Charles Spence explores how colors, shapes and sounds affect our taste. Top chefs are also interested in the findings of the Oxford experimental psychologist.

How does a peach taste? Banal could say: sweet, a bit sour. If you believe Charles Spence, then in the food lies a whole world of experience – food becomes a complex process. Spence examines the color, the fruity smell of peaches. He measures the furry feeling on the skin and tongue, exploring how it is to bite his teeth into the flesh. He asks questions like: When does a consumer eat – and where? Does he eat by hand or a fork?

Charles Spence is an experimental psychologist. For about 20 years, he has been researching the question of what makes food attractive to the consumer. Isabel Metzger from Spiegel Online asked. It turned out that the taste from his point of view plays a minor role. Spence’s thesis: “Culinary pleasure arises in the head, not in the mouth.”

Round plates are “sweeter”

In his book “Gastrologik” he shows: The head of an average consumer can be easily outsmarted. So scientists found that even the color and shape of the plate can change the taste experience. The same strawberry ice cream appears much sweeter and more aromatic on white round plates than on black square ones. They are better suited to bitter and carbonated foods.

Spence tests why ocean noise makes a portion of fish saltier. Tinkers with manufacturers of cutlery on the question of what structure and material must be made up of spoons to make mousse au chocolat appear even creamier. And why with the use of plastic forks even several Michelin stars do not make the roast tastier: “seems too cheap.”

Sebastian Frank is one of these Michelin chefs. Last year, the chef at Restaurant Horváth in Berlin Kreuzberg received two stars. In 2018 he was named the best chef in Europe for his dishes made from plant extracts at “madridfusion”. In his restaurant Frank serves dishes with simple names like “Haschee” and “Bread with Butter”. Soup of cooked vegetables for hours, served on a plain white plate. Frank considers the trend for the dining experience to be overdrawn. “Many restaurants paint elaborate blobs of sauce on their plates,” says Frank. “But nobody can tell me that eating with so little sauce tastes good.”

Crunchy chips taste fresher

Food companies in particular are interested in so-called multi-sensory taste perception. Even greasy and sugary ingredients can be healthy by a few tricks on the consumer. In 2008, Spence received the Ig Nobel Prize – a kind of anti-Nobel Prize – for his recognition that potato chips taste all the fresher the more they chew on chewing. Kellogg’s wanted to patent the sound Cornflakes made when pouring milk.

In addition to food manufacturers, more and more restaurateurs are interested in kitchen magic. Several high-ranking restaurants want to refine their methods to make the food an all-round experience. In the star restaurant Fat Duck in Bray, for example, chef Heston Blumenthal lets swathes of moss steam rise over his plate as he serves his “jelly of quail with Kaiser lobster cream and oakmoss”.

Ferran Adrìas, known worldwide for his molecular gastronomy, prefers to solidify: in his restaurant elBulli, the Margarita is served as an ice cube on the table. For dinner, there are white parmesan marshmallows served on a reflective metal plate.

Especially with the distraction of the food, many food designers play consciously. Spence estimates that even food on the plane or in hospitals could become an experience in the future. Due to low air pressure and low humidity foods lose taste and aroma. Spence therefore advises to boost attributes such as crispy and crunchy by means of ingredients and packaging sounds: “Sesame on the salad is cheaper than a top chef, but just as effective.”

For the restaurant operation a limit is reached. Average consumers were more easily deceived by eventizing food. Emotionality can not be artificially produced. In the end, it still tastes best in Mum’s backyard when you’ve got one of three tables.