Can the way your dinner looks influence how it tastes? Professor Charles Spence of Oxford’s Crossmodal Research Laboratory investigates.

By Professor Charles Spence, head of the Crossmodal Research Laboratory

Back in the 1960s, top chefs would normally serve the food looking pretty much as it would had you made the food yourself at home. In the decades since, the culinary landscape has changed completely.

Many blame the emergence of the nouvelle cuisine movement for the rise of ‘gastroporn’. Increasingly it is the intense competition: As one commentator put it, there can be ‘no doubt the pressures of earning awards and positive reviews have pushed French chefs to take a more artistic approach to plating’. Or perhaps the growing obsession with how food looks can partly be attributed to the fact that diners (and the growing band of gastrotourists) increasingly want to photograph the dishes they are served and share the images with their friends over social media, or else upload them to websites such as The Art of Plating. In fact, this trend has recently got so popular that some chefs have started talking about banning the taking of pictures in their restaurants.

But can the way the food looks really influence the taste? This is one of the questions that we are currently investigating at the Crossmodal Research Laboratory here at Oxford University’s Department of Experimental Psychology. As a psychologist, I am especially interested in finding out just how much of an influence the plating of food has on the experience of the diner. In order to address this question we have been collaborating with a young Franco-Colombian chef called Charles Michel — incidentally, the first chef in residence at the lab.

One of the dishes that we have been working on goes by the name of ‘Kandinsky on a plate’ (above right). This salad is plated to look like one of Kandinsky’s paintings, Panel for Edwin R. Campbell No. 4, currently hanging at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. We have conducted a number of experiments to show that, as Apicius the Roman gourmand is purported to have said way back in the 1st century, we really do eat first with our eyes. The participants who were lucky enough to have taken part in our laboratory studies liked the Kandinsky salad more and said that they would have been willing to pay significantly more for it than when exactly the same ingredients were served as a regular tossed salad. We obtained similar results when we ‘experimented’ on the parents at a Somerville luncheon for parents earlier this year.

Can you believe your tastebuds

Spurred on by these initial findings, we have since been collaborating with other young and up-and-coming chefs such as London-based Jozef Youssef and Sao Paulo’s Alberto Landgraf, taking some of their signature dishes, putting pictures of these dishes up on the internet, and allowing hundreds of volunteers to rotate their dishes or rearrange the constituent elements into their preferred orientation or configuration. The results of our latest research demonstrate both that people really do care about how the food on the plate looks — and what is more, that chefs’ intuitions are not always borne out by the data. So, for example, while many modernist chefs are currently rather fond of placing the ingredients asymmetrically on the plate, we find that participants online, and the diners at that Somerville luncheon, much prefer their food centred in the middle of the their plate than set off to one side.

Understanding how what we see influences what we taste and how much we enjoy the overall experience is, then, a subject of growing interest at the lab. That said, we have also been doing a lot of research looking into how what people hear can influence what they taste. We have, for instance, been working with the London Symphony Orchestra and the Antique Wine Company in London in a collaboration that culminated in a truly multisensory wine tasting event at St. Luke’s church in London in 2013 with a quartet from the LSO playing pieces of classical music that had been shown to provide an especially good accompaniment to the wine.

Can you believe your tastebudsMeanwhile, back in November, British Airways took a number of our experimental results as inspiration for the introduction of a musical menu on the in-flight entertainment system, so that long-haul passengers can make their food taste better simply by dialling into the appropriate track on their headsets.

The challenge now is how to take the best of our laboratory and restaurant findings and think about how to apply the insights when it comes to reducing the unhealthy ingredients in foods. With Ben Reade, formerly Head of the Nordic Food Lab, we are also gearing up to look at ways of changing people’s attitudes toward entomophagy

  • The Perfect Meal: The Multisensory Science of Food and Dining, by Charles Spence and Betina Piqueras-Fiszman, is just out from Wiley-Blackwell.

  • The full paper about the Kandinsky salad is available in the open access journal Flavour here. The St Luke’s winetasting experiment is also accessible at Flavour here.