by Shift Fellow, Justina Eng
When we enjoy a nice meal at a fancy restaurant, it isn’t just the food that makes it “fancy”— the candlelit ambience, crisp white linen, shiny silverware, thick ceramic plates, and elegant glassware not only enhance and heighten your restaurant experience, but also the taste of your dish. These seemingly insignificant details play an important role in the mental associations we build between food and their accompanying dinnerware. Our sense of taste is not derived from just the tongue, but it interacts with our sight, smell, and hearing to produce our overall perception of the meal. This information is utilized for food marketing studies, and chefs use this information to expand your fine dining experience. Which means that $28 hunk of lamb you ordered is more than just a hunk of meat—every element of that dish is coordinated to maximize your overall dining experience.
Salt of the Earth, a once popular restaurant in Pittsburgh, is known for their modern cuisine and unique plating techniques. When I last visited, I ordered a homemade “curry” ice cream that was served in a large round ceramic plate that had a small round well in the center for the ice cream. It may not seem like the plate affects the perceived taste of the meal, but recent studies reveal otherwise. Researchers reveal that the color and shape of dinnerware can affect the flavor of the food or drink.
For example, angular plates tend to bring out the bitterness in foods like chocolate, while round packaging or plating emphasizes the dish’s sweetness. Additionally, researchers learned that combining a heavier bowl with a heavier spoon will tend to make the food taste better. Such information proves invaluable to restaurants, as they can alter their plating, décor, or ambience to emphasize particular flavors of their dishes. In my case, the large round plate helped to “sweeten” the taste of the spiced ice cream, and the heavy spoons added to the ice cream’s luxuriousness. Heston’s “Sounds of the Sea” – note the Conch shell with earbuds to the right Professional chefs like Heston Blumenthal explore and test boundaries of the fine dining experience by providing meals that not only tactfully display the food, but emit particular aromas and visuals to enhance its overall flavor. An example of this sensory integration would be Blumenthal’s “Sounds of the Sea,” where customers are provided with a conch shell with protruding Apple earbuds, which customers can listen to while they eat a dish that resembles an ocean crashing upon the beach. Blumenthal creates edible “sand,” comprised of various ingredients like powdered konbu (edible kelp), miso oil, crushed fried baby eels, and langoustine oil.
Alongside the edible sand is an edible “sea foam” made from the juices of shellfish like razor clams, abalone, shrimps, and oysters. Blumenthal incorporates the auditory element into his dish because he discovered that listening to the crash of ocean waves enhances the perceived saltiness and flavor of seafood. This was discovered by Blumenthal and Charles Spence of Oxford University, where they studied the relationship of sound and flavor. The next time you eat at a fancy restaurant, pay attention to the small details – the shape and texture of your dinnerware, the lighting and décor, and the smells and colors of your food. There is more to that rack of lamb than you realize.