Rose Prince

A feast in every sense

When modernist chefs insist on appealing to all our senses, things can go horribly wrong

A feast in every sense
Text settings

Gastrophysics: The New Science of Eating

Charles Spence

Viking, pp. 432, £

After reading Gastrophysics: The New Science of Eating, you might, as I did, sit for a bit wondering what a chef is, exactly. We think of chefs as cooks, people in charge of a kitchen, ingredients, pan and heat, who hopefully produce great dishes of food. But this is apparently an outdated concept. For chefs who want to make their name in the world now, the expression of their art must exceed the nourishment on the plate. Cooking can only take a dish so far in order to make it memorable, claims Professor Charles Spence. ‘No matter how exquisitely executed,’ he adds. Whoa! I can still recall the taste of my mother’s sublime steak-and-kidney pudding from 20 years ago.

Spence is an eminent scientist at the department of experimental psychology at Oxford University. His interests include studying how the mind manages to process different information from all the senses and he has lent his expertise in ‘multi-sensory experience’ — gastrophysics — to the food industry. He has worked with Unilever, Britvic, Starbucks, McDonald’s and the Fat Duck restaurant.

Heston Blumenthal’s acclaimed establishment dangles oddly on the end of that list. Yet Spence is known for research resulting in the ‘sonic chip,’ a study which found that by boosting the high-frequency sounds people hear when they bite into a Pringle, the chips seemed markedly fresher and crunchier. This gave rise to the concept of ‘sound as an ingredient’. Spence was then approached by Blumenthal, who went on to create a fish course, ‘the Sound of the Sea’. This is served with a pair of ear-bud speakers, so diners can hear waves crashing and the call of gulls, enhancing the sensory effect as they eat. Some have been known to break down in tears at the experience.

Blumenthal has since gone much further with what Spence calls ‘experiential dining’, or eating-out-as-an-experience, rather than simply being sated. Spence also refers to, and has met, many modernist chefs. He calls them ‘top chefs’ — a bit tabloid — and their various restaurants are ‘one of the world’s best’, referring to their inclusion in the annual ‘50 best’ list, in which leaders in the industry vote for their favourite ‘experience’. Not exactly scientific.

However, the star-struck Spence’s detailed understanding of how our senses — sight, smell, touch and hearing — play a part in the way we enjoy (or not) our food, is revealing, very interesting and well worth understanding, if only to decide how you want to eat and where your satisfaction levels lie. Our diet evolves necessarily, and it is right that our perceptions are challenged through new technology and also in reviving lost gastronomic cultures. For example, dark red, white and yellow carrots are now available in grocers, beside typical orange types. Many shoppers will continue to buy the carrot they know, no more able to eat a red carrot than they would drink green milk. Others embrace the new and exciting, only to learn that before the 17th century, all carrots where red, white and yellow, and orange ones the new species.

Blumenthal plays with the concept of combining heritage and experimental skills very effectively, reviving medieval dishes and historical inspiration and ideas, using high-tech methods to bring them to the table. I do not doubt his or the intentions of the other modernist chefs in their desire to provide theatre for their diners, though in the wrong hands this wizardry can go horribly wrong. When an experimental chef gets their hands on Sunday lunch at your local and the apple crumble comes in a cloud of dry ice and the waiter sprays a squirt of perfume up your nose that contains the ‘nature identical’ (artificial) scent of windfalls while recorded orchard birdsong tweets on a loop, it’s not entertaining; it is distracting and irrelevant.

This is also a highly enlightening book on how the food industry can deceive a consumer’s response to processed food. Food technology is nothing new; there are hundreds of artificial processing aids. But now the food and hospitality industry is discovering how to play on our senses, not just in obvious ways, using aroma or changing mouthfeel, but understanding visual response to the shapes of graphics on labels or how the background colour of a package influences flavour, making the contents seem sweeter.

In one experiment, Spence dishes up rabbit at one of his ‘lab dinners’, giving diners cutlery with rabbit fur wrapped around the handles:

Sitting around the dining table, we all tentatively held the soft furry skin in our ‘paws’, the faint aroma of the animal emanating from our hands… straight away everyone had a much greater awareness of where our dinner had really come from.

You’d hope a bunch of scientists do know where rabbits come from, but I can see this kind of work being valuable in the education of children, and in encouraging the search for a sustainable food supply. Gastrophysics might change mind-sets towards the value of eating insects, for example.

But the shifting world of gastronomy will no doubt soon see cheffing enter another phase, and I do not mind if it is single sensory, i.e. the food tastes good. Anything between decent and exquisitely executed is fine by me. Never mind the sound effects, I’ll just cry with joy if the fish is fresh.