Food isn’t about just how it tastes anymore. Now, more than ever, the looks can make or break a venerable dish. What makes one plate more appetizing than another? Find out in our 2016 trends report.
At a time when a growing number of chefs and innovative food industries are starting to set up their own research kitchens and work with renowned scientists, it is surprising to see that issues related to the visual presentation of food on the plate are being left out of these successful exchanges. The variety of presentations created by chefs, and the number of varieties of tableware now available to achieve them, represent a formidable opportunity for cognitive scientists to study the more complex effects of vision on food experiences, which certainly should not be missed. Chefs can also benefit from the new insights that a scientific approach can bring to these areas, which previously have often been left to intuition.
In this manifesto, we claim that this transfer of knowledge represents much more than merely another addition to the art and science of cuisine: it is its essential completion, as gastronomy moves more and more toward the ideal of a total multisensory art, as captivating for the eye as it is for the palate. Before turning to the scientific recommendations and review in the second part of our manifesto, we want to promote a different approach to plating, which breaks with the more functional and decorative purposes of plate ware, and puts experiments in visual presentation at the heart of modernist culinary expression.
The first taste is always with the eyes.
The visual sensation of a dish is as important as its flavour.
I think we’re going to need designers that think about food and design in ways that we’ve never thought about before.
In everyday experience, food is never presented or served in isolation: it always comes in a container – in a bowl, on a plate, or in a disposable pack, as is typically the case with foods eaten directly from their packaging. With plates comes the idea that food should be presented in the most attractive manner possible, and that presentation, from the choice of the plate itself to the complex spatial arrangement of colours and ingredients on the plate, matters to the final reception of a dish by the diner.
This perhaps obvious fact, what we call ‘plating’, has received surprisingly little attention up until now from scientists interested in food or eating experiences. Nowhere is the topic of plating mentioned, for instance, in the collection devoted to the dimensions of the meal edited by Meiselman in 2000. The ‘five-aspect meal model’ proposed by Gustafsson ignores it totally. This neglect contrasts with the huge interest shared by chefs, the public and the media alike for photographs of gorgeous or adventurous plating, as evidenced by the thousands of pictures exchanged via social media, and the emergence of specialized magazines, such as The Art of Plating.
If diners and the media don’t need to be convinced of the importance of plating, why aren’t scientists and chefs more interested in understanding what makes these plates so attention-grabbing and how they affect the diner’s experience? Everyone should be especially aware that food presentations are likely to bear on all three key components of pleasure, as identified by Daniel Kahneman in his work on hedonic psychology: the pleasures of expectation, experience and memory.
The point of this manifesto is to convince both chefs and scientists alike that they ought to be working together much more closely on the effects of aesthetic food presentations, and that there are rewards to be won on both sides from adopting a more scientific approach to plating. It is, though, to be expected that both camps might be difficult to convince: isn’t great plating a matter for individual talent and creativity, which does not afford scientific generalisation? What would science add to plating? Isn’t visual presentation somehow extrinsic to flavour perception, and hence something that rightly belongs more to the social ritual of the meal than to food science?
We think that these two concerns should be addressed together. What is required is first and foremost a different way to look at plating: one that shows why food presentation is integral to our eating experiences, and therefore to the sciences that want to understand them. In the second part of the manifesto, we hope to show why, and how, the step between existing scientific studies of the visual aspects of food, should be extended to include complex plating. Before that, though, we believe it is crucial to revisit the status of aesthetic food presentation: plating should not be seen merely as decoration, but as an integral part of the multisensory eating experience.
Many consider plating only as the cherry on the cake of cooking, as the intuitive final step in the process of creating a dish that could be executed and planned independently of the flavour of the dish itself.
This view is too limited by far, as we argue in this first part of the manifesto: plating has become central to the eating experience, and should now be recognized both as a drive to the culinary creation and central to the reception of a dish.
Plating has not always been so central, of course. In the next section, we explain how this change has occurred, and illustrate how and when the plate stopped being a merely convenient container and a decorative frame for the plate to become the canvas on which chefs can express themselves. Then we show why a plate can be more than a canvas, and why innovation in terms of flavour and presentation can be seen as going hand in hand.
The increasing variety and originality introduced to multisensory food presentations and plate ware marks not only a new step in the history of the progressive aesthetization of our food experiences, but also a growing importance of visual elements in eating experiences and a blurring of the boundaries between the edible and the non-edible. This larger history, we believe, should be heeded by chefs, industrial food concerns and food specialists across the sciences and other disciplines. Content adapted from the Flavor Journal.