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The chef using psychology to hack our tastebuds

The chef using psychology to hack our tastebuds

How we respond to what we eat depends on which senses are stimulated. An experimental tasting menu gives our correspondent food for thought

How we respond to what we eat depends on which senses are stimulated. An experimental tasting menu gives our correspondent food for thought

Jonathan Beckman | November 7th 2017

The cramped industrial estate on the rim of London, where the city’s edge splinters into countryside, looked like an unlikely culinary destination. But one chill autumn night, I was tempted there by the promise of a meal that might blow my mind – or, at least, short circuit it pleasingly. Kitchen Theory, founded by Jozef Youssef, a chef who has worked at both the Connaught and the Dorchester, describes itself as an “experimental gastronomic design studio”. While molecular gastronomy, popularised by chefs like Heston Blumenthal, employed the principles of chemistry to create incongruous gels and foams, Youssef focuses on psychological research. Working with scientists at Oxford University, he investigates how our sense of taste is modulated by the scents we smell, the sounds we listen to, the textures we rub as we munch away, and even by harder-to-tickle mental faculties like memory, fantasy and conscience. On the last Friday and Saturday of every month, Youssef plates up the fruits of his research to ten guests, each willing to pay £160 for 13 courses of tastebud roulette.

Kitchen Theory is reached through a goods lift with the type of concertinaed steel door that tend to be used only by those on their way to brief, terminal business meetings with tyre-necked Mafiosi. The interior of the studio could not be more different. The walls were white, the table was white, the kitchen was white, and much of the room was illuminated by a sour ultra-violet glow. This was an apartment fit for a Scandi architect or a conceptual trance DJ with a sizeable following in Ljubljana.

The evening began with a series of brief experiments to reveal how our senses are interlaced, and how much baggage we bring with us when we eat. We were asked to name the flavour of a jellybean while wearing a noseclip. Nothing doing. We were instructed to identify some seeds through the aroma they released. I failed to put my finger on strawberry. Then we had to classify four coloured gels, according to the flavour we expected them to have. Most people associate the green one with lime and predict it will taste sour; my keen interest in Fernet Branca led me to conclude it would be bitter. We were sent on our way to dinner.

A spoonful of bouba helps the kiki go down Youssef prepares a course for his diners 

In 1929 Wolfgang Köhler, a German psychologist, conducted the first of a number of experiments that established what became known as Bouba-Kiki effect. The subjects were shown two shapes: one was a distorted star with pointy limbs that might backlight the word “kapow” in a cartoon fight. The other was leafier, trippier, with rounded proboscises. In 95% of cases, participants identified the first as kiki and the second as bouba without prompting, irrespective of their cultural background. This synaesthetic matching of shape and sound can also be extended to food. Ox-cheek cooked for 43 hours and plumped up like a maharajah on two bao pillows was so bouba-ishly non-confrontational that you’d push it up against a wall and steal its lunch money. Octopus diced with tomato and chilli was certainly kikier – if not the kikiest it could have been.

Another course demonstrated the importance of the temporal order of the food. A swab of yuzu kosho – a Japanese citrus mixed with chilli – was administered with a finger. This stung the mouth into salivating. Another dollop of hazelnut butter covered the mouth in fat, muffling the sharpness like a mute on a trumpet. Together they prepped the mouth for a savoury seaweed crisp that was perked up by the yuzu kosho’s dying fall.

The telegraphic connections between taste and sight, smell, even sound may seem plausible, perhaps obvious. But one mind-boggling course elucidated the importance of touch, seemingly a more remote sense. We were presented with whiskey and a small ball of goat’s cheese encased in a clove biscuit. We were also given a cube, two sides of which were covered in velvet and two in Velcro. Remarkably, the whiskey went down smoothly when I fingered the velvet. When I touched the Velcro, it prickled the tongue. The velvet also brought out the creaminess of the goat’s cheese. The moment I switched to Velcro it reeked of the farmyard.

The work of Youssef and his colleagues has consequences that reach far beyond the momentary excitation of jaded gourmands. At a local school, he is trying to help children overcome their dislike of vegetables through sensory play. Alzheimer’s patients often forget to eat; plug-ins that nebulise appropriate scents – bacon, say, at breakfast– can remind them to eat. People can also be encouraged to eat more healthily by changes in apparatus. Studies have shown that the shape and colour of plates, even the weight of cutlery, can modify sensitivity to sweetness and salt. Youssef suspects that much of this territory has already been explored by the large food conglomerates but kept hidden from view by commercial confidentiality. He himself was commissioned by Knorr to investigate whether slurping soup makes it tastier.

Not all Youssef’s courses swung open the doors of perception. Oyster ice cream was supposed to summon fond memories of the seaside. Dappled waves were projected onto the white, rubber tablecloth. We heard the shushing of the tide. A mist that smelled of the seaweed fumed up from buckets. And the ice cream tasted like a mouthful of cold seawater. I presume that experimental chefs are drawn to the seaside because people are unlikely to think wistfully of the abattoir. I never had a particularly enjoyable time at the beach. It evokes accidental licks of oily, bitter suncream, scaly outcrops of sunburn and sand gritting everything. There are parts of our brain that even scientifically minded chefs struggle to reach.

Jonathan Beckman was a guest of Kitchen Theory

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