Charles Spence on food, psychology and multisensory meals

Gastrophysics: The New Science of Eating is the experimental psychology professor’s latest venture into multisensory cuisine. He spoke to Thomas Lawrence about his findings at Portland Design’s New Food Frontiers seminar

How did you first become interested in the psychology and science behind how people experience food?

By accident really. On my very first day at Oxford 20 years ago I was speaking at a conference. Unilever were in the audience and they offered me some funding, initially for basic research on hearing, vision, and touch. Slowly they drew me into smell and then taste, and before you knew it I was in flavour, the most multisensory of our experiences. But I would say my future interest in flavour was really sealed when I met Heston Blumenthal in 2003 and we started doing experiments together.

Tell me more about your work with Blumenthal and its impact on his menus.

As a gastrophysicist I do not create recipes or dishes. Rather we provide some ideas and inspiration that, in the right hands, might lead to innovations. The Fat Duck Research Kitchen and The Sound of the Sea is an example.

Which areas of your work have you found the most interesting?

I have to say that food is the most fun because things happen on a much more rapid timescale than in the case of car warning signals or the European Crew Workstation. Everyone is interested in food or has something to say on the matter. I think chefs and mixologists are among the most creative and imaginative individuals when it comes to putting multisensory science on the menu. Innovation just happens much faster without the need to convince the many layers of management found in large organizations.

Is multisensory eating the preserve of fine dining or does it impact foodservice everywhere?

In a sense all eating is multisensory. Food experiences normally stimulate all of our senses, from the sight, the sounds of preparation and consumption, then the taste and retronasal smell, mouthfeel, and even the painful burn or tingling associated with some foods. I guess part of the hope with gastrophysics is to broaden the discussion from just thinking about the sensory cues from the food itself to the total experience, including the sights, sounds and smells that surround us as we eat.

What can foodservice consultants take from your research?

I would say no matter what you serve or where you serve it, the pleasures of the table reside mostly in the mind not the mouth. As such, everyone has something to learn from thinking more carefully about ‘the everything else’ that affects the tasting experience. Just think about it; all those natural, organic, free-range kind of places have a certain atmosphere, be it the fresh produce displayed in the window, or the wood paneling in a more traditional venue.

Could you give an example?

Wherever food is served there is some auditory accompaniment to proceedings. This could be the noise of the kitchen, the chatter of conversation, even engine sounds suppressing our ability to taste sweet and salty while enhancing the taste of umami (hence why so many people choose a tomato juice or Bloody Mary while flying).

What insights about how people experience food have most surprised you?

I am always surprised by just how impactful even a subtle weight increase to cutlery, glassware or packaging is on the eating/drinking experience. Intuitively, I think many of us know that you tend to find heavier cutlery in better quality restaurants. But I really enjoyed our study at a Scottish hotel-restaurant where diners eating with heavier cutlery enjoyed and were willing to pay more for their food than those eating with light cutlery.

What about your favourite findings? Were any particularly quirky?

In hindsight, people now tend to say it is kind of obvious that playing the sounds of waves crashing on the beach would enhance the taste of seafood. When Heston and I first played the sounds of the sea at Oxford’s Art and Science Festival back in 2007, and found that it really did enhance the taste of oysters people were given to rate, it was very surprising. What most people continue to be surprised by is what comes next, namely the area of sonic seasoning that we developed back in the labs in Oxford and together with the boys in The Fat Duck research kitchen.

Sonic seasoning must have been a fascinating discovery.

Who would have thought that you could add sweetness to a dish simply by playing tinkling high-pitched music? Since we first started working on sonic seasoning back in 2009 we have now developed music that will bring out sourness and bitterness, spiciness and even creaminess in a chocolate. This is a really fun area of research, and many consumers are really interested by pairing food and drink into multisensory experience design.

Do you think you’ve comprehensively covered the world of multisensory cuisine now or is there more work to be done?

Always more to do, that’s for sure. One of the areas we are really interested in at the moment is the pairing of flavours and the temporal ordering of sensations. Why exactly is it that certain flavours go together, and why do we find different foods more or less appropriate at different times of the day, week or over the course of a lifetime? We are also having lots of fun working with chef Jozef Youssef of Kitchen Theory looking at making some edible illusions.

What is an average dinner like in your house? Do you often cook multisensory meals?

When I am cooking at home I am definitely heavy on the chilli. There is, though, a certain difference of opinion between Mrs. Spence and myself. I think there is a place for angular black plates, whereas she prefers something more floral. The real experimentation goes on at our periodic lab dinner parties. We tried out some of the early versions of the Kandinsky salad dish – art on a plate (or canvas) eaten with a paintbrush. Together with chef Charles Michel, the lab dinner party was also where we first experimented with furry cutlery, taking some of my wife’s Christofle silver service and wrapping the handles in hare pelts. Truly a most multisensory of experiences.

Tell me about your new book, Gastrophysics: The New Science of Eating.

There has been such an explosion of research interest in gastrophysics that I really wanted to bring all the latest findings together, making them easily accessible and relevant for foodservice professionals. While some of the findings in the book will likely build on the intuitions of the successful restaurateur, I think it is still good to know just how much plating, the weight of the cutlery, the colour and material properties of the plateware actually matter.

Thomas Lawrence


Gastrophysics: The New Science of Eating, by Charles Spence, is published by Viking

A condensed version of this interview was published in the Q3 2017 edition of Foodservice Consultant magazine.

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