After reading Gastrophysics: The New Science of Eating, you may, as I did, sit for a bit wondering what a chef is, exactly. We think of chefs as cooks, people in charge of a kitchen, ingredients, pan and heat who, we hope, produce great dishes of food.
But this is apparently an outdated concept. For chefs who want to make their name in the world now, the expression of their art must exceed the nourishment on the plate. Cooking can take a dish only so far to make it memorable, claims Charles Spence. “No matter how exquisitely executed,” he adds. Whoa! I can still recall the taste of my mother’s sublime steakand-kidney pudding from 20 years ago.
Spence is a scientist at the department of experimental psychology at Oxford University. His interests include studying how the mind processes information from all the senses and he has lent his expertise in “multi-sensory experience” — gastrophysics — to the food industry. He has worked with Unilever, Starbucks, McDonald’s and Heston Blumenthal’s acclaimed Fat Duck restaurant in Bray, Berkshire.
Fat Duck dangles oddly on the end of that list. Yet Spence is known for research resulting in the “sonic chip”. He found that by boosting the high-frequency sounds people hear when they bite into a Pringle, the crisp seemed markedly fresher and crunchier. This gave rise to the concept of “sound as an ingredient”.
Spence was then approached by Blumenthal, who went on to create a fish course, “the Sound of the Sea”. This is served with a pair of earbud speakers so diners can hear waves crashing and the call of gulls, enhancing the sensory effect as they eat. Some have been known to break down in tears at the experience.
Blumenthal has since gone much further with what Spence calls “experiential dining”, or eating out as an experience, rather than simply being sated. Spence also refers to, and has met, many modernist chefs. He calls them “top chefs” and their various restaurants are “the world’s best”. Not exactly scientific.
However, the starstruck Spence’s detailed understanding of how our senses — sight, smell, touch and hearing — play a part in the way we enjoy (or not) our food is revealing, interesting and well worth understanding, if only to decide how you want to eat and where your satisfac- Gastrophysics: The New Science of Eating By Charles Spence Viking, 336pp, $32.99 tion levels lie. Our diet evolves necessarily, and it is right our perceptions are challenged through new technology and in reviving lost gastronomic cultures.
For example, dark red, white and yellow carrots are now available, as well as typical orange types. Many shoppers will continue to buy the carrot they know, no more able to eat a red carrot than they would drink green milk. Others embrace the new, only to learn that all carrots were red, white and yellow before the 17th century, and orange ones the new species.