Charles Spence: The Perfect Meal
The launch of the new book by the Oxford professor who is changing the way we understand the enjoyment of food


Charles Spence (pictured above) is a dude. Red trousers, big open cuffs, pacing oratory. He’s a professor of experimental psychology at the University of Oxford, where he heads up the Crossmodal Research Laboratory, and he’s just written a book titled The Perfect Meal. Recently he convened a lunch to launch the book at the Bengal Brasserie in South Kensington, so I went along.

Proceedings began with a sampling of whisky vapour, and a chance to take part in an experiment: can you tell the difference between the sound of pouring of Champagne, Prosecco and mineral water? (The results are still coming in, but it looks like the answer might be yes.) Over lunch, which was really good, Spence gave a presentation talking about the subject of the perfect meal, and beginning with a fabulous quote from MFK Fisher.

Once at least in the lifetime of every human, whether he be brute or trembling daffodil, comes a moment of complete gastronomic satisfaction. It is, I am sure, as much a matter of spirit as of body. Everything is right, nothing jars. There is a kind of harmony, with every sensation and emotion melted into one chord of well-being.
MFK Fisher, The Pale Yellow Glove, 1937

‘This is the perfect meal,’ says Spence. ‘We have all had one—we know what she is talking about— and it is probably different for each one of us. The question is, can the science and neuroscience help get us a little closer to that perfect meal?’

This is the subject of Spence’s new book, which brings a scientific perspective to flavour. He regrets the fact that this topic has been little studied. ‘My colleagues aren’t interested in food: it’s dirty and messy, people get full up and they spill it, and they’d much rather test people on computers with flashing images.’ Spence cites William James, writing in 1892: ‘Of the food lover’s prized possession – taste, smell, thirst, hunger – little of psychological interest is known.’

How did people think of the perfect meal of the future in the past? French chemist Marcellin Berthelot introduced the concept of the ‘meal in a pill’ back in 1894, anticipating the triumph of synthetic chemistry over agriculture and farming. Feminist writers such as Anna Dodd also latched onto the idea of food in pill form taking women away from the shackles of their domestic chores. In her 1887 satirical novel Republic of the Future, she states, ‘when the last pie was made into the first pellet, women’s true liberation began.’ (Although Dodd was probably tongue-in-cheek here.) ‘For me this this is not the perfect meal,’ says Spence. ‘It can’t be – it is unsensory. It might fill a certain need, but it doesn’t stimulate our senses in the way that we want food and drink to do.’

When the world’s top chefs are writing about the perfect meal, they think of their creative process in terms of senses. Ferran Adria claims that cooking is the most multisensory art: ‘I try to stimulate all the senses’. Closer to home, Heston Blumenthal has claimed that eating is the only thing that we do that involves all the senses: taste, smell, touch, pain, vision and hearing. They are all involved in experiencing and enjoying the flavour of the food on the plate.

‘None of us realize how much influence the senses have on the way we process the information from the plate into our brain, and construct the flavours that we like or dislike, enjoy, crave or remember,’ says Spence, who has collaborated with Blumenthal. ‘He has been a key figure in going to science labs every few months to find out what scientists have discovered about the mind on flavour, and then try to interpret this to create something  wonderful on a plate that is memorable and stimulating, because it is built on the brain science and can more effectively stimulate the senses.’

But the perfect meal isn’t just about the senses. ‘It is also about memories and emotions,’ says Spence. ‘Increasingly the perfect meal is about the theatricalization: the imagination and storytelling are all brought to bear to turn the food into something memorable.’

Spence claims to be a poor cook, but his contribution here is the science. ‘Every day in the lab at Oxford we are thinking about how what we see might change what we taste, how what we feel might change what we smell, and how changing smell might change what we taste. All the senses are connected in ways that we don’t understand. They interact more than we realize in ways that the science is only just beginning to elucidate.’

But while he thinks that science has a role to play in order to stimulate diners more successfully, he is worried about taking science too far. He’s not a big fan of neuroscientists sticking people in fMRI machines. ‘If you were to volunteer to take part in an experiment you would be put on a tray, your head would be clamped still, you’d be given headphones to black out the 120 db of background noise, a tube would be inserted into your mouth and you would be slowly inserted into the coffin. periodically you would be given a squirt of 4 ml of liquid.’ Yes, various brain areas light up in these experiments, but they are hardly natural settings.

‘I think this is taking things too far: no one has had their perfect meal lying in one of those machines  with a periodic puree being pumped into your mouth,’ says Spence. ‘It tells you something and it is important, but I don’t think it tells you about the perfect meal and how to get closer to it.’

He thinks a fruitful area for study is to gain insights from the chefs who often intuitively have picked up on the various elements of what makes a great meal experience and then to try to study these aspects. He gives the example of a restaurant where you have to book two months in advance. This is raising expectations. Then a month before the meal you get a note in the post, scented with a fragrance which you then experience as you enter the restaurant. Then, as you leave, you are given a bag of sweets, which you take home, extending the meal experience.

What about cutlery? The Fat Duck, for example, is known for its incredibly heavy cutlery – is this part of the perfect meal? Does the weight in your hand make things taste better? Spence mentions and experiment that looked at this, with 160 diners in the Sheraton Grand in Edinburgh. Half use the regular heavy cutlery, the other half use lighter cutlery, and those using the heavier are willing to pay £1.50–£2 a plate more for the same food.

He gives the example of Denis Martin in the Valais, whose restaurant has 2 Michelin stars. It’s based in the middle of a knitting museum. Martin can see when people walk through the door that they aren’t going to enjoy his modern Swiss cuisine fully: they are uptight, suited Swiss businessmen dining on an expenses account. How does he solve this? People are told to arrive at 7 pm and there’s nothing on the tablecloth except for a toy Swiss cow. Nothing happens until someone picks the cow up and it moos, and before long the restaurant is filled with the sounds of laughter and mooing cows. This breaks the atmosphere: a psychological palate cleanser, preparing people for the meal to come.

Then there’s ‘digital seasoning’. This began with Heston Blumenthal’s Sound of the Sea dish (recipe here - I won’t be trying it at home), where diners are given a conch with an ipod shuffle in it, and listen on headphones to a marine soundtrack that works  to enhance the flavour of the dish. A residence at the House of Wolf in Islington took this idea more midmarket, with theme music playing with each dish across the whole restaurant. And this was taken further mass market by British Airways: customers on long haul can dial in on headset to music that matches the taste of their food.

Spence notes that some high profile new restaurants have been multisensory. There’s Ultraviolet in Shanghai, a 10 seater restaurant based in a secret location (you get taken there). It’s a high-tech experiential dining room, with each course enhanced by a taste-tailored atmosphere. For example, it serves fish and chips with sounds of the sea, projections of the Union flag on the table, and a device squirting out marine smells: it’s a true multisensory experience.

There’s Sublimotion in Ibiza, which at £1200 a head is thought to be the world’s most expensive restaurant. ‘At this sort of price it cannot just be about the food and taste and flavours,’ says Spence. ‘It has to be about the whole experience.’ And Sublimotion certainly delivers an experience.

One of the strongest influence on flavour is visual. ‘We are led by our eyes,’ says Spence. He refers to a dish (again, from Heston) that’s a scoop of pink/red food that looks like strawberry ice cream. It’s actually a crab bisque and Heston thought it tasted wonderful, but people found it over-seasoned and too salty. The eyes say ‘sweet’ and the palate says ‘savoury’, and the result is that given this expectation, it ends up tasting too salty. ‘The first experience of this dish has to be right and involve the right name,’ says Spence. ‘If you call this dish fugue 386 it’s enough to suspend expectations and you come at it with a fresh palate and it will taste seasoned just right – the chef has to get into the mind of the diner and to lead their expectations.’

How food looks matters now more than ever, in the age of smartphones and sharing pictures of our dishes on social media. Back in the 1960s French chefs didn’t care how things looked: food was about the taste, and it was served on the plate as it might be at home. Then came nouvelle cuisine and things began to change. ‘In the 21st Century the perfect meal should look just so,’ says Spence.

The way a plate looks is a key element in our enjoyment, but does it make a difference with taste? Yes is the answer. This has been studied. Many chefs these days do asymmetric plating , but in studies people are willing to pay less and enjoy the food less than if the food is plated in a more symmetrical manner.  

Places like El Bulli and the Fat Duck are very exclusive, and few can afford to eat out like this on a regular basis. Most won’t experience this sort of dining at all. So what is the relevance? Spence thinks that what is going on in the best restaurants is like Formula One of the kitchen. Just as the technology of the leading race teams filters down to domestic cars, insights from the experimental kitchens will be applied to benefit us all, and will show up before too long on the high street .

The colour of the plate matters. In one experiment, Ferran Adria took one of his desserts and served it to half on a white plate and half on a black one. It tasted 10% sweeter and 15% more flavourful on the white plate. And in a hospital setting, patients ready for procedure are often given a red tray. But ‘red’ says ‘don’t eat me’: put anything on a red plate or red tray, and people will eat less.

To finish with, Spence mentioned that insects may be the food of the future, as current dining practices are unsustainable. But most of us find the idea of eating insects appalling. The challenge for Spence and his colleagues is to apply all this knowledge on the psychology of food to get us all ready to find the food of our future delicious rather than unpalatable.

See a short film from the launch: 

To buy from The Perfect Meal: The Multisensory Science of Food and Dining

To buy from The Perfect Meal: The Multisensory Science of Food and Dining

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