It is widely acknowledged that every time we eat, we employ the five basic senses of sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch. We do this either consciously or subconsciously, and a combination of inputs from these five senses is what ultimately affects our perception of the food.
A good chef uses this knowledge to his advantage. Flaming dishes and sizzling platters have been accepted to be great merchandising tools in a restaurant. While a delicate balance of flavors is critical to the success of a dish, a variety of textures and temperatures also make a difference.
We may eat first with our eyes, but the nose is a close second. Our tongue can perceive only five basic tastes (sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami), so the multitudes of flavor that make up the profile of a certain ingredient are sensed by the olfactory nerves in the nose. Yes, we smell flavors; we don't taste them.
Touch also can prove to be a factor in affecting a diner's experience. Any self-respecting Indian will tell you that their native cuisine 'tastes better' when eaten with the hands. In reality, leaving aside silverware pulls us closer to our food and it is this personalization that makes us enjoy our food more.
Chefs are now focusing on a sixth element that can be used to create an enriched dining experience--memory. While technically not a sense, one could argue that when triggered, memory affects our perception of a meal; so it's kinda like a sense. Comfort food works on this very principle.
When we taste something that reminds us of a childhood favorite, it instantly brings fond memories of times gone by and we feel comforted even if for just a moment.
Sometimes, this happens by accident. I recently made a Banoffee Pie, a very Western preparation made with bananas, cream, and boiled down condensed milk spread on a base of crumbled biscuits and butter--simple but yummy. A friend who tasted it said that more than how good it tasted, it hit a peculiar note in him. It reminded him of something he'd eaten before. After a lot of speculation, we figured that it was the quintessential Malayali childhood snack of avalose podi (roasted rice powder with coconut) mashed with bananas. Eating the pie gave him a strange feeling of gratification, and made him content on a level greater than that brought about just by the way it tasted.
I've had a very similar experience at a fine dining restaurant but one that I think was induced on purpose by the Chef. In July of 2010, I had lunch at the four star New York Times restaurant Eleven Madison Park in New York City. This was just one of the many fully comped meals I've had in the City, this time thanks to the fact that I was dining with one of the restaurant's pastry cooks--a close friend of mine.
The dish was called Milk and Honey. Though unassuming at first, closer examination revealed a milk sorbet with a honey center hidden under a blanket of dehydrated milk foam and milk snow and finished with a sprinkling of honey pollen. I noticed that there were only two primary flavors in the dessert, that of milk and honey. Yet, as I tasted it, I spontaneously started smiling. It made me feel like a little kid all over again, perhaps because the first things we put in our mouth as babies are milk and sugar.
It was ingenious, I thought. This was a moment of revelation for me. It meant that dining can be more than great food or great service. It can bring out emotions of joy and laughter and even sadness by channeling our past memories and experiences. Of course, many great chefs like Ferran Adria and Thomas Keller have been using this in their respective cuisines for years. It is a tough concept to grasp and translate onto the plate and requires a lot of insight into the customer's mind. But if executed properly, it is an extremely powerful tool that can elevate a simple dinner into a memorable joyride.