GASTROPHYSICS: THE ART & SCIENCE OF MULTISENSORY EXPERIENCE DESIGN
Charles Spence is the world-leading expert in sensory science. At the core of his work is the belief that food is a designed experience made better once we understand how our senses influence taste. Spence, author of Gastrophysics: The New Science of Eating believes that “the pleasures of the table reside in the mind, not the mouth.” His research centers on the blend of gastronomy and psychophysics, to understand how our perceptions, behaviors, and attitudes make food enjoyable, stimulating and most important, memorable. Gastronomy, the practice or art of choosing, cooking and eating good food is now as important as the psychophysics, the branch of psychology that deals with relations between physical stimuli and mental phenomena — or as Spence calls it, the science of dining.
His insights have highly influenced top chefs, food giants, and restaurateurs around the world who are now enhancing the dining experience through multisensory experimentations. We make an association in our minds with a certain flavour before even tasting the food. Fifteen years ago, celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal served a salmon ice-cream at the Fat Duck leaving his guests with the “Marmite face,” the face one makes when eating the synthetic spread. Spence says that “no one has ever had a good meal while fighting with their partner.” Our mood, body, and stress level all impact the experience of food and taste. The “Provencal Rosė Paradox” explains why when we try a bottle of wine we bought on holiday it tastes completely different than when we first had it on the beach, or at that restaurant.
Spence argues that “we can train our taste buds to like or even love foods we’ve grown up hating.” Chef Jozef Youssef, creative force behind Kitchen Theory design studio, and longtime collaborator of Spence, creates dishes that explore the possibilities of utilizing science and psychology to influence flavor. Pollen and the Bee is such a dish. Youssef presents a beautifully plated dish that almost forces the diner to completely disregard that they are eating an insect. In the infamous jellyfish dish, Yousef introduces sonic seasoning, which Spence argues “can alter the flavour of our food enhancing the overall experience.” An audiovisual dining experience that consisted of sounds and visuals of the sea, and crunchiness to ease the odd texture of the jellyfish. For Yousef, the potential of sensory science is the ability to encourage people to eat more sustainable and healthy food.
In 2013, Spence carried out the Singleton Whiskey experiment testing the impact multisensory environments can have on the taste of whiskey. At the conclusion of the experiment, people reported that their environment significantly affected the flavour of the whiskey. Spence argues that shapes, colors, touch are crucial to the design of any food experience. In 2018, in collaboration with Reiko Kaneko, a ceramicist and designer produced a collection of plates that aimed to intensify perceptions of flavor by manipulating color, shape, texture and weight.
Through his research, Spence is pioneering the ability for chefs to follow their artistic intuition that is validated through sensory science. Chef Charles Micheal’s salad dish in which he arranged a salad to look like artist Kandinsky’s painting No. 201, is an introduction to what Charles Spence calls “gastro-trickery.” In an experiment, he served the same 31 ingredients simply plated. Diners reported that food tasted better when it was visually-appealing ultimately altering their perception to the food. Jastrow’s optical illusion rabbit/duck (1899) was Gustav Kuhn’s inspiration to create what Spence calls “the world’s first flavor changing dish.” Whether the diners saw rabbit or duck impacted the flavor of the dish.
In design applications, Laila Snvele, a sensory food designer, takes gastrophysics theories to practice. Her work uses much of Spence’s theories on gastrophysics as a point of departure to her work, looking at how we can incorporate sensory science to manipulate our perceptions of food. Central to Snevele’s work is the possibility of tasting with our sense, and its ability to alter taste perception. As part of the design academy eindhoven’s graduation show she presented her project Digital Seasoning a series of visual digitalizations of the five basic tastes stimulating one’s taste buds without showing edible ingredients or releasing their scent. Snvele believes that when “looking at someone eating a lemon, we know the food is going to be sour.” Digital Seasoning, like much of Snevele’s work, combines empathy with material, color, facial mimicry, and overall feeling, to prove that taste is created mostly, if not entirely, in our minds. The application potential of her project has a great impact on the food industry by employing “digital seasoning” to reduce additives in processed foods.
At the White Rabbit restaurant with chef Vladimir Mukhin, an apple sorbet was served with a QR code that would showcase the sweet and sour visualizations. Diners were able to move between the two tastes depending on what they wanted to taste. During Dutch Design week, Snvele created multisensory tasting rooms that screened the different visualizations. The environment she envisioned, created a space for visitors to consider how outside influences can alter the taste of food.
In Natural Synthetic, Snevele considers the tension between synthetic and natural food. Creating edible objects that look, taste and smell similar to a fruit, but are completely synthetic. Her objects aim to translate one sense, tasting, into three other senses creating an experience that allows the senses to intersect. Further exploring the impact of touch on our senses Sensory Tableware, proposed dishware to serve the reality of food we eat today, prompting people to not overeat. What Snevele calls the bubble bowl, made for desert, mimicked the bubbly shapes of fruits where people had to lick the bowl to eat the food served.
Both Snevele and Spence’s work spearhead the crucial and radical thought that maybe we taste with our senses completely, and envision what the future possibilities will be for how we eat.
Professor Charles Spence is a world-famous experimental psychologist with a specialization in neuroscience-inspired multisensory design. He established the Crossmodal Research Laboratory (CRL) at Oxford University in 1997. Prof. Spence has published many articles and books including, the Prose prize-winning “The Perfect Meal”. He has worked extensively on the question of how technology will transform our dining/drinking experiences in the future.
Sensory food designer Laila Snevele explores the perception of food through multisensorial research. What role does color, shape, texture, temperature, sound, mouthfeel, and aroma play in our understanding of a certain food? And how can we use these elements to change or elevate our sense of taste? Snevele designs recipes for the brain. She sees the senses as a free resource that the full potential of which is not being used.