Taste is a notoriously mutable sense; everything from ambience to price can affect the way we feel about what we eat and drink. At the renowned Fat Duck restaurant just outside London, chef Heston Blumenthal is running with that psychological insight, creating dishes that encourage interaction and intense emotional responses, reports Psychology Today (March-April 2010).
His dish Sound of the Sea looks a little unconventional right out of the kitchen. It’s a plate filled with shellfish, seaweed, foam, and “sand” made from fine-ground ice cream cone, eel, and vegetable powder—molecular gastronomy fare, designed to separate flavor from form and texture. The pièce de résistance is even more ethereal: Alongside the plate of seafood, intended to make diners feel as if they’re digging for seaside treasure, there is a pearly conch shell concealing a tiny iPod that’s loaded with an oceanic soundtrack.
Blumenthal got the idea from the work of Charles Spence, a professor of experimental psychology at Oxford University. Spence’s research shows that sound plays an even larger role in how we taste than was previously assumed. In one study, people eating chips while wearing headphones described the chips as fresher when the sound of crunching was amplified. Later, with the volume on the headphones turned low, people complained that the same chips were stale.
At Fat Duck, at least a dozen diners have been moved to tears by Blumenthal’s audible dish. In his opinion, sound is the essential ingredient for unlocking his patrons’ emotions. “It’s almost as if you give the [diner] the framework and the canvas and the paints,” he told Psychology Today, “and he paints his own picture.”