Introducing the new era of eating

A stylised breakfast shot with ketchup cereal toast and eggs

The pandemic shone a light on how disconnected we had become from food. But according to writer and chef Anastasia Miari, the rise of gastrophysics – combining psychology, cognition and gastronomy – will bring us closer to the sensuality of consumption 

By Anastasia Miari    Above image by Bobby Doherty    Tuesday 8 September, 2020    Long read

Oh, to go out for dinner again. The pleasure of being served. The universal smartness of crisp, white table linens. The romance of a quiet alcove in a busy restaurant, lit by the flickering glow of a candle. The pouring precision of a waiter, as if wine were a life-lengthening elixir, and the clinking of fine wine glasses. Need I continue or are you already out the door to your favourite restaurant? 

The joy of eating out and all the sensual pleasures that come with it were sorely missed throughout the dark months of lockdown. Record numbers of people on Instagram were attempting to recreate Greek tavernas in their backyards in place of the real thing on the holiday they’d missed out on. Other friends tried to entertain themselves with Come Dine With Me Zoom hangouts. Anyone attempting a virtual dinner date in the past months will attest, no matter how tasty that meal was, it did not compare to a meal out with friends. 

It’s akin to opening up the Beaujolais you glugged down every night of your camping holiday in France at home, then realising the quaint market town you acquired it from, the accompanying goat’s cheese and the fresh baguette you drank it with were essential components of making this bottle of wine phenomenal. Without these components, it tastes sort of just OK.

The reasons behind this are the subject of an increasing number of experiments carried out in the name of gastrophysics. A relatively new field of science, it combines the areas of cognitive science and psychology to explore the multisensory experience that is gastronomy, with a growing body of research that proves our perception of taste isn’t all just in the mouth. 

Leading the research, Professor Charles Spence at the University of Oxford, along with a number of collaborators, has found that it takes more than good organic produce and a great recipe to make a meal mouthwatering – although these do help. 

Beyond the mouthfuls that smush up against the taste buds on our tongues, our perception of food has been found to be affected by everything from the weight of our cutlery to the sounds of the environment we’re eating in. 

Experiments led by Professor Spence include one that found the reason behind why Bloody Mary is the go-to drink of choice for passengers when flying. Tomatoes are rich in umami, the one flavour (as opposed to sweet, savoury, sour and bitter) that isn’t suppressed by the loud, white noise of a plane. In another experiment, two sets of diners were given the same meal but half of them were served with canteen cutlery and the other with banqueting cutlery. Those dining with the banqueting cutlery rated the flavour of their food higher than those given the canteen cutlery. They were also willing to pay more for their food.
A burger in front of a man's crotch wearing jeans
So, going the extra mile for ambience at your next dinner party may not be such a bad idea. ‘It’s using a scientific methodology to substantiate what people who are good hosts or restaurateurs have always known,’ says Sam Bompas, Soho House member and cofounder of Bompas & Parr, experts in multi-sensory experience design. ‘If you go to a good restaurant, they have considered what it looks like, what it smells like, what it sounds like – it’s all considered. It’s just that it’s not always addressed in a way that is substantiated or had a language around it,’ he says.

While we’ve always known, to some extent, that a ‘good vibe’ lends itself to a more enjoyable meal, gastrophysics is proving it and building a language around it. These words are the tools that then enhance a more nuanced understanding of what’s going on, allowing chefs to further explore and, in turn, diners to enjoy. Bompas uses the Japanese as an example, explaining that they are able to understand and differentiate textures better, because their language has no less than 400 words associated with textures and dining in comparison to the 70 in English. 

The ultimate aim is to bring us closer to our food at a time when we are more disconnected from it than ever before. Where our great grandparents were likely to have grown their own veggies or raised their own animals for slaughter, few of us now know the true seasonality of the fruit and veg we pick up at the supermarket. Beyond that, the modes in which we eat – at a desk, in front of the TV – have desensitised us to the sensuality of eating. 

‘We’re disconnected from our humanity,’ says chef Charles Michel, a practitioner exploring gastrophysics and sustainability. He goes as far as accusing our cutlery as being one of the chief modes of this disconnection, blaming Catherine de’ Medici and the French courts in the 1500s for introducing the fork to the dinner table. 

‘For a couple of centuries, we’ve developed this technology that is a disservice to the pleasures of eating,’ he says, extolling the moment he can lick a plate clean and use his fingers to scoop up the remains of a delicious meal. ‘Now, billions of people have at least a dozen forks in their drawers at home. Why? Because of a social construct that was invented to please the eyes and social protocol,’ scoffs Michel.

The lips and the skin represent the most significant amount of somatosensory cortex in the human brain. By denying our fingertips and lips the sensations of our food, we’re denying ourselves the full experience of eating in its truest form. His point is that utensils have changed the way we eat, impacting on our own enjoyment of the food and how much of it we (sometimes unhealthily and unsustainably) shovel down. 

Enter Michel/Fabian, the design studio founded by Charles Michel and designer Andreas Fabian, now creating ‘eating companions’ or tools designed with the sole purpose of truly experiencing our food. Designing objects like the sleek and sexy looking Goûte spoon – shaped like a finger in order to recreate the experience of licking your fingers when scooping up a sauce – the duo are hailing a new era of cutlery that will reconnect us with our most basic of human instincts. 

‘I made a silver beaker, which is very thin, so when you hold it in your hand and pour liquid into it, it’s like pouring water in your hands. It’s a beautiful feeling,’ says Fabian, who admits he’s developed ‘a thing about spoons or spoon-ness’ since stepping into the world of gastrophysics. 

On Skype to Michel, I’m introduced to the spoon and his various bits of ‘kit’ that he carries to all restaurants with him. The aim is to have everyone using their own (always carried on their person for use at a moment’s notice) experience designed cutlery. ‘Through these utensils, you can develop healthier, more mindful rituals. Utensils are the perfect tool for us to be aware of the moment of eating,’ says Michel. 

The joy of eating out gets better when you add a cutlery kit solely dedicated to the pleasures of eating. All hail the era of the reusable bottle, KeepCup and cutlery in your handbag. Just remember to wash between uses.
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