Understanding gastrophysics with Professor Charles Spence

Understanding gastrophysics with Professor Charles Spence

by Isaac Parham 4 October 2017

Isaac Parham sits down with one of the food world’s most forward-thinking figures and discovers how eating is about so much more than what's on the plate.

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Isaac Parham is a freelance food writer and editor from South London. When not browsing Borough market or watching his beloved Portsmouth FC, you'll find him travelling the country to find the nation's best food.

Isaac Parham is a freelance food writer and editor from South London. When not browsing Borough market or watching his beloved Portsmouth FC, you'll find him travelling the country to find the nation's best food.

Towards the end of our hour-long chat in a cosy Oxfordshire pub, Professor Charles Spence picks up my iPhone and holds it in the palm of his hand for a moment. ‘This could be a bit of crockery, a bit of cutlery,’he says matter-of-factly. ‘It spoils the surprise when you have already seen the dish that you’re going to have but this would be an un-Instagrammable dish. Yes, that could be exciting.’

It’s fair to say Charles looks at culinary matters a little differently from most. A pioneer of ‘gastrophysics’ – a nascent field concerning the ways environmental, behavioural and sensory factors influence our culinary perceptions – he has spent the last twenty years fastidiously unpicking every aspect of our dining habits, from the role background music plays in determining how quickly we eat to how the colour of the plate can affect flavour.

Then there’s his Sonic Chip experiment, in which, essentially, he discovered that the crunchier the chip, the better it tastes. Earning him a Nobel Prize for Nutrition, this was the study that opened up his work to the wider world. The cream of the food industry soon began to get in touch.

Heston Blumenthal was one of his earliest advocates. The Fat Duck chef visited him in Oxford to witness the Sonic Chip for himself and consequently began to incorporate audio elements into his dishes, the most famous being Sound of the Sea. Charles also continues to work closely with freelance experimental chef Jozef Youssef.

‘There’s lots of stuff to be done – important things, fundamental things, that haven’t been touched on at all,’ he says. ‘If you can convince Jozef or Heston or somebody else, they will put it on the menu, they will try it and it will appear next week. They don’t have layers of management. Innovation happens much, much quicker.’

Whether it be advising restaurateurs to spend more on weightier cutlery or espousing the gastrophysical virtues of bowls, Charles is able to lend those in the restaurant business some wonderfully practical advice – backed up by years of experimentation in his Oxford University lab. He is not a chef and would never advise on cooking matters; his is more a science of the everything else. This is a point he makes stridently when I suggest the British food scene has rowed back from the scientific approach of Heston and the like to a more natural, ingredient-led style of cooking.

‘So, I would make that distinction between the science of cooking and the diner. You can be back to basics, organic, free-range, whatever you want to call it in the kitchen, but when it comes to service I might have a critical eye about what matters and what makes a difference.’

Nevertheless, Charles has met some resistance in the shark-infested waters of the cheffing world. In his most recent book (Gastrophysics: The New Science of Eating) he describes an encounter with Michael Caines in which, as Charles has it, the Michelin-starred chef gently pooh-poohs his theories. Others have not been so polite.

Which sounds about right. Champion chefs, after all, live by the idea that flavour is objective; that mastery of it must be earned through years of toil in sweaty, sweary kitchens, and all the late nights, burns and burnout that life entails. But, oh look, here comes an Oxford professor without any professional cooking experience to tell you that flavour is subjective and influenced by everything from the cut of the glassware to the weight of the cutlery. Oh, and by the way, that rule that says dish elements should be plated in odd numbers – yeah, that holds no scientific weight at all. The tension is inevitable.

Charles, for his part, argues that chefs instinctively do many of the things he recommends anyway. As he writes in his book, a chef of Michael Caines’ calibre would never dream of serving a dish on a paper plate because, perhaps subconsciously, he understands the gastrophysical pitfalls of doing so. So why push back against research that turns those instincts into something more measurable and grounded by evidence?

’There is an element of it being the science of the bleeding obvious,’ Charles concedes, ‘but it can go both ways. And I think sometimes it’s stuff that chefs have never intuited or thought about. So changing the colour of the plate, or putting something around the plate to make something sweeter – they know it’s sort of true but they don’t put any weight in it. By measuring it and saying adding 100g to the weight of the cutlery increases willingness to pay by x percent, or whatever it might be, then the restaurateur can figure out if it’s worth that and make informed decisions.’

Charles' latest book explains the theories behind his research

For those outside the industry, this may seem a cynical way of looking at things. No one wants to believe that they are being somehow duped into enjoying an experience; as diners we literally buy into the idea of authentic, objectively brilliant food as much as chefs. But I think Charles’ point is that there are clear benefits to taking a more holistic, calculated approach to running a restaurant. And current evidence bears this out: the most popular restaurants in the UK are no longer the hushed temples of high gastronomy but those that place emphasis on conviviality and comfort. Some even come to Charles for pointers.

Returning to this idea of his that flavour can be hacked, though, I’m interested to understand whether he sees gastrophysics as being absolute. Because if we are saying that flavour is subjective and open to influences beyond the choice of plates or music, then surely there are other, more idiosyncratic factors at play, too? Things that harder to quantify, such as memory or mood?

And what about the role of trends? Charles tells me that longer menu descriptions equal higher diner satisfaction, but the fact that terse titles (Mackerel, Cucumber, Borage etc.) are currently in vogue must negate that advantage. Personally, I would be put off by a restaurant that described its dishes in long, flowery language.

I ask him if trends can affect flavour. ‘Fashions influence behaviour,’ he explains. ‘So it would be more plausible that a change in behaviour is associated with a change in perception.In recent years a lot more chefs have been doing asymmetric plating because it stands out, it’s different from what went before. But again when we did the experiments we found that people will pay less for it. It doesn’t translate into wanting to pay more for exactly the same food.’

So eventually trends revert back to the gastrophysical mean? ‘Yes. Or we will return to whatever translates to the most return. Those things are hard to study I guess.’

There is no doubting that Charles’ work is brilliant and flavoured with genius. And perhaps in time the restaurant industry will seem like a stick-in-the-mud for ever questioning its worth. But for now the debate is deliciously poised, and whose side you take probably depends on where you stand on that wider question: whether cooking is a science, or an art.