It’s a decade since Heston Blumenthal made headlines around the world by sticking an iPod Shuffle inside a conch shell and asking diners to listen to sounds of the ocean as they hoovered up a slate-ful of foam and powder.
It captured the public imagination, seeming to promise a brave new world where technology and food would coil lovingly around one another, creating some form of cyber-culinary utopia. Why eat lobster in London when you could be transported to the windy coast of Maine through the magic of virtual reality?
That future never really arrived, and instead the biggest technological change in the food world has been the rise to ubiquity of Instagram. Now dinner in a fancy restaurant isn’t complete without someone in your party standing on a chair to find the best angle from which to photograph their amuse bouche.
Now the very same food psychologist who worked with Blumenthal on The Sound of the Sea wants to use technology to combat the scourge of Instagram.
“We’re seeing chefs produce things that look good but have little to do with flavour,” says Oxford psychologist Prof Charles Spence. “If you base your ingredient list purely on how a dish will look, you’re going to end up sacrificing taste.”
Partnering with Jozef Youssef, founder of “experimental gastronomy design studio” Kitchen Theory, they devised two ways of thwarting the Instagrammers. The first was by creating an entirely matt black dish, and serving it on a black plate, giving would-be photographers nothing but a yawning emptiness where an entrée should reside.
The second is even more draconian: forcibly removing diners’ mobile devices and using them as a plate. “If the food is literally served on your phone, you can’t take a picture with it,” says Spence matter of factly.
This presents several challenges: creating an edible film to protect the screen; making sure the phone or tablet doesn’t get scratched up; incorporating the technology in a meaningful way (Elena Arzak has served food on an iPad displaying hot coals, while Swiss chef Andreas Caminada presented a post-modern dish on a tablet displaying an image of a white plate). This isn’t just an exercise in millennial-bashing, either; Spence is an expert in the ways different sensory stimulus can affect the way food tastes.
“It can add a new dimension to a dish,” he says. “If you change the colour of a plate, it can make things taste sweeter, better or fresher. But the perfect colour depends on the food you’re eating, because you want to have a nice contrast. So to do that in your home you’d need a rainbow selection of plates, which nobody is going to go out and buy. If you're serving on a tablet, however, you can adjust the screen and have the optimal colour contrast with the food you’re serving.”
This idea harks back to projects Spence has worked on in the past. In 2012 he created a dish alongside Caroline Hobkinson, for which diners dialled a number on their mobiles and listened to different frequency sounds as they ate – low rumbles apparently bring out bitter flavours, while higher pitches are associated with sweetness.
“We have all this amazing technology in our pockets but nobody is really thinking about how that can interact with our dining experiences... we don’t mix technology with food in case we spill our dinner down it, but in five or ten years I think this will change.”
Spence was one of the speakers at this week’s London Food Tech Week, an event dedicated to the futurology of cuisine. Other major trends to emerge include the way companies are tackling the issue of food waste (Olio is a food-sharing social network; Bio-Bean uses waste coffee grounds to produce logs for wood burners and fuel for London busses); new sources of sustainable food (companies were showing off insect- and algae-based proteins); and the use of machine learning to determine a person’s diet.
“Using algorithms to flavour-match and recommend what you should be eating is probably the most exciting thing in food tech right now,” says Nadia El Hadery, founder and CEO at event organiser YFood. “We’re seeing companies doing things like integrating your DNA profile into their predictive algorithms, and I really think we’re on the cusp of this becoming mainstream.”
In the meantime, though, there’s still Instagram. It’s not all bad, though, says Spence. “There’s evidence that taking a picture of a dish before you eat it creates ‘stickier’ memories, meaning you can recall it more easily even when you’re not looking at it. It can also enhance your perception of its taste. So it does serve functional benefits for the diner.”
Perhaps next Spence can work out a way to make you look like less of a knob while you're snapping your dessert.