Down the culinary rabbit hole

Chef Heston Blumenthal describes his work with psychologists, to introduce an exclusive extract of 'The Perfect Meal: The Multisensory Science of Food and Dining', by Charles Spence and Betina Piqueras-Fiszman.

Chef Heston Blumenthal, OBE, on how working with psychologists has taken his cooking into a 'magical wonderland of the senses'.

The day I fell down the enchanting rabbit hole into the magical wonderland of the senses and began exploring their influence on our culinary likes and dislikes, I encountered a great deal of scepticism and resistance from chefs, diners, and food writers alike. In their eyes, the only thing of real importance was the food on the plate. The idea that the senses might influence our perception of flavour and help generate the pleasure and emotion that can accompany a meal was dismissed by some as nonsense, that reduced cooking and eating to mathematical formulae devoid of emotion. How wrong they were!

Although I only realised it later, my interest in the interplay of the senses and their influence on cuisine must stem from the event that originally made me want to be a chef when I was just 16 years old: a meal on the terrace of a three-star Michelin restaurant in Provence where the smell of the lavender bushes, the sound of the cicadas and the visual splendour of the setting almost seemed to eclipse the food and sent me down the rabbit hole. However, I date my conscious realisation of the culinary importance of the senses to 1997, when I created a dish that featured a crab-flavoured ice cream. The notion of a crab ice cream put some people off because ice cream is sweet, right? This association prevented them from enjoying a savoury version. However, I discovered that if I simply changed the name from ‘crab ice cream’ to ‘frozen crab bisque’, most people totally got it – even though it was the same ice cream! The idea that the actual name of a dish could change its whole context and enjoyment was, for me, a total eye opener. (This dish was the inspiration for a paper from Sussex University on how the name of a dish can even change its perceived saltiness). From then on, I researched whatever I could find on the incredible complexity of multisensory flavour perception, and began developing dishes that drew on what I was discovering. At the start of 2004, I unveiled my multisensory approach to cooking at one of the world’s foremost gastronomic congresses in a presentation entitled ‘Eating is a multisensory experience’, and the rest, as they say, is history.

I first met Professor Charles Spence back in 2002 through a mutual friend and mentor of mine, Professor Tony Blake. I still have vivid memories of my first visit to his Crossmodal Research Laboratory in Oxford. He showed me the fascinating Sonic Chips experiment, and the idea that sound could radically affect our perception and enjoyment of food started my mind racing, like a kid in a sweet shop. I returned to Bray, got hold of a sound box, and started trying things out for myself.

Since then, Charles and I have worked together on a number of sonic experiments. For one of them we fed test-participants (actually members of the audience at the Art and the Senses conference held in Oxford in 2006) a scoop of bacon and egg ice cream. One group of participants ate the ice cream while listening to the sounds of bacon sizzling in the pan. The others tasted the ice cream while listening to the sounds of chickens clucking in the farmyard. In each case the sound appeared to intensify the relevant flavour. In another experiment, we fed participants oysters while listening either to the sound of the sea (think waves crashing gently on the beach), or to the sounds of farmyard animals, after which we asked them to rate how pleasant the oysters tasted. (Listening to the sound of the sea resulted in people rating the oyster as tasting significantly more enjoyable, but no more salty when compared to the farmyard soundtrack. Such results giving further support to the notion that sound can indeed influence our emotional response to food.) It was this last experiment that inspired what is now a classic on the menu at The FatDuck, “Sound of the Sea”, in which seafood, seaweed and edible “sand” are used to create what looks like the edge of the seashore, all of which is accompanied by an iPod and earphones so that the diner can hear the sounds of the waves lapping up against the shore while eating [see the cover of the September 2010 issue of The Psychologist].

There are all sorts of other sensory questions that Charles and I have explored over the years, like whether listening to a low-pitched sound while eating a bitter, crunchy caramel would emphasize bitterness and whether listening to a sharp sound while tasting an acidulated toffee sauce would accentuate its acidity. We even investigated whether listening to a synaesthetically soft sound could enhance the richer, sweeter notes of the sauce. We’ve used jellies and pâtes de fruit in which the colour misleads you into expecting, say, a particular fruit when it is in fact a vegetable (i.e., blackcurrant that is in reality beetroot; lime that is fennel and pumpkin that tastes like apricot… adding fruit acids can flip the mind’s interpretation of the colour of a food to blackcurrant) in order to probe the ways in which the senses can nudge us to a different place in terms of our perception of flavour. The senses of sight and taste have nudged the vegetable to a fruit of the same colour, leaving the smell saying little about the matter. And we’ve pursued ideas based on the early research from Köhler on sound symbolism in which people were shown a pair of two-dimensional shapes, a spiky one and an amoeba-like one, and asked which of the two was a “kiki” and which a “bouba”. Despite both names being meaningless nonsense words, there was an overwhelming conviction that bouba was the rounded amoeba shape and kiki the pointed one. We tried this out with various foods and discovered that a similar correspondence between flavour and sound seemed to exist: for example, milk chocolate – even when brittle from a stint in the fridge – was generally considered more “bouba”, while dark chocolate, even in the form of a light and airy mousse, was overwhelmingly “kiki”.

As will by now be apparent, Charles has been one of my biggest inspirations. He is one of the world’s leading researchers in the field of multisensory perception and together with Betina they have opened up new ways of experiencing food by focusing on everything that surrounds it. So it’s very exciting that they have turned their ground-breaking fundamental research into a book so that you, too, can be inspired in much the same way that I have been – and still am. Charles and Betina are the perfect guides for such a journey given their wide-ranging curiosity, great clarity of thought, and lively minds that are forever spotting connections that illuminate how the world of food and drink really works. If you’re at all interested in food and the effect it has on our bodies and, more significantly, on our minds, then their book can’t fail to entertain, inform and ultimately to dazzle.

Heston Blumenthal

The Fat Duck


What follows is an exclusive extract from The Perfect Meal. For more from Professor Charles Spence, see his 2010 article on the multisensory perception of flavour, and this 2012 article (with Betina Piqueras-Fiszman) on dining in the dark

The company

Eating and drinking are fundamentally social activities, and always have been, at least according to Martin Jones (2007), an archaeologist based at Cambridge University. Certainly, the food never seems to taste as good when dining alone at a restaurant. The rise of both fast food culture and specialty coffee shops in recent years has, in part, been put down to the kinds of social interactions that such venues facilitate, a family meal (of sorts) in the former case (Finkelstein 2008; James 2005, p. 378), and a relaxed place to chat and socialize in the latter (Luttinger & Dicum 2006). Even the field of gastronomy itself may have developed, at least in part, as a means of bringing people together (see Petrini 2003, p. 8). As Alice Waters, the famous American cook once put it: “Eating is something we all have in common. It’s something we all have to do every day and it’s something we can all share.” (cited in Sonnefeld 2003, p. xii).

Researchers have now started to uncover some of the psychological principles that underlie the more social aspects of the meal (see Logue 2004; Mennell, Murcott, & van Otterloo 1992; Sobal 2000). Of course, social dining throws up its own set of social/etiquette problems. Who gets to order the wine? Who gets to choose their entrée first? And what happens if that delectable tasting menu is only available for the whole table, and not for individual diners? Research from Dan Ariely in the US has started to assess how these decisions affect a diner’s subsequent enjoyment. Apparently those who get to order first when dining at the restaurant tend to enjoy their food more than those who choose later (Ariely 2008; see also Nowlis, Mandel, & McCabe 2004; Tanner et al. 2008). In one representative study, Ariely and Levav (2000) went to a bar and offered groups of drinkers a taste of one of four new beers (Copperline Amber Ale; Franklin Street Lager; India Pale Ale; and Summer Wheat Ale). Each of those sitting at the table was allowed to choose one of the beers to taste. The drinkers were then requested to rate how good it tasted. The results showed that whoever chose first liked their beer more, on average, than the rest of the group (amounting to a difference of around 10%). Interestingly, no such difference was observed when the drinkers placed their orders by marking a piece of paper instead (i.e., when the normally public act of selection was turned into a very private one). Ariely explains this result in terms of individuals within a group “taking the road less travelled”, sacrificing the chance of choosing their preferred beer in favour of a less-liked beer and thus leading to increased variety amongst the group.

Intriguingly, subsequent research has shown that the tendency to order something different from those who have ordered already correlates with a personality dimension known as the “need for uniqueness” (Ariely & Levav 2000). While it is apparently the case that diners generally like to choose something different from those who have already ordered, adopting this strategy can sometimes lead an individual to choose something (to be different from everyone else) that they might not otherwise have chosen alone (or when ordering in secret/private), and hence potentially end up enjoying the experience a little less. There seems no reason to think the same sequence effects wouldn’t also affect a diner’s enjoyment of their meal when dining with friends or colleagues.

It has been well established that the presence of other people influences not only what we eat, but also how much we consume. Furthermore, those around us at the dinner table can also influence how much we like whatever it is that we are eating should they start pulling some extreme facial expressions – e.g., of pleasure or disgust (see Barthomeuf, Rousset, & Droit-Volet 2009). People also adapt to what, and how much, others at the table are eating (Goldman, Herman, & Polivy 1991; Polivy et al. 1979). So, if we see that others are only nibbling on a couple of canapés or sandwich triangles at a social event, very likely we’ll refrain from devouring the whole tray, even if we happen to be starving (though that isn’t to say that we won’t keep a close watch on the food out of the corner of our eye). People also exhibit a tendency to mimic the food choices of others (Tanner et al. 2008). As one would expect, eating with those who are familiar to us changes the dynamics of the dining situation, and can lead to an extended meal (Bell & Pliner 2003). What is more, the more people there are at the dinner table, the longer we stay (Sommer & Steele 1997). de Castro (2000) reported that we eat around 35% more with one other person present, 75% more when dining with three others, and we eat nearly twice as much when the number at the table reaches 7! (That said, for those women going on a first date it might be worth bearing in mind that your date will tend to be attracted to heavier women at the start of the meal (i.e. when he is hungry). However, during the course of the meal his preferences will start to shift toward lighter women as his stomach fills up, at least if research by Swami and Tovée (2006) is anything to go by!)

Elsewhere, it has been shown that how much more we eat depends on who exactly it is that we happen to be dining with (de Castro 1994). For example, there were significant differences between the mean meal sizes (measured in terms of the number of calories consumed) for both males and females: For all comparisons, meals eaten alone were significantly smaller than those eaten with others (no matter whether the others were of the same or opposite sex; de Castro 1994). On average, male diners were seen to eat 36% more in social conditions than when eating alone, whereas the female diners ate 40% more. That said, the two sexes responded somewhat differently to the presence of companions of the same and opposite sex: Whereas meal sizes were equivalent for males eating with either males or females (though this apparently depends on whether they are in their first date or not! see Mori, Chaiken, & Pliner 1987), females ate significantly more when eating with males than with other females. In addition, in comparison to the meals eaten with co-workers or other people whom we do not know very well, the meals eaten with one’s spouse and family tended to be larger and eaten more rapidly, while meals eaten with friends were larger but tended to have a longer duration.

Now, while some may want to defend the notion that “a ‘proper’ or ‘ideal’ meal has to be eaten with others” and that “eating alone is devalued and is not considered a ‘real’ meal” (Sobal & Nelson 2003), there is actually little evidence to support the claim that the food tastes any better when we dine in company. Social interaction can certainly make the dining experience more enjoyable (Sobal 2000), but we would rather say that it depends on whether we happen to enjoy the company (after all, isn’t bad company sometimes worse than eating alone?)! So, to conclude, while we all tend to enjoy food more when dining in company (than when dining alone), it can throw up its own challenges too.

“The mind knows not what the tongue wants.” (Howard Moskowitz, quoted by Gladwell 2004)

 - The Perfect Meal: The Multisensory Science of Food and Dining, by Charles Spence and Betina Piqueras-Fiszman, is published by Wiley Blackwell. For your chance to win a copy, follow us on Twitter.


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