a jarring experience. (Carter Short Photography)

After experiencing symptoms for six months, Burke said he'd started to come to terms with the idea that he may never smell or taste again.

Then, one night, he ate an eggroll — and it tasted really spicy. 

"It was that moment that I realized I was tasting everything all at once," he said. And as he's started to recover more of his senses, he tells people it's like "tasting for the first time, a second time."

The experience has been jarring, Burke said.

But there's also a lesson to be learned.

"I think the biggest takeaway from this is how we just didn't think about what a privilege it is to be able to enjoy our food and the smells around us," he said.

Written by Kirsten Fenn. Produced by Rachel Levy-McLaughlin and Zoe Yunker.

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