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What is Taste? A 'Kitchen Theory'

What is Taste? A 'Kitchen Theory'

A closer look at the Kitchen Theory think tank, a cross-modal kitchen-experiment to see how the five human senses affect our perception and taste of food.

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What do a scientist, chef, theoretical cosmologist, audio psychologist and calligrapher all have in common?
 No, not just that they can change a light bulb, although in some ways this is an apt analogy. The answer is that they are all part of the Kitchen Theory think tank: a multi-sensory, gastro-physics, cross-modal kitchen-experiment to see how the five human senses affect our perception and taste of food. Got it? Then let’s begin.

I remember a few years ago religiously sitting down to watch Heston Blumenthal on TV every week as he turned up like father Christmas to some sleepy Yorkshire town in England and created an edible wonderland for the townsfolk, complete with digestible decorations and the world’s biggest Christmas pudding.

Or when he created a medieval feast with Meat-Fruit and Blackbirds Baked in a Pie. Oh the wonder. Even sitting at home you could imagine how it must taste like the best thing in the world. Not because of the flavour, but because of the experience.

Now chefs and scientists at Kitchen Theory (KT) are continuing the early groundwork laid by multisensory pioneers such as Blumenthal and Ferran Adrià ever further. Working with audio psychologists, creative designers, astrophysicists, and all sorts of other crazy science and arty type people, as they take taste exploration to the next level.

What is taste? How much of taste is flavour? How do we construct flavour? And how much of taste is actually taste? If I make you stroke a fuzzy cube will your whisky taste grittier, or the sound of a cello make your malbec more mellow? If I slap you with a wet cod will your ceviche taste more sea?

These are some of the questions the KT think-tank are currently trying to solve. A group crossing many “multisensory” fields of expertise, who spend their time working out how to play with people’s culinary minds.

What’s your best food memory?

Think about it, it’s a hard one to answer. It’s a question that was asked to some of the gastro-experts in AEG’s recent documentary: Tasteology. Mine is eating a raw onion, after two weeks of just rice and dal baht in the Himalayas in 1985. I still have that memory, the hit of nutrients sparking a rush of neurons to my brain, the smell like acid rain, and the crunch. It was one of the most delicious things I have ever eaten. To this day you’ll find me a happy man if you put raw onions on it.

For Colombian chef Catalina Velez it was “camping [with] my grandmother and running to the coffee trees, I needed the cherry of the coffee before it’s picked, for me that’s a flavour I can’t forget.” For lead scientist and psychologist at KT Professor Charles Spence it was “sitting in the middle of a roundabout in Cartagena eating sushi out of polystyrene cup”, and for head chef and KT founder Josef Youssef it was “just before I went to university [that] is probably the most memorable one I have. I think I had a steak, and I know I had red wine.” What is interesting here is it is the specific moment that appears to be most important to us. It is the experience people talk about. The actual “taste” of the food would seem to be secondary.

“The food that you are eating and who you’re with and where you are is all part of a much bigger thing. There’s that emotion, the idea that your experiencing something that is a little bit magical”.

Christine Flynn, chef and food artist - Tasteology

The magic of creation and destruction

Currently the team at KT are exploring creation and destruction and multi-stable flavour perception (like I said, they like to play). In a new paper (currently under peer review) entitled Constructing flavour perception: From destruction to creation and back again, chef Josef Youssef and Professor Charles Spence are continuing to investigate some of the off the plate ways we construct flavour, or at least our perception of flavour (possibly the same thing, who knows in this crazy new gastro-world), and the cooking and dining process as a continuous act of destruction and creation.

“Cooking very often involves first an act (or, more likely, acts) of destruction, the death of the animal, the dissection of the product, etc. … however, those deliberate acts of destruction that occur in the kitchen eventually lead to the next act of creation – that is, the dish placed there before the expectant diners sitting at the table. All this before the next cycle of destruction is initiated as the diner tucks into their food … But, in that second cycle of destruction there is, of course, yet another act of creation waiting to occur. For perception, and that includes the diner’s belief concerning, and experience of, that which they are about to eat, is always an act of construction. Indeed, as stressed by the famous British psychologist, Richard Gregory, perception is, at heart, a matter of hypothesis generation and prediction. That is, our brains take the various external cues, derived from each of our senses, and attempt to reconstruct what the world out there is really like” (Spence and Youssef, 2016).

Constructing Reality

So what is the world out there really like? As Mouse said in The Matrix: “That makes you wonder about a lot of things. You take chicken, for example: maybe they couldn't figure out what to make chicken taste like, which is why chicken tastes like everything.”

So what does chicken taste like? Is it really all a matter of perception?

Take a look at the picture above and tell me what you see? Is it a happy carrot eating rabbit, or a lazy duck? And now that you know it might be one or the other (or both) can you force yourself to see just one? This is what is known as bistable perception, or what I like to call the Necker effect, after Louis Albert Necker’s famous cube.

It’s one of the ways the guys at KT are starting to understand how bistable or multistable perception works, and to ask the question: if vision works like this, does taste? And if so, how do the senses interact? "Are they linked, yeah of course, they must be linked," Youssef enthuses, "take the Jelly case for example."

He’s referring to Heston Blumenthal’s now infamous beetroot and orange jelly experiment, where guests were given two small square jellies, one orange and one purple.

The catch, the flavours are switched. “On initial visual inspection, and even on first tasting this dish, most diners are led by their eyes into believing that the purple-coloured jelly is beetroot-flavoured whereas the orange-coloured jelly must be orange-flavoured. However, in this case, the colours are actually deliberately misleading” (Spence and Youssef, 2016).

I ask Professor Spence what this all means in relation to taste perception? “There’s a lot of opportunity here to pick up on the surprising connections between the senses, to play with them in what we are calling senseploration.” Indeed, as he states in the Liam Saint Pierre documentary of the same name, “The reality is you can not consider vision without considering hearing, tasting without also thinking about smelling, all the senses are intimately connected.”

The five Senses

The five senses are (as we currently know them): sight, hearing, taste, smell and touch. It is widely acknowledged that smell makes up a large percentage (if not most) of what we taste, and sight also plays an important role, but how much do the other senses effect our perception of taste? It’s an ongoing question, but there is a mounting body of evidence to show that our environment and everything from the weight and shape of our cutlery or crockery to the surrounding sounds and colours have a much bigger impact than we give them credit for.

Consider "Crunch"

Is it an ingredient? A description of flavour? – No, It’s a sound. But imagine your cheese and onion sandwich or your packet of crisps at lunchtime if they had no crunch. Or your bacon if it had no sizzle. Would it still taste the same? What if it had a different sound, how would it taste then? “If I give you a crisp that wasn’t fresh and it didn’t have that crunch to it, it doesn’t matter how good the flavour is” (an idea first heralded by Spence in 2004). Youssef expands: “We have a jellyfish dish on the menu, it’s really interesting and crunchy, and we wanted to highlight that particular element so we get people to plug in headphones and we play a soundtrack of kind of underwater sounds, but with lots of crisp and crunchy sounds, so you become so aware of this ingredient in your mouth. It kind of brings it to life in a way.” “I really think that sound is the forgotten flavour sense,” Professor Spence told FDL in 2014.

In another recent project involving whisky, Youssef asked participants to stroke what he termed a Marinetti cube (named after futuristic cookbook author Filippo Tommaso Marinetti) with alternating textures of Velcro, velvet and wood. According to self-styled whiskey-fanatic and Huffington Post journalist Matt Chambers, “It surprisingly tasted smokier and spicier when combined with the Velcro, while softer and rounder with velvet.” Chambers goes on to say “the experience altered my perception of how to get the most out of whisky.” So, the overwhelming evidence strongly suggests that taste is indeed the sum of our senses, and it would seem an easily manipulated one at that.

Marketing companies have of course known about this stuff for years (most of the research in this field is funded by big food companies for obvious reasons). In 1940 the marketer and psychologist Louis Cheskin proved that colour and the appearance of quality directly affected consumers’ perception of taste and quality, famously changing the colour of Imperial margarine from white to yellow and replacing waxed paper with a foil wrapping, dramatically improving the product’s sales. So are we just organic robots waiting to be programmed by crazy chefs and scientists of the future? “Well yes I hope so,” says Spence, jokingly. However, both Spence and Youssef are keen to impress that it’s not all just about fine dining showmanship and increased sales. The professor continues: “There is a lot of potential to take findings and ideas from the world of perception and see how this might apply to the food we eat … then you can take those results and the things that work and hopefully spin them round and see how we can change hospital food or move people away from red meat towards insect protein, or how we can deal with an ageing population and loss of taste.” “At the end of the day If we can start to understand people’s relationship with food, understand the perceptions and associations we have with it, surely we can use this to find ways to make more sustainable and nutritious food more appetising,” Youssef declares. So what does a theoretical cosmologist have to do with all this I ask? “Ha!” Youssef chuffs. He pauses for a moment and then reflectively says, “I wonder what space smells like?”

Footnote: Professor Spence and Josef Youssef will be joining a host of other chefs and scientists at the world’s first Brainy Tongue conference in October to discuss some of the ideas raised in this article. To find out more, click here.

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