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Meet Charles Spence, the Multisensory Man of Food

Meet Charles Spence, the Multisensory Man of Food

An interview with the exciting researcher Charles Spence - a man with a detailed understanding of exactly how we experience our meals.

By FDL on

As a professor of Oxford University's psychology department and head of the Crossmodal Research Laboratory Charles Spence is interested in the integration of information across the different sensory modalities (hearing, vision, touch, taste, and smell) using a variety of techniques.

His research has influenced some of the best chefs in the world, he's worked with people Ferran Adrià and Heston Blumenthal on utilizing the latest insights from brain science to develop more engaging dishes - and authored, The perfect meal. The Multisensory Science of Food and Dining, a book that summarizes the many factors that effect a diner's experience during a meal (primarily at restaurants) and investigates how a diner’s senses contributes to their overall experience.

The main focus of the book is not on flavor perception, but on all of the non–food and beverage factors that have been shown to influence the diner’s overall experience.

Fine Dining Lovers caught up with the Oxford professor who is convinced food is art, just mixed with a lot of science...

Your researches are often classified as 'gastrophysics' and 'neurogastronomy': what do these names mean?
Gastrophysics is the combination of gastronomy with psychophysics, the latter being the name given to the scientific study of the observer, who this time happens to be the diner in the science lab or restaurant. Neurogastronomy is slightly different, here the emphasis is more on sticking people in brain scanners and seeing which parts of the brain light up as they taste, smell, or think about food. One of the fun studies described in the book, looked at how the brain activation in the pleasure and reward cirtuits changed when people were told that a cheap wine was actually an expensive wine.

What is new in this field?
Well, what is most exciting to us is to see just how important the everything else is to people’s experience of the food on the plate. While many chefs are really excited about the study of the mind of their diners, there are a few others out there who are convinced that a great meal is just about the quality and freshness of the ingredients and how they are prepared in the kitchen. I think many young chefs, and some of the world’s most famous older ones, are now starting to pay much more attention to what is sometimes called ‘off the plate dining’.

How do our senses contribute to the overall food experience?
What we see plays a far bigger role in our expectations and hence experience of food than many of us realize. Now we are very much in the era of the visual appearance of the food being key. How will this dish look in my next cookbook, how with the pictures that the gastrotourists post online look? But beyond that, I really think that sound is the forgotten flavour sense. It really does play a much bigger role than many chefs and any of us realize. We are currently running events where we give people a drink and simply by changing the music or soundscape playing in the background we can really change the taste of what is in the glass. Play high notes, a bit of tinkling piano and you can bring out the sweetness, play some lower pitched, possibly brassy sounds, and the bitter dark chocolate/coffee notes are enhanced in a dark chocolate and coffee mouse say. Think Pavarotti singing Nessun dorma... In a way this is kind of synaesthetic and I think it herals the start of synaesthetic dining experiences. Where the enjoyment of the meal is as much about what is off the plate as about what is on it. If you look at so many of the new restaurtant openings that are making the news then it is all about multi-sensory experience dining. We provide the science to back up the intuitions.

What are some non-food&drink factors that influence our dining experience?
Weight is one key one. Time after time we find that food eaten with the aid of heavier cutlery in enjoyed more than food eaten with lighter cutlery; food tasted from a heavy bowl will be enjoyed more than the same food when served from a light ball...

How is all this used by the food industry and chefs?
The food industry has money for paying for research, but they don’t always have the creative flair to turn the best of the scientific discoveries into truly delicious foods. By contrast, the chefs can turn the science into something truly memorable... innovation happens much faster with the chefs than with the food companies.

How are you changing the way we eat?
We foresee that the next 30 years will increasingly be about bringing science and technology to the front of house. Be it using technology, the tablets and mobile phones to enhance the meal experience. We are also working a lot on the design and wording of the menu. How to make sure you set up the right expectations in the mind of the diner.

Fine Dining Lovers is mentioned several times in your book...
Well, this was one of our favourites: Dishwasher haute cuisine: earning time, but not the taste, to understand how you can use the dishwasher to cook sous vide.

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