A life goal of mine has been to attend culinary school. I used to say that if all my current aspirations for school, jobs, and life somehow fall through, my plan B will always be to become a chef. With the anxiety that the COVID-19 pandemic has brought onto everyday life, I thought why not begin my culinary education journey during this strange time stuck home? So, I began my research on what I knew to be the best international culinary school, Le Cordon Bleu, and scavenged their website for their online course offerings. It was on the Le Cordon Bleu London site that I found the course, “The Art and Science of Multisensory Dining,” and it peaked my attention. Although somewhat complicated in name, this course would soon change how I view being a diner and the makeup of a restaurant experience.
The course lasted four weeks and consisted of weekly readings, articles, forum discussions, and a zoom meeting- that I was unfortunately unable to attend live at 3 am Chicago time. Though it sounds bulky in workload, the material was creative, innovative, and insightful to the culinary world and its greatly unrecognized history.
With beginning material focused on the history of dining and food innovation, the extent of the history of restaurant cuisine and experience surprisingly ranges only about one hundred years. The class began to pick up, however, during Week 2 focused on revolutionary chefs and the science of fine dining and cooking. Ferran Adrià of El Bulli was of conversation first. His addiction to experimentation with food and the palate set the foundation for a new era of culinary history, known as Food-Modernism (just like the art movement) that began in the late 1980s and into the ’90s. Adrià's approaches and thought processes towards food and dish design include the utilization of rare ingredients, ingredient expression, form mimicking and changing, global awareness, and most notably, texture manipulation. One of Adrià's most famous dishes that exemplify his culinary extremities is his plate of carrot-foam. The three other chef’s we studied were Pierre Gagnaire of St.Etienne, Heston Blumenthal of The Fat Duck, and Grant Achatz of Alinea, all of whom hold the same weight of importance in the transformation of fine dining and food experimentation.
Week three is when the course started to blow my mind as the essence of its title truly surfaced in the material. The term ‘multi-sensory’ entails that within a single experience, there is an involvement in at least two of our five senses. Readings focused on the comprehensive impact of sight, sound, and smell during the experience of tasting food. Even a restaurant’s atmosphere plays a subconscious role in the translation of a single bite.
Professor Charles Spence of Oxford University teaches Experimental Psychology to undergraduates at Somerville College and currently consults for a number of multinational companies, advising on various aspects of multi-sensory design. In his Journal of Sensory Studies from 2004, Spence was the first to successfully show that food could taste different depending on changes in sound during consumption. Using a Pringle’s taste test with different pitches and volumes, his research established that the sight, touch, and sound of food can have significant effects on flavor perception and enjoyment. Spence’s research further connects to the idea that dining is about what is in the mind of the diner just as much as what is in their mouth. This idea is more commonly termed as Gastrophysics which is the construct of a connection between body and mind while eating in a purely subconscious way. Whether it be the spoon one uses to sip a hot broth or the color of one’s plate underneath their pasta, every little stimulus of your senses ultimately affects the potential of your food enjoyment.
I think the course would be remiss if it weren’t to mention molecular gastronomy, however, I now understand this culinary phenomenon to be much different from how it is recognized by most people. Molecular gastronomy holds much more weight than simply being “cool food.” Rather, it must be considered an art more than the mere cooking of food for the sake of appetite or hunger, because the creative potential unleashed by the technologically-aided marriage between science and cooking has realized a more expressive form of culinary art, a culinary “art-for-art's-sake.” Molecular gastronomy has consequently achieved the same status as the other arts, designed to please, to challenge, to inspire, more than, in the case of cookery, simply to feed. It is a vessel for creativity and experimentation by way of modernist cooking tools that provides for a purely unique dining experience.
The course soon came to an end with many lighter-hearted topics on food’s relationship with technology. This involved a conversation about the Food Porn phenomena that has overtaken social media and how it stimulates the senses to crave a certain food, as well as promoting unhealthy food habits. In addition, the debate over whether certain restaurant experiences sit on the edge of being theatre performance, instead of a meal, came into play. Utilization of augmented reality, tactile involvement, and the inhibition of certain senses, such as sight, are trends popping up in some upscale restaurants.
To end the course, students were given a final task to design a restaurant including all of the multi-sensory constituents learned about in the course. This was an entertaining way to brainstorm and apply my new culinary knowledge to my own desires into a dining experience of my dreams. My restaurant named “Osza” sits in the grassy mountains of Iceland serving locally cultivated and grown dishes representative of the surrounding environment. With tabletops resembling a tablet screen, with each dish the table changes to match the environment that the ingredients are from. In addition, I picked out a warm-earth toned interior of the restaurant with tableware and cutlery sourced from Japan.
The Art and Science of Multi-Sensory Dining has changed the way I see restaurant dining and the effort and detail needed to provide a truly impactful meal. Now, I, fortunately, have a culinary certificate to reward my learning from this experience, yet it resembled very little of normal schooling. Although this class was not the cheapest of purchases, investing in my culinary passions has inspired me to make food education a priority. I have a newfound confidence in my understanding of dining that will propel me into my future with food.