Under the Influence

Innovative chefs are using cutting-edge research to sway how you perceive your meals—and make you eat more.

Under the Influence

The Fat Duck restaurant in Bray, England knows a thing or two about atmosphere.

Order “The Sound of the Sea” dish, and you’re served briny oysters atop a mini beach. We’re talking foam, seaweed and sand, on your plate. The waiter hands you an iPod—nestled in a shell, of course—that plays a seaside soundtrack of crashing waves and squawking gulls. A sea-inspired scent is currently in development to be spritzed around the table.

The point? Mentally transporting you to the ocean will enhance the flavor of your food.

Recent research has shown that your dining environment is just as—if not more—crucial to your opinion of an eatery than the food itself.

“It’s that sort of paradox where a glass of rosé tastes better sitting under the Mediterranean sun than on a gloomy winter’s night,” says Professor Charles Spence, Ph.D., an experimental psychologist at Oxford University who worked with chef Heston Blumenthal in creating The Fat Duck’s signature sea dish.

Restaurant owners are scrambling to add multi-sensory swag to their spaces, looking at everything from lighting to music and glass shape to plate size, to turn every bite into an experience. Here’s how they’re influencing our meals. 

Savvy restaurateurs are now pairing meals with music, just as they would with wine.

Sound can influence our senses to change our perception of food, and complementary pairings can enhance flavor and enjoyment. In one study Dr. Spence, who specializes in this field, asked subjects to match instrument pitches to food types. High-pitched notes on the piano correlated with sweet dishes, while bitter-tasting foods (such as dark chocolate and coffee), matched with lower-pitch notes on brass or woodwind instruments.

Sound can also amplify your perception of specific flavors. Dr. Spence has shown that bacon and egg ice cream (um, yuck!) is reported as tasting more “bacony” when subjects hear the sound of bacon sizzling in the pan, while it tastes more ‘eggy’ if sounds of farmyard chickens are played instead.

The right lighting not only makes your date look better, it’ll also make you eat more.

According to some researchers, soft, soothing lighting may make us feel less inhibited and less self-conscious, encouraging us to linger, nibble and imbibe. Studies show that the later the hour and the dimmer the lights, the less able diners are to restrain their food intake. Bright lights have been shown to make us to eat more food, faster, which is why they’re often found in high-volume fast-food restaurants.

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