great taste is always in season

Grace Cuisine

Why does artistically presented food taste better?


You don't have to be an artist or a scientist to be a really good cook, although a little bit of art and science is involved – cooking is both technical and creative. Take a perfectly cooked scotch egg. There is a precise method to be followed if you want to produce a crispy crumb and gloopy yolk, but it is the creative side that decides to serve the thing in its own garden of pea shoots, nasturtiums and skinned broad beans.

The success of this arrangement, to my mind, is not only the fresh and peppery foils for the meat and egg. Visually, the greens put the eater in mind of nature's delights rather than the weathered cook's fingers, colour-coded chopping boards and deep-fat fryers that might have been involved in the preparation. It appeals to our nature-worshipping, uh, natures, and says: nutritious, of the earth, meant to be. And it looks beautiful.

Would this snack be yet more appealing, tastier even, if its components were arranged artistically, like a pleasing abstract painting? Well, judging by the prices that people are prepared to pay for swooshes of reductions and squid-ink skidmarks, one would assume that the answer is yes. One chef has finally put this question through a laboratory experiment that has been peer-reviewed (by scientists, not chefs) and is published today in the journal Flavour

Charles Michel is a talented Franco-Colombian cook whose professional life began with classical French training courtesy of Paul Bocuse. This was followed by the tutelage of the three-Michelin-starred Italian chef Nadia Santini, who is all about, says Michel, "a more traditional, sensitive approach to making people feel happy through psychological and digestive wellness".

In recent years, Michel has divided his time between service kitchens and working as a researcher at the Crossmodel laboratory at Oxford University, which investigates how our senses mingle to create our experiences of the world. The lab has done a lot of work on flavour perception, "but it's all really precise", says Michel. "It's really interesting for brain science," he adds, but not so easily applicable in the kitchen. Michel has joined the team to help concoct some studies of greater and perhaps more obvious practical use in the real world.

For his first scientific paper as lead author, Michel has sought to discover the effects that artistic plating has on diners' expectations and experiences of a dish. His method was to serve a complex salad with 17 components (pureed beetroot, mushrooms briefly cooked in a sweet vinegar marinade, cauliflower and lemongrass creme) in three ways, to 60 people. They had no idea what to expect or what the hell the study was trying to ascertain.

The first presentation neatly arranged each ingredient separately. The second tossed the salad and served it simply in the middle of the plate. And the third looked like a Kandinsky painting entitled Painting number 2001 – which seems a bold choice to me, because it's not a neat image, and neatness has previously been shown to be more appealing. The upshot was that the participants deemed the Kandinsky salad as more complex, artistic, appealing and tasty. They were willing to pay more for it, too. They didn't know that the dish was inspired by art – they just liked it better and, in his paper, Michel discusses a few reasons why this might be.

First, he says it shows that even though the subjects knew nothing of their favourite plate's inspiration, they were able to recognise an artistic pattern in the food intuitively. He also throws it out there that, since art involves the ability to communicate feelings and sensations, the art-inspired presentation of the food could have been an edible rendition of the message originally intended by Kandinsky. He points out that reward centres in the brain have previously been shown to be activated in people looking at art and processing complex visual stimuli, which could help explain why the participants deemed the plate they rated as more artistic and complex as the most likable.

Meanwhile, another study by some of the art-and-reward-centers gang has shown that consumers tend to think products associated with art are more valuable, and the effort put into making them is more appreciated. Michel quotes the philosopher Denis Dutton: "The value of an artwork is rooted in the assumptions about the human performance underlying its creation." Come to think of it, part of the explanation for why diners prefer neat plating in the aforementioned paper is that it, too, signifies that much effort has been spent on preparing the dish. Conclusion: other people's effort tastes good.

I shall take this to heart when dishing up my kids' dinner in a hurry. Food plonked on to the plate willy-nilly makes them deeply suspicious, whereas a pleasing pattern or an artful arrangement gets things off on a fine footing. How important is the artistic value of your food, either at home or eating out?


By: Anna
On: 07/02/2014 17:07:27
I couldn't agree more! I am a firm believer of the old French chef saying of "you take the first bite with your eyes." To me, presentation is what differentiates a truly special meal from just a very good one. I have copied recipes I had in restaurants, using the same cooking methods and the same, if not better, ingredients. I can always come close, and blindfold my family and I bet they couldn't tell a difference. But the fact remains, I can never capture the beauty of a trained chef's presentation, and therefore, my attempts are never quite exactly on the mark. It is what you pay for in fine dining, and that extra special something you have the right to expect. Glad someone finally acknowledged this important aspect in cooking and dining!
By: Alex
On: 07/02/2014 18:11:05
Anna - With all due respect, you are talking rubbish! My mom used to serve me slop! Amazing, delicious, decadent, unrivaled, unpretentious slop on a plate. And it was great! These so called "fine" dining creations where small portioned and over priced "creative" inventions in which the color of that stalk of asparagus compliments the color of that baby carrot sculpture and it is like some annoying food painting really annoys me. I don't buy it. Or rather, I am sick of paying too much to buy it in these supposed fancy restaurants. I would much rather have sloppy mountain of mashed potatoes, all messy with gravy and flowing into the veg and meat and the juices all over the place as delicious, irresistable chaos on a plate, than ever have to spend one more tedious evening eating some pretty display of boring or overly complex food art. Studies like this can be tweaked to prove anything - taste is what matters and anyone obsessed with what it looks like probably doesn't get that very simple fact.
By: John
On: 07/02/2014 18:21:43
Nope! Disagree! I have to say Alex got it right! Though some may fall for the stupid psychological trick, I think it is a small number. I think people want to believe artfully presented food is better, or feel compelled to say it is good, and like sheep with unquestioningly give credit where it isn't due in order to maintain that status quo. But if they were honest with themselves it makes very little difference and as Alex made clear, some really unappealing, small portioned, overly complex, thoroughly disappointing excuses for nice food are offered up and highly priced and never questioned because the sauce is artfully drizzled in dots and zig zags and patterns on the plate and the color of this stick of asparagus compliments the color of that "baby carrot sculpture" ( nice one Alex)... But often I have had some of the WORST eating experiences that looked lovely, but had awful crazy ingredients (once in a fine dining restaurant in NYC a particularly "clever" chef put spearment leaves in his version of thai curry... Everyone ooohed over how pretty it looks but it tasted like toothpaste and it was everything I could do to hide enough of it in my napkin to not make a scene and got a pizza later) or was just not good - form placed way over function and the result is awful. Give me good tasting food in an awful heap any day over some fools attempt to paint a picture using food as the medium. Besides, after a bite or two the presentation is messed up anyway and you are left with the actual food, which more often than not is not worth eating if presentation was a major consideration by the chef, since if it was, chances are he lost sight of the most important aspect.
By: Jenny
On: 07/02/2014 19:16:11
WOW. I am amazed at how strongly everyone feels about this! I think I sort of agree with Anna, that pretty presentation does make it feel special, but that said, I take the point that "fine dining" can truly be awful, over-priced and pretentious and I think presentation may play a role, but we have to remember, it is a very small role, and is not an excuse or a justification for unappealing food - nor does it make bad food appealing.

However, no need to get upset... Perhaps I had better lighten the mood (I will use any excuse, ha ha ha):

Two neutrons walk into a fancy restaurant. "How much for the special of the day?" one of them asks. The hostess looks at them, and says "For you - no charge".

Two protons walk into fine dining restaurant and ask `How much for the special of the day`. The hostess says $100. One of the protons says `$100 ?. Are you sure it is that expensive ?`.

The hostess looks at them, and says "For you - positive".

And last but not least:
Two strings walk into a fine dining restaurant. The hostess
says they don't serve strings. The strings walk out, and tie themselves together, then unravel their ends. They walk back in and ask for the special of the day, and the hostess says "Aren't you the strings that were just in here?" They reply "No, we're afraid not"

By: Mark
On: 07/04/2014 21:19:17
I love reading this blog. The articles are great, but the best part for me is how an article like this, on a topic you would think is pretty innocuous - food presenation, sparks some pretty intense reaction. Foodies are fun people. As for how I come down on this "issue", well, I suppose I can appreciate pretty looking food, but I also hate that "this food has been handled to death" feeling I sometimes get when I imagine some obsessive chef arranging and rearranging and picky and poking at it and drizzling and wiping away sauces to drizzle again to get it just right and... ok, that may be extreme, but it is food for goodness sake! I am waiting and hungry and don't want it handled for 10 minutes to get it just perfect.

That said - the comment above that rejoices in a plate of "slop", while very funny, oh dear... slop. Slop. A plate of slop. Just let that sit in your mind for a moment.

I think I will take the middle ground between art on a plate and a heap-o-slop.
Great article!
By: Jenny
On: 07/07/2014 10:22:56
Alex and John - what is a baby carrot sculpture? Ha ha ha... You both know what it is, but I've never been served one and I feel like I am missing out. That made me laugh! I know what you mean though. You make good points. I think I will have to change my mind and come down on the side of slop on a plate.
By: Amy J.
On: 08/24/2014 13:41:08
Ha ha ha.. these comments crack me up! I think I don't really care much about presentation except if it looks gross, obvioously. There is a video on youtube of one of those popular celebrity chefs .. but she is one of the not too bright ones, and her whole pitch is using pre-prepared and convenience foods in cooking at home. Her name is Sandra Lee and for a laugh I highly advise you to go to youtobe and watch any of her videos. So the one video she makes meatloaf and at the end she takes it out of the oven and declares "look at that!"... But it looks like something... well, how can I say it politely.... Something you would find in the bathroom rather than the kitchen... EWWWW... the comments are SO funny on that video. I think it really proves the point that if it doesn't meet minimal presentation standards, no matter how it tastes, you are going to disappoint your diners.
By: Marcus
On: 09/07/2014 13:13:31
Studies have shown that in FACT presentation matters! And the mark of a good chef is partly presentation. I know that people THINK it doesn't and some folks here are claiming they don't care, but the fact is that unpleasant looking food is offputting. THe last comment made me laugh. I have seen that video clip on youtube and it truly proves my point. That woman is SO funny - I think her show is valuable for entertainment value, rather than to learn to cook. Anyway, I am training as a chef and the fact is that presentation is a BIG part of it.
By: Steve
On: 09/15/2014 18:55:24
I take art at school. I have it for my third class in the morning. I think art is a way to show how you feel and you can show ideas you have too so i know that for your food too when they say it is art that they mean it is showing your care and that you want it to be good and you also show that you care about the people who will eat it. My mom always says that too when we put out our dinner she says we need to make it look nice. I think thats right. I woud not want slop like the other people but i also know respect is important and irespect all the feelings or ideas of other people like my dad does too so its ok if thats what they want but I like art better and do it the way my mom and dad do.

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