Savoring More than the Flavor

Does the color of your bowl affect the taste of your food? You’d be surprised.
La Candelaria, Bogota, Colombia

Perhaps it goes without saying, but the food is only one part of a great dining experience. The service and atmosphere are part of what we pay for when we eat out.

A recent trip to Colombia brought this point home to me. I had a 12-year-old memory of a restaurant in a charming colonial-era building in a town outside of Bogota. The décor and furniture were rustic-antique in the lamplight, and the air swooned with classic serenata music. The romance of the ambiance that evening lodged itself in my memory. So, during my most recent visit to Colombia, I insisted on returning.

Yes, we pay for more than just the food. But one Colombian chef, Charles Michel, has teamed up with a University of Oxford researcher, Charles Spence, to go far deeper into what makes a rich culinary experience. Michel received press for creating dishes that looked like Kandinsky had painted them. Spence, a professor of experimental psychology, is exploring “multisensory” taste perception and the role of illusion in our experience of food. Together, they’re joined in culinary research endeavors by the likes of envelope-pushing Spanish chef turned mad philosopher-scientist Ferran Adria, whose elBulliLab in Barcelona seems to be searching for a gastronomic God-particle. Other researchers (and chefs) are knee-deep in similar research.

Taking as a given that all of this sounds rather whimsical, these guys are actually learning some things.

Spence conducted an experiment using more than 130 patrons at a hotel restaurant in Scotland in which half received high-quality cutlery, while the other half were given cutlery weighing one-third less – the cheap stuff. The patrons who ate with the heavy cutlery enjoyed the flavor of their trout dish more and thought it more artistically presented. They were also willing to pay more for it. In short, heavy forks, knives and spoons made the food taste better.

Other researchers have found that the size of cutlery affects satiety. The bigger the fork, the fuller you feel – but, oddly enough, only in restaurants. At home, people were satiated more quickly with small forks.

The shape and color of the plate apparently make a difference, too. Researchers have found that diners found a dessert to be sweeter, tastier and more intense on a white dish, compared to a black dish. Spence and company also found that the color of the bowl affected the extent to which a sweet popcorn tasted sweet and a salty popcorn, salty.

Spence also has found that the heaviness of a bowl affected taste perceptions – specifically, that a heavy bowl made a yogurt taste more “dense,” and thus perceived as more satisfying.

Perceptions of drink flavor and tastiness also depend on the cup or glass. (I, for one, have always found that Coke tastes best from a red translucent cup.) One researcher served coffee on a fancy tray with fine china and silver, pitting it against the same coffee from a styrofoam cup. Guess which one people thought “tasted upscale”?

In another experiment, people preferred their coffee based on the lighting. Some experiments even suggest that music at a high volume or intensity can diminish the flavor of food.

The names of foods on menus also apparently affect our enjoyment of them. Diners in one experiment much preferred “savory salmon mousse” to “Food 386” – even though they were the same thing. Researchers have also found that diners tend to prefer foods when they are described elaborately on menus, rather than just listed with simple names.

Ultimately, though, the food still matters a heck of a lot. My return to the Colombian restaurant was a big misadventure. I had to apologize to everyone at the table for dragging them there. While the atmosphere was still good, the service was bad and the food was worse. It was so disappointing, in fact, that not even seranata music, a heavy fork and a white plate could have saved it. 

Peter Reichard is a native New Orleanian who has written about the life and times of the city for more than 20 years, including as a former newspaper editor and business journalist.



Categories: Food, The Magazine