Rose Prince

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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.

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