We are in an era where all of us have been blown away by the Masterchef series – Masterchef Australia, Masterchef India, Masterchef US, and so on. A plate of food no longer seems good enough until is has been elaborately presented. Even basic home food like roti – subzi and rajma – chawal is being dressed up to look elegant and breathtaking for the gram. Restaurants, cafes, and eateries are also waking up to the need to dress up the food to look pretty on the plate before being served to the customers, as they will definitely be gramming it up.
Amidst all this, I found myself appreciating prettier food a lot more than food that was just put together on the plate and given to me. At first, of course, I did not realize this was happening. Like everyone else, I went about gramming it too. With time, as I kept getting more engrossed with Masterchef Australia and visiting restaurants across the country, especially the one on the higher side of the spectrum, it hit me. Prettier food always ended up feeling yummier! Almost always! This got me thinking and looking for more information.
Scientifically, thoughtful presentation leads to a more enjoyable meal. A study by Professor Charles Spence, the Oxford University gastrophysicist has proven beyond doubt that making something look good makes it effectively taste better too. Previous studies on this topic generally tended to focus on sophisticated dishes, however, this study featured a simple green garden salad, and steak & chips. The study found that even with such simple dishes, thoughtful presentation meant the diners found the food more flavorful – things like cutting the fillet horizontally which would show the inner color of the meat, serving the cucumber thinly sliced above the other ingredients in the salad, made it more appetizing. This also made the food appear more expensive. The study found that thoughtful preparation is valued twice as high as using fresh raw ingredients. Apparently, when it comes to food, we are willing to pay quite a bit more for attentive labor.
As part of this study, researchers served 30 men and 30 women one of three salads containing the exact same 17 ingredients, all prepared in the very same way. The only difference between the three salads was the presentation. One salad was presented as a traditional chopped salad with ingredients piled on top of each other. The second salad was presented in a ‘neat’ formation, with all ingredients piled individually on the plate. The third salad was modeled to look like the artist Wassily Kandinsky’s famous ‘Painting Number 201’. The participants were asked questions about the appearance of the salad before consuming it, and about the taste after consuming it. It was found then that the participants in the study had rated the Kandinsky-inspired salad as tasting better than the other salads. It also received much higher ratings for artistic presentation and complexity. The study reported, “When we see the presentation, we could see that someone had put effort into it and that it may convey expectations & impact on the experience.”
Dining in a well-reputed restaurant, diners expect their food to be presented exquisitely. The world’s greatest chefs are not only master of flavor, but they are artists who use the plate as a canvas to tell stories and inspire diners. Plating a dish artfully is more than just aesthetics. The visual design of the plate reflects the skills with which it has been prepared and it communicates to the diner the value of the meal.
Studies by Zellner, et al. (2011) have showed that diners believe food is tastier when plated neatly and in balance, compared to when it is served unbalanced or untidily, even when the ingredients and quantities remain exactly the same.
Similarly, studies by Michel, et al. (2014) have found that complex art-inspired plating results in diners rating food up to 18% more delicious than when the same ingredients are plated in a neat but a considerably non-artistic style.
Studies such as these clearly indicate that visual presentation acts as a powerful tool for improving the overall experience and flavor perception of food. Some other simple ways, chefs and restaurants enhance the visual appeal and consequently, the flavor perception of food include:
- Top the food with a sprinkle of fresh herbs or greens or nuts (depending on the dish) – could be chopped cilantro or oregano or parsley or basil or sliced almonds and pistachios, etc.
- Using white plates which gives them a plain canvas to build their art, giving it a better pop of color and make the food be perceived as bursting with flavors.
- Control the portion size – a smaller portion size not only makes the food seem exclusive and exquisite, but it also gives the chef enough space to create a work of art, while letting the food shine through. An oversized portion of food not only fills up the plate but it also overwhelms the eye.
- The lighting in the place where the food is being consumed plays a major role in how the food will be perceived.
- The color of the walls in the room where the food will be consumed also play a critical role. Colors like red and yellow not only have an aggressive feel to it, but also encourage appetite.
- The music in the background also plays an important role in how the food is perceived.
- Meeting the expectations is always carefully considered. Some perceptions are ingrained in our minds and challenging them may not always lead to a positive result. For example, we expect our strawberry ice cream to be a super-bright pink, so if the diner was served a hideous poison green colored strawberry ice cream made with the choicest strawberries fresh off the farm, it may not be perceived as positively as it would if the ice cream was its usual pink.
At the end of the day, visually appealing food also makes for good free publicity as it has been found that over 69% people on an average take pictures of their food and share it on their social media prior to consuming the food. Visually pretty food makes us happy, and when we are happy, we definitely have a better experience of consuming the food.
What do you think? Drop me a line in the comments or find me on Instagram – @banjaranfoodie