The idea of plating a meal with an artistic flourish is hardly new. Restaurant chefs often present dishes stacked in neat vertical piles, drizzled with swirls of sauce, or decorated with neat sprigs of fresh herbs. And for good reason: Research has shown that a variety of visual factors, such as color and balance of elements, can enhance a diner's perception of the food.
Recently a group of experimental psychologists at the University of Oxford decided to figure out exactly how much artistically designed dishes could influence taste. In a study published in the journal Flavour, researchers created salads based on famous abstract paintings by the Russian artist Wassily Kandinsky to assess how the aesthetically arranged food would modify diners' expectations and experience. Charles Michel, a chef and one of the lead authors of the study, noted that he chose Kandinsky's work for "the specific association of colors and movement."
In the experiment, 60 diners were given salads made of identical quantities of the same ingredients and dressings. The difference: One group received a typical tossed salad; a second group received plates featuring broccoli sprouts, mushroom slices, and snow peas lined up in neat rows; and a third group was offered a salad arranged like Kandinsky's Painting No. 201 (below).
Photo credit: Comes Cake; MoMA.org
Of the three salads, the clear winner was the Kandinsky-inspired plate, which received an 18-percent higher taste rating. Interestingly, when subjects were asked to rate the salads' perceived tastiness before digging in, no difference was reported between the three conditions, which "clearly shows that plating can have an important effect on flavor perception," the authors write. Another fascinating finding: The diners were willing to pay twice as much for the Kandinsky salad than the others, both before and after eating it.
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It's difficult to determine exactly why diners are willing to pay more, though researchers hypothesize it has to do with the perceived effort put into a dish by the chef. Overall, the researchers conclude the results show that "diners intuitively attribute an artistic value to food, find it more complex, and like it more when culinary elements are arranged to look like an abstract-art painting"—an interesting theory for restaurant owners, chefs, and even home cooks who are facing a family of picky eaters!