All that time you spend artfully arranging food on the plate before serving it to your guests or family is not in vain. And if you’re the sort of cook who doesn’t think much about how you present the food you make, thinking that taste alone will carry the day, you may want to reconsider your approach.
Presentation may not be everything, but when it comes to the meals we serve, appearance may be more important than we realize, capable of greatly influencing diners’ perception of taste, a recent study, published in the journal Flavour, has shown.
Building upon prior research showing that visual factors, like the color and balance of elements on the plate, play a large role in the way people respond to food, experimental psychologists at the University of Oxford, in Oxford, England, set out to discover whether arranging food “in an art-inspired manner” would affect diners’ expectations and experience of the food they were served.
They presented 60 participants (30 men and 30 women) with “a relatively complex salad with 17 distinct components made up of a total of 30 ingredients.” These salads included prepared-vegetable elements like a “seared Portobello slice, shimeji mushrooms (briefly boiled with a sweet vinegar marinade), raw red and yellow pepper cut into fine brunoises” and “five slices of mange-tout fine julienne” and sauces such as “beet puree, carrot puree, cauliflower and lemongrass creme, mushroom essence with squid ink, and, finally, pepperoncino oil.”
Each participant was served a salad – “plated” on a white, rectangular piece of cardboard — separately from the others, in an experimental setting, seated at a restaurant table with a white tablecloth, a napkin and utensils — and asked to complete a questionnaire about his or her food before and after consuming it.
But here’s the thing: Although all the salads served contained precisely the same ingredients, they did not all look alike. Each participant was presented with a salad arranged visually in one of three different ways. Some people were served a “regular” salad, in which all the ingredients were tossed together and placed in the middle of the plate. Others were given a salad arranged in a “neat” manner, with the veggies and sauces organized separately in an evenly spaced grid. A third group was given an “art-inspired” plate of salad, in which the ingredients were arranged in a manner that deliberately evoked Wassily Kandinsky’s abstract, colorfully harmonious “Painting number 201.”
Guess which one the participants liked best? The art-inspired one, naturally, was considered more “artistic,” “complex” and appealing than the others before it was consumed — and the participants who were served it said they’d be willing to pay more for their salad than those served salad in the other two configurations.
That’s not surprising. More curious, however, was the way the visual presentation seemed to have affected not only the participants’ expectations, but also their perception of flavor. After they had eaten, those given the Kandinsky-inspired arrangements rated their salads as being tastier than the other participants did — even though all the participants were eating the exact same salads, albeit differently arranged.
“These results support the idea that presenting food in an aesthetically pleasing manner can enhance the experience of a dish,” the authors conclude. “In particular, the use of artistic (visual) influences can enhance a diner’s rating of the flavor of a dish.”
The takeaway here is that we should all feel free to indulge our inner artist when we present our food. A drip of sauce here, a splash of puree there … before we know it, we’ll all be regular Jackson Pollocks in the kitchen, with aesthetically pleasing meals suitable for eating and enjoying — and maybe even for framing.