Exploring the senses

10 Feb 2015
3 min read
How do our senses work together to make a meal unforgettable?

Did you know that for some people, words have colours and names have flavours? This neurological phenomenon is called synaesthesia. With the team around Kitchen Theory, London chef Jozef Youssef has put together an eight-course menu and experience, which not only raises awareness, but also further questions our senses and how they interact.

There is nothing more multi-sensory than the food we eat – all senses come together to experience it. When eating a meal you can experience some of the interaction between the senses. First you see the colour of the food, which will set the expectations of the taste and flavours in your mind. But tastes also have shapes – some are more rounded, some more angular. Many top chefs are working with “sensory congruity”, when food looks as it tastes or sounds as it should, but sometimes it can be fun to break that congruence, giving people something unexpected and surprising, according to the Kitchen Theory team.

The sound of food is often a forgotten sense, but it is also part of the experience. Whether the food is crispy, crunchy or squeaky. But it has also been shown in experiments that certain flavours are matched with particular musical instruments, another element of synaesthesia.

The sense of touch is also important when it comes to sensory textures of food, whether it is brittle or rough in the mouth or indeed the texture of the cutlery or the bowl we eat the food out of, or the chair we’re sitting on. They do influence the experience of food, according to Professor Charles Spence of Oxford University, who has worked with Ferran Adrià of elBulli and Heston Blumenthal at the Fat Duck.

The dinner starts with guests being asked to determine the order in which certain coloured spherified food items are presented on the plate. Another dish explores the synaesthetic matching between shapes, tastes and speech sounds, called Bouba & Kiki. This is followed by anexceptionally delicious soup dish that discovers the correlation between sight, sound and taste.

Chef Youssef explains: “Flavour is based on your sense of smell. For the soup dish we give our guests a saffron spray. When you spray it you engage your sense of smell, and because you have been focusing on this sense, when you taste the soup you get the full flavour.”

In the next dish, the relationship between tactile sensations and food textures is explored. It asks the question: Can changing a tactile sensation alter the flavour and/or mouthfeel of food? With the help of different smelling liquids, this sensation is heightened even more.

The following dish, a guinea fowl and sweet corn risotto, is entitled Night Owl’s Eastbourne Grotto, a play of words around the sounds of language that trigger synaesthetic tastes.

A personal favourite, the pre-dessert, shows how cross-sensory association is reflected in metaphors used to describe food, such as flavours and foods being described as “light”, “rich”, “heavy” or “sharp”. It is served in three tiers and guests are encouraged to hold each receptacle in their hand, each one getting heavier.

The penultimate course deals with the McGurk effect, where it is shown that our brains make sense of the world by separating the sounds we hear from the sights we see – but not always. The said effect is an illusion that occurs when what we see overrides what we hear. If we close our eyes we hear the sound as it is, but our eyes can influence what we are hearing. When ruminating on the McGurk effect, you can enjoy a scrumptious chocolate, passion fruit and toffee dessert.

The final course explores what happens if all visual clues are taken away and whether we can identify the flavours, presented in the shape of a white and a black dessert.

Chef Youssef says: “The understanding of how we use our senses and how our senses work is massively interesting to me. In the last four years I’ve been reading various papers, especially by Professor Charles Spence, looking at different aspects of how senses work. The understanding of synaesthesia made me want to make diners understand it as well.”

When producing dining experience, it is most important for Youssef that the balance between the experience and the dining is always in tact. “Everything should enhance the sensory attributes and characteristics of the dish. Everything has to make sense to us and support our enjoyment.”

Events take place throughout February and March but are largely sold out. For more dates and tickets, visit kitchen-theory.com