Heston Blumenthal may be one of the most well-known advocates and beneficiaries of neurogastronomy, but the technical difficulty of making some of his dishes is likely to have put many pub chefs off taking up the skill. Yet, even in its simplest form, neurogastronomy has the potential to double food sales.
That’s according to four experts in the field, who have revealed their top tips and insights into implementing simple forms of neurogastronomy in pub kitchens.
Stefan Cosser, a former senior development chef at Blumenthal’s Fat Duck experimental kitchen, and director and innovator at creative food development firm Food Innovation Solutions, believes neurogastronomy is just a “fancy” word for evolution and progression.
“I prefer the term ‘modern cooking’,” Cosser says. “Neurogastronomy is simply knowledge that can be added to a chef’s repertoire like any other skill that applies to our job.”
Most will also believe neurogastronomy is solely about how the chef places food on a plate as well as the innovative techniques used to manipulate and even trick the diner into thinking they’re eating something they’re not. Blumenthal’s meat fruit — chicken liver pâté in a mandarin jelly — for instance.
But it’s not just about that, claims Cosser: “Using the research and understanding of how sounds, smells, textures and even shapes of plates and the type of cutlery used can impact our enjoyment of food.”
Charles Spence, professor of experimental psychology at the University of Oxford’s Medical Sciences Division and co-author of The perfect meal: the multisensory science of food and dining, agrees.
What the diner thinks about the food you serve them depends on more than just the food itself, he claims. “It depends on everything from eye-appeal on the plate to the shape and colour of the plateware.
‘Food is never just food’
Neurogastronomy, what is it?
The study of the complex brain processes that give rise to the flavours that we all experience when eating or drinking
- Source: Charles Spence, University of Oxford
“Food is never just food, no matter how wonderful what you prepare is. While [neurogastronomy] insights come from brain science, the actual suggestions are often very simple.”
For example, recent research carried out by Spence suggests that heavier cutlery makes people like the taste of food more and will make them more willing to pay a greater price for a dish than if lighter cutlery was used. This is because diners associate the extra weight with better quality. Even switching the plateware can be enough to instigate a perceived change in taste.
“Switching plateware from a rectangular piece of slate to a round white plate can be enough to help add a 10% perceived sweetness to a dish without adding any calories,” Spence adds.
Again, it’s not just down to the food, what it’s eaten from and what it’s eaten with, claim Bingham & Jones development chefs Jonny Bingham and David Jones. The pair started their own food innovations solutions firm last year, after clocking up decades of experience in restaurant kitchens and the wider food and drink industry.
Music has the power to change the flavour of food, as well as the pace diners eat, says Bingham. More upbeat music will make people eat faster, while a down-tempo, classical piece will make them slow down and could also improve the perceived quality of the dish.
Research carried out by Spence and Cosser into the effects of music on taste backs Bingham’s claims. After playing different types of music to diners who were eating a banoffee toffee dessert, the pair discovered just how much of an effect music could have on taste.
Cosser explains: “It sounds incredible, but we found that a lower pitched, vibrational bass sound, made the dessert more bitter and brought out burnt notes, while a high-pitched sound made the toffee more sweet and floral.”
Despite the apparent influence of music on taste, many chefs don’t consider its impact, according to Spence.
Music is important
“I have met far too many chefs starting up who care passionately about the food they serve, but never think about the music playing in the dining room,” he says. “The music can really change what people taste and how much they enjoy the experience — it matters, so don’t let the duty manager put their iPod on.”
While environment, plateware and cutlery may be important factors in how diners taste a dish, simple things, such as how food is listed on a menu, have an equally important role to play on taste and satisfaction, the experts add.
“It’s no good listing where something is from, how it was bred, what’s accompanying it and cluttering the page with loads of words,” says Jones, who believes demand for the provenance of a dish on a menu will soon be replaced with demand for nutritional information.
“Local is a very easy word to use and consumers are becoming wary of whether something is or isn’t local. Instead, they are more interested in what a dish is going to do for them — so protein in a beef dish, omega 3 in a fish dish... ”
Where you place dishes on menus also has a role to play in encouraging diners to order what you want them to, adds Bingham. Placing an expensive £14.95 fish dish in the prime, top right-hand corner of a menu, despite knowing few consumers will order it, could be advantageous.
“Most people will order the second most expensive item on a menu,” Bingham explains. “If you put a cheaper £9.95 fish dish — which happens to be more cost-effective for you — next to the expensive one, then you’re encouraging customers to order what you want them to.”
Getting the wording and dish placings on menus right could mean the difference between a dramatic rise in profits and a sales slump, Cosser adds.
His claim follows work with a popular high-street burrito chain, where he changed the name and descriptions of menu options. By doing so, people’s expectations of what a dish would taste like changed, he says. People’s perceptions of the dishes matched the taste more, Cosser adds.
“In turn, that increased the diners’ satisfaction rating of the dishes. The result was a doubling in sales and that was without making a single change to any of the dishes.”
Neurogastronomy in pubs has a lot of potential, he believes, but pub chefs still have long way to go to successfully implement it.
For busy chefs, Cosser says, the starting point is to question everything they do. From how the food is cooked; to what flavours and textures are used and how they add to the dish; to what crockery is used; how it is presented; and how the consumer will eat the dish.
“Ultimately, it’s still a very new field and, during the next few years, we’ll gradually see chefs in pubs waking up to this area and the possibilities it brings to enhancing the dining experience,” he adds.
So, while some may feel implementing neurogastronomy in the kitchen requires them to develop dishes with scented smokes, gels and foods disguised as other foods, it’s not that demanding. The simplest changes can, it appears, make a vast contribution to food sales.