Charles Spence

The Future of Dining Practices

charles-11Professor Charles Spence is an experimental psychologist at the University of Oxford. He is the head of the Crossmodal Research group which specializes in the research about the integration of information across different sensory modalities. His research is concerned with the role of attention in multisensory perception, including sensory perception of food. A focus is on vision and chemical senses: do we just smell or taste what we see? He investigates the interactions between vision and odour and taste perception, and in particular, the influence of colour on odour and taste perception.

To my way of thinking, molecular gastronomy (or modernist cuisine) can be defined in part by the increased use of technology in the kitchen to deliver novel, unusual, and surprising experiences to diners. That said, the technology itself has stayed squarely out of the dining room. I believe, however, that the coming years will be marked by a rapid increase of technology at the dining table itself (in the dining room). Here I am thinking of everything from projectors shining down on the dining table to tell stories/set scenes associated with the meal through to digital plateware and cutlery.

I can imagine food being served from a tablet computer, for example. Doing this would not simply be a surprising juxtaposition. I guess people normally try and keep their electronics as clean and far from food as possible, but it would also allow for the possibility of presenting different coloured backdrops to a plate (or should that be tablet) of food. One could also imagine customizing the shape of the plate that one sees on the screen. Importantly, both factors have been shown to influence the diner’s experience of food.

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I also expect the future to involve increased use of the internet to order online – after all, if we can order our shopping online, why not the food we are going to eat at dinner at a restaurant? This could potentially help to increase anticipation, allowing for personalized menus (serving as a memento of the event) to be printed/preserved. Furthermore, it is much easier to look forward to a specific series of dishe

s than it is to look forward simply to an entire menu (which anyway is harder visualize/anticipate). Online ordering could also allow one to look up those unusual words that increasingly appear on the menu. No more embarrassment about what exactly is ‘samphire’.

I see an explosion of interest currently in the area of music matching to beer, wine, spirits, food etc. I could therefore foresee some restaurants of the future providing a music menu (or perhaps musical recommendations) to go with the food or wine that is ordered. However, given that people have different musical tastes, some like jazz, others opera I imagine that there will be some need for personalization. To this end, I could imagine people using their handheld electronic devices in order to play music that matches the food, but which is of a style that the individual diner prefers. Already one can see the bittersweet chocolate dessert served by the opening chef at The House of Wolf, Caroline Hobkinson, where diners are invited to dial in, and ring one of two numbers to hear either a bitter or sweet soundtrack in order to accompany their dish. I believe that we will see much more of this (technology at the dining table) in the coming years.

I also wonder about the use of handheld electronics, smartphones and the like, to provide information to diners, to help them navigate through menus and options that, in some cases, can be intimidating. The SatNav of dining if you will. I already know of an ex-sommelier of the year who has set up a 24-hr dial-up service where the super-rich can get immediate advice about which wine to order from this or that restaurant.

Finally, the overall structure of the dining experience seems pretty constrained/formalized at present. The schema is always the same. You come in, sit down, order, dishes come in the appropriate order ….you leave. I believe that dining will become much more theatrical/immersive in the coming years, much more of a performance. OK there are already places where you have dinner while watching the show, but the dinner and the show are in no way confusable. I imagine a future where the dining experience is more integrated with the entertainment experience. Everything from dining on stage through to opera singing waiters. What could the fusion of dinner plus opera/theatre be? Dining on the stage? When the dining room becomes the stage? Having food linked to storyline? It just seems that there is lots of scope for blurring the boundaries, and technology could be a part of that by helping to create truly multisensory immersive experiences. Of course, there will always be a danger that diners end up getting ‘the experience’ without necessarily the food / drink to match but in the best case scenario the food and atmosphere would merge and complement one another in a multisensory atmosphere that is in some sense integrated with multisensory food/drink experience.

In whatever aspect of technology and dining that one is looking at, it is my believe that novel technological innovations, be it the colour-changing dining pod at Pod in Chicago, or musical plate- or glassware will be more successful if the technological design innovations can be tied to psychological/neuroscientific insights. If, as we in Oxford are trying to show, 50% of meal experience is the everything else (outside the actual food and drink itself) then there is increased motivation to try and make sure that the ‘everything else’ is optimized to the dining experience itself. I see that technology can play that role, and may be especially appropriate in terms of personalizing the experience for the individual diner, or for the particular combination of food and drink choices that they have made.

There has been chatter that molecular cuisine is easy to copy ideas, and the very field is defined by the need for constant invention and surprise. There was a debate not long ago about who really came up with the idea of parmesan ice cream…. Maybe this hints at a more general problem that it may be hard to protect insights/innovation in the food itself. Perhaps much easier to protect a dish if it is linked to some piece of technological plateware?

Ultimately, technology will be used to increase the playful aspect of dining. While as kids we were always told not to play with out food, one might now ask ‘why not?’ Of course, that needs to be done in context where play/entertainment aspect does not distract, to avoid the TV dinner syndrome, where people eat significantly more when distracted by the TV in the room.

Finally there seems to be a disconnect between all the TV cookery shows that people watch and the celebrity chef restaurants that people then end up going to eat in. Rarely is the celebrity chef in the house (cooking), but one could imagine technology recreating his/her presence in the dining room? Screens representing the chef on TV making the dish that you now have the chance to eat in the restaurant, images of kitchens showing the food being prepared, after all, not all restaurants can have a glass screen to allow diner to see the kitchens, but likely that improves the experience.

One could even imagine some kind of game show format where technology allows people to vote about the food in real time as they are served a tasting menu of some sort….Just a fusion of the entertainment aspect of watching cookery cook-offs and the enjoyable aspect of dining itself.