Of the five senses people most commonly associate with the consumption of food, taste is paramount. But the modern dining experience encompasses more than just that. Smell, presentation, the ambience in your venue – each has a role to play in the overall experience your customers take away from your brand, food and service offerings.
Taste is just the tip of the iceberg
When we talk about food, we tend to describe it in terms of its flavour – what we experience with our sense of taste. But if you’ve ever held your nose while chewing food, you know that taste and smell are inextricably linked.
Flavour itself isn’t enough, the food has to look Instagram-worthy, too: a fresh, colourful plate of food primes us for enjoyment. There’s also a heavy tactile element to eating – a medium rare steak has the same flavour as one that’s well done, but the tenderness of the meat makes it taste better.
And the sumptuous experience you’re having when you’re just about to tuck into a delightfully presented meal can vanish at the sound of a crying baby.
Eating is a multi-sensory experience, and this is even truer at venues that offer a full-service experience. Customers notice the lighting, the smells coming from the kitchen, and the presentation of the food on the plate.
If there was music playing, they’d at least be able to say what genre it was. We’ll talk about the air temperature if it’s anything but comfortable. Diners might not even be aware of it, but all of these external factors play into the overall experience and are as important as the food itself.
Scientific research shows that things like background sounds or the colour of the plate have an affect on how flavour is perceived.
Chefs didn’t need science to remind them to please all the senses, but those efforts were generally restricted to tending to the ambience: lighting, decor, those kinds of things. Still, there are those chefs who take the concept of “multi-sensory dining” quite literally, integrating sight, sound, touch, and smell into the meal itself.
Here are some creative ways the world’s top chefs have infused their food with a parallel sensory experience.
The Fat Duck (England) – invoking nostalgia with sound
At The Fat Duck, the famed UK restaurant run by even more famous Heston Blumenthal, the experience is defined by the pure theater of it. Diners spend four to five hours there, immersed in a 17-course meal meant to elicit nostalgic feelings of childhood holidays. There’s no menu, only an itinerary, and the wait staff are acting parts of a narrative as much as they are bringing food and drink to your table.
One of The Fat Duck’s most popular dishes has survived numerous menu changes over the years. Called Sound of the Sea, it’s a sashimi plate served with seaweed – and headphones.
Put the headphones on and you’re treated to the sounds of crashing waves and children paying on the beach. For the residents of an island nation like England, where a seaside holiday is a fact of life, these sounds are invariably going to tap into diners’ pasts and elicit the kind of nostalgia Blumenthal was going for.
There’s a reason this dish is so popular – the sounds of the beach combined with the subtle aroma of the seaweed on the plate trigger happy memories, raising the experience of eating the fish to an entirely new level.
Schauenstein Schloss Restaurant (Switzerland) – appetizers on iPads
Plating food in an appealing way used to be the hallmark of fine dining, but in an age where everyone’s snapping and posting photos of their food, it’s become a prerequisite. But good lighting isn’t just necessary for taking great food photographs – it’s also key to make sure food looks its best in the restaurant itself.
There are few meals that would look appealing under the glare of blue-tinged fluorescent lightbulbs. But what about on top of an LED display?
That’s the question Swiss chef Andreas Caminada asked, right before he encased iPads in a protective covering and started serving food on them. In a partnership with Dutch lighting artist Peter Diem, Caminada went beyond basic lighting and created animated patterns that dance under the food. All the dishes are designed with themes like “sin” or “heaven,” and the end result is intended to stimulate responses in diners that will inform their perception of the flavour.
The three-Michelin-starred Caminada is certainly no stranger to creating multi-sensory dining experiences on innovative levels. A recent collaboration sees him selecting five fragrances by Christian Dior as inspiration for a unique set of dishes, a world first.
Ultraviolet (Shanghai) – to smell and back
The dinner experience at Shanghai’s Ultraviolet restaurant begins as soon as you park your car – at another restaurant. That’s because Ultraviolet (called the world’s most innovative restaurant) is housed in an undisclosed location, so you’re directed to park at one of owner/chef Paul Pairet’s other restaurants.
From there, a bus takes you on a winding journey to the restaurant itself, which seats only 10 people one table during a single dinner service a night.
The dining room itself is small and narrow, not much bigger than the table customers sit at. The walls and the table all project images while a sound system provides music and background noises while scents are sprayed into the room, all choreographed to the meal.
The scents are particularly intriguing, because Pairet doesn’t use them to bolster the food; he doesn’t spray the aroma of cookies into the room during dessert, or anything like that. Instead, the scents are paired with each dish to complement and extend the flavours, much like wine would be.
His “Truffle Burnt Soup Bread” infuses the fungus with cigar smoke and a meunier sauce; these earthy flavours are accompanied by a scent called “Forest,” rooting the dish in its origin. A picnic-themed course is set in an open field in a park as the smell of freshly cut grass wafts through.
For Pairet, all dining is multi-sensory and he approaches his creations that way. “Having control over every element of the atmosphere,” he says, “serves only to make each dish more memorable.”
Lûmé’s (Australia) – experience your dinner like you’re at a theatre
In his event “A Journey around Australia”, Chef Shaun Quade collaborate with renowned fragrance specialist and master perfumer Samantha Taylor to present an eight-course dinner next month at South Melbourne restaurant Lûmé.
Guests at the event not only got to taste ingredients diversely source from all around Australia, including duck from Victoria, vanilla from Far North Queensland and sea urchin from Tasmania, they’re dining experiences are heightened by scents that evoke ocean, rainforest, pasture and wetlands.
It’s not entirely a sit-down experience either. Guests also moved around to different parts of Lûmé throughout the evening to areas with specially adjusted temperature and lighting to reflect the journey.
“I want this to be restaurant as theatre,” says Quade in an interview with Gourmet Traveller. “It’s about everybody having their role to play and the dining room being like a stage, but it’s also about the notion of tinkering and creating to produce a work that’s bewildering.”
To add authenticity to the occasion, Quade also hired actors and psychologists to work with his staff, with a focus on teaching them techniques to bring a sense of ease to the dining room.
Barton G (USA) – get your hands dirty
There’s the obvious tactile sense of eating that comes when you put the food in your mouth. You feel the food on your palate, and the feeling of something crispy (or creamy, or firm, or tender…) plays into the how your perceive the taste.
At Barton G’s in Miami and Los Angeles, they activate your sense of touch when the food is plated up and served. Everything about the meals there invite you to literally play with your food.
The Rake and Hoe Garden Salad is served in a small wheelbarrow, and comes with a full-sized trowel and hand-sized rake. The Lobster Pop Tarts are brought to the table in a futuristic looking toaster, with each pastry poking half out as if the toaster just completed its cycle and popped them upwards for diners to take. The Samurai Tuna is a small piece of sashimi, served with side accompaniments and a two-foot long replica samurai sword slicing into the fish.
The scene at Barton G’s is outlandish, which is precisely how they want it. There’s a commitment to playfulness that doesn’t accompany fine dining cuisine too often – if ever. And if you had any doubts about whether the intent was rooted in whimsy and silliness, they’ll slip away the moment you grab for a chunk of cotton candy that’s been spun out onto a mannequin’s head to resemble a full head of pink hair.
Everyone Can Play This Game
The different ways these restaurants appeal to all the senses have much in common with what every restaurant should aim for, though these are admittedly taken to their logical extreme. But you don’t have to run a Michelin-rated, $1,000-a-plate restaurant to draw inspiration from them.
The point is, what was once just the simple pleasure of eating is now a highly-curated, innovative and sometimes tech-infused experience that takes dining to a new level of enjoyment.
While you don’t have to serve an iPod with headphones to accompany specific dishes, understanding and implementing certain elements that appeal to each of the five senses can add to the natural ambience of your venue and help you create and embed a unique experience in your diner’s minds.
If eating is always a multi-sensory experience; how are you addressing that with your diners?