Designing Dining: New Directions by David Kirsh


David Kirsh is Professor and past chair of the Department of Cognitive Science at UCSD. He runs the Interactive Cognition Lab at UCSD where the focus is on the way humans are closely coupled to the outside world. He has written extensively on situated, distributed and embodied cognition and especially on how the environment can be shaped to simplify and extend cognition, including how we intelligently use space, and how we use external representations as interactive tools for thought. Some recent projects focus on ways humans use their bodies as things to think with, specifically in dance making and choreographic cognition. Distributed creativity is another pet topic. He is co-Director of the Arthur C. Clarke Center for Human Imagination, and he is on the board of directors for the Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture. His most recent publication is Embodied Cognition and the Magical Future of Interaction Design. He is currently working on a book on Designing Interaction. 

In the Magister Ludi by Herman Hesse the art of the Glass Bead Game is to choose fragments of music, art, poetry, philosophy and literature from the complete oeuvre of human culture, then to imaginatively sequence and layer the collection into something of exquisite beauty. What a pity fragments of cuisine were never a part of that cultural oeuvre. Was it just because of their impermanence? For us, a broader game exists – a more performance based game. Here we’re allowed to compose with ephemeral elements like taste, scent, touch, sound, color and luminescence. This performance context includes furniture, implements and architectural features. Social norms like rules of etiquette, ritual, and conversational exchange, as well as interactive artifacts and information visualization are also part of this bigger design space. Enter the modern restaurateur. Designing a new dining experience is a big creative job.

Sitting back reflecting on the workshop and the ways things will change in dining design, three ideas keep resurfacing for me: personalization, information visualization, and reinventing context. They are fit elements in the new Magister’s game.

Personalization – Capitalizing on individual differences: Everyone knows that people are different, though few appreciate just how dissimilar people are more than experimental psychologists and ethnographers. On asking my ‘utterly normal’ neighbors a few questions, for instance, I discovered that one is a shotgun fanatic eager to shoot a treed raccoon not 8 feet from his neighbor’s house, another takes pleasure in driving hearses, and a third kills skunks and squirrels by the hundred. I only questioned three! All of them believe they are indistinguishable from everyone else and each thinks those who behave contrariwise are odd. Scratch the surface and people are remarkably unalike. At the workshop it was fun discovering some of our differences. I was born with a good nose and I have always appreciated its role in enjoying food. But I knew nothing about differences in bitterness sensitivity. I was shocked when Barry gave us two glasses of wine to taste blindly, both the same chianti, and both served in the same style of glass. One was 6 degrees colder than the other. That second one, the cold one, was objectionably bitter, unpleasant; the first full and nice. Virtually everyone thought the wines were different. But no one else found the first downright distasteful as I did.

In thinking about individual differences, and tying that to the bitterness test, which is used to determine who is a super-taster, it is natural to think that more taste is better. We are a culture of more. But ask yourself: why would having a larger palette of taste, a finer level of discrimination, lead to greater delight or a finer sensitivity to food? Western music uses a 12-tone scale, Indian music uses a 22-tone scale? Is Western music at a disadvantage? Or again, is it a plus to work in a 26-letter alphabet instead of a 20-letter one? There need be no fewer words in a 20 letter alphabet than a 26 letter one, just longer words. Anyway, the expressive range of each is so enormous that the hard thing, in both cases, is to create beauty and interest, not variation. It is the same with food. If we know the discrimination capacity of a person we can design food that is delicious and interesting regardless of whether they are super tasters or not. The thing is to know their gustatory dynamic range and work within it.

Dynamic range itself is not an innocent notion. Once someone knows a pattern it is easy for them to notice when it is present and then encode it in memory. The more concepts people have, the more they can discriminate. This means that a naïve super taster, inexperienced in the ways of food, will taste fewer food notes and chords than an experienced normal. The broad experience of a 12-tone gourmet confers more tasting discrimination on his palette than a 22-tone naïve supertaster who can’t tell a sea bass from a halibut.

This highlights a basic fact: we know shockingly little about the phenomenology of taste and its relation to food concepts, taste concepts, memory, emotion and cultural sensitivity. There are so many factors involved in determining taste capacity that super-tasting may be the least significant part. Learning is far more significant. Someone who begins a feast ignorant of customs or dishes may within that very meal acquire enough new concepts to register things they were insensate to before.

Individual differences in categorizing taste and food, and the ever-present opportunity for ‘within meal’ learning has implication for dining design in two rather distinct ways: the first for food customization, the second for information enrichment.

On the customization side knowledge about individual differences can be used to modify recipes and meals to better meet idiosyncrasies. In the modern world data is everywhere. It is either captured from past encounters or patrons have permitted advance contact to learn about cultural preferences, spice habituation, health and dietary restrictions. With such data in hand restaurants will start to bin diners into a smallish set of divergent groups. Using this typing system they can then micro-market and produce small lots for specific types. They will develop strategies to understand the structure of the likes and dislikes of groups and invent recipes that taste best for each. They may even develop invisible ‘pre-tests’ to categorize new customers by their choices on a plate of hors d’oeuvres. The one thing chefs must know when designing food for a group, in this new and more personalized cuisine, is the alphabet and food phrase patterns appropriate for the group. We have barely begun to decipher food alphabets and phrase structures. Machine classification and personalization design will be part of this new approach.

Visualization – teaching how to taste mealside. On the information visualization side, chefs must become masters of fast teaching to ensure patrons acquire the concepts they need in order to approach their dishes in the right way. Food has properties; dishes have organized patterns of smell, flavor, visual display that can be quickly discerned with a little help. Without that help, though, the best is lost. Some of the lessons of visualizing complex attributes in science can be exploited to reveal the patterns diners need. Scientists regularly count on visualization tools to expose regularities that are comprehensible only because they are visually displayed in creative ways. How should this be done for food? And for whom? A dinner party where a meal is the complement to social engagement is not perhaps the place to focus on sensory intensive learning. But for some, a dining experience is made unique because it becomes the place where the general idea of umami was learned, or it was the first time they learned about the complementarity between flavor and texture explicitly. The path to this sort of personal illumination – the steps that lead to forming new food concepts – is not well understood. We can be sure it is not like watching the food channel. Immersion is necessary. But how should the attribute patterns be revealed? Making a classroom out of dinner – even an individualized classroom – can take the fun out of eating unless it is transformed into an adventure with ideas and sensory explosion. I predict mealside learning will become an important constituent of meal design.

Context – shaping how we frame and evaluate our dining experience. My final thought concerns the context of dining. When does dining begin and what shapes a diner’s experience beyond recipes, presentation of dishes, and social group? Several participants discussed the importance of non-food aspects of the dining context, and the remarkable influence these extra-food elements have on enjoyment. The properties that affect evaluation can be sensory based and neurophysiological, such as multi-modal interaction – the cross talk between sound and taste perception, or taste and smell, for example, that can enhance a flavor or change its tonality. But evaluation can be affected by higher-level properties of cognition. A visual scene of the sea projected on a wall might psychologically frame a seafood dish, enhancing a diner’s subjective experience of what she is eating: it’s properties, origins, freshness, or briny flavor. In a related manner, chefs around the world have played with narrative as a method of structuring the way diners approach and think about their plate. A chef presenting at table a plate of alder smoked fish and talking about inspiration drawn from an evening’s campfire or a boy scout’s outing can lead diners to relive valued memories with their first bite. Context can heighten experience, differentiate two identical dishes, or connect emotions with a meal. These practical facts we know.

Less well understood is the process by which these higher level features of context bias sensory encounter. How do content rich pictures and stories structure our dining experience?

Luckily ignorance needn’t dampen exploration. As in most art, the ones who create artistic work run far ahead of those who strive to understand why those very creations succeed. Take, for instance, the ordering process as a challenge for artists. Wearing the hat of designers several of us thought this phase of dining is low hanging fruit. The clever deployment of technology to present the menu, to explain each dish, or to explore combinations and the pros and cons of options, can have an immediate impact on the success of a meal. Patrons like seeing what they will order in advance of its arrival, and obviously visual display can do that. But it can do so much more. It can show the sourcing of ingredients, the delicacy of a cooking process, the time it takes to make the dish. We know instinctively that ordering can be done better and made a more enjoyable part of the meal. It is simply a matter of good design.

Likewise, dinner plates can be used as more than ceramic craft for displaying imaginatively plated food. They can serve as light sources to reveal unappreciated aspects of food – translucence, efflorescence, and nuance of color. They can act as heaters to keep the warm bits warm and the cool bits cool. They can implement persuasive technology to help diners meet healthy objectives.

And then there is the matter of beauty and aesthetics. How does beauty in visual or sonic appearance affect experience? Again it is not understood. And again, despite our lack of science chefs around the world have reliably tuned ambience to deliver an enhanced experience.

Conclusion: The world is changing fast. Few things reveal this acceleration more than the transformation in food design and dining. Molecular gastronomy is an obvious change. Equally significant is the way restaurateurs are reshaping the context of dining, and the way they engage clients, now aiming to impact memory and emotion explicitly. As a cognitive scientist interested in real world environments I see dining as a domain that is dripping with cognitively interesting phenomena. One area is creativity; especially creativity distributed over the cooking staff as they work with ingredients in technologically enhanced kitchens. Another is the way the engagement space of diners configures their approach to food and composed dishes. What frames the way we contact food, the way we cognitively grasp what we are eating? The complexity of our encounter means that cognitive scientists ought to team up with interaction and environment designers to invent new dining designs. What fun!