Category Archives: Research

And What About Taste?

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Taste is a very important driver of the eating experience and a complex human phenomenon. It has been a topic of scientific research and philosophical discussion.

Research on Taste

The mission of the Taste Science Laboratory in the Division of Nutritional Sciences at Cornell University is to elucidate the nature and impact of individual differences in perception – in particular, differences in taste and smell sensitivity – on personality, performance, and preferences.

In its first definition, the American Heritage Dictionary limits the tastes perceived by the taste buds to four: in fact there are at least six in addition to the classic four, there are the taste of fat, and a taste called umami. Umami means delicious in Japanese, and is the word for the savory taste of meat. In this way, our taste buds are designed to tell us about the nutritional qualities of the food we eat: sweet for ripe fruit and carbohydrates, sour for unripe fruit and vitamin C, salty for salt and other minerals, bitter for poisonous plants, umami for protein, and fat for fat!

The second definition, which includes smell and touch, is the one most people have in mind when they talk about the taste of a food; taste, in this sense, means flavor.

Taste and Philosophy

As part of my holiday reading list, I purchased Making Sense of Taste: Food & Philosoph by Carolyn Korsmeyer.

“Taste, perhaps the most intimate of the five senses, has traditionally been considered beneath the concern of philosophy, too bound to the body, too personal and idiosyncratic. Yet, in addition to providing physical pleasure, eating and drinking bear symbolic and aesthetic value in human experience, and they continually inspire writers and artists.”

Really looking forward reading it.

Taste versus Flavor and its Classification

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In 2004, Dutch restaurant owner and researcher Peter Klosse wrote an interesting thesis, entitled “The Concept of Flavor Styles to Classify Flavors” at the University of Maastricht (NL).

In this thesis, he made a stronge case for a distinction between taste and flavor. His research showed that the taste and richness of flavor are the basis for a classification of flavors.

“Before we can objectively discuss taste, we first need to distinguish between taste and flavor. Taste refers to the human act of tasting. It is an intricate experience which involves all the senses. Flavor, however, refers to products. Food and drink have flavors. Making this distinction is important because this allows us to classify taste as subjective: whether you like the taste of a product is similar to whether you like the color red. Flavor then is an objective notion, making classification and assessment possible.”, wrote Peter Klosse in this column.

In 1991, Peter Klosse founded the Academy for Gastronomy which is a training institute for food professionals, chefs and sommeliers in The Netherlands.

Book: The Taste Culture Reader
(C. Korsmeyer 2005)

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In 2005, editor Carolyn Korsmeyer published the book “The Taste Culture Reader: Experiencing Food and Drink‘ in the serie ‘Sensory Formations’ (Berg Publishers). Besides taste, this serie looks into other senses such as vision, sound and touch. Not in a technology but in a human perspective.

This book will interest anyone seeking to understand more fully the importance of food and flavor in human experience, said the publisher. So, I read the book and the following quotes resonated:

“(…) the senses usually work together in interrelation to create sense experience; the term that captures this integrative perspective of the senses is ‘intersensoriality’.” (Korsmeyer, p.8)

“The senses are the organs by which man places himself in connection with exterior objects.” (Brillat-Savarin, p.16)

“There is no situation in which sensibility and understanding, united in enjoyment, can be as long continued and as often repeated as a good meal in good company.” (Immanuel Kant, p.214)

“The significant quality of smell and taste is that it is possible to recognize them, but much more diffcult to recall them.” (Sutton, p.313)

“There is a particular strong line between the senses of taste and smell and the emotional dimensions of human experience.” (Lupton, p.19)

“Taste is a sensation of the moment. It cannot be preserved.” (Fisher, p.325)

Looking forward reading another book on taste by the same author: “Making Sense of Taste: Taste, Food, and Philosophy” (Cornell University Press, 1999)

Book: The Physiology of Taste

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In his seminal plenary speech at the Information Architecture Summit 2009 in Memphis (USA), Jesse James Garrett stated that in fact information architects and interaction designers are user experience designers. As designers, they focus on the engagement of people with artifacts, platforms and environments (online and offline).

According to Jesse, human engagement involves the mind (cognition), the heart (emotion), the body (action), and the senses (perception). Designers must know how to design for these human capabilities.

It almost goes without saying that besides for user experiences, the senses are also crucial for culinary experiences. Tastes, flavors, and smells are important human perceptions of the qualities of food. But are these inherently the qualities of food or are they only emergent through tasting and eating?

Long ago, the French lawyer and politician Jean Anthelme Brillat de Savarin (1755-1826) wrote an important and celebrated book on the human senses in a gastronomic context: “The Physiology of Taste or Transcendental Gastronomy” (1825). The book contains hardly any recipes but many anecdotes and observations covering all aspects of the pleasures of the table. He is considered ‘the greatest food critic ever’.

By reading this book, we gain understanding of our senses. We can use it to what JJG had in mind for user experience designers: facilitating compelling user experiences, never to forget.

Book: Dimensions of the Meal
(H.L. Meiselman 2000)

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Food is art and science. Besides chefs performing the culinary arts and crafts, many researchers have looked into food from a scientific perspective.

Under the subtitle “The Science, Culture, Business, and Art of Eating“, author Herbert L. Meiselman (Senior Research Scientists at the U.S. Army Natick Research Development and Engineering Center) has collected an interesting set of scientific essays on The Meal. The chapters of the book are grouped into parts such as ‘Definitions of the Meal’, ‘The Meal and Cuisine’, ‘The Meal and Culture’, and ‘Designing and Producing Meals’.

Although the book originally costs a fair amount, it is currently available at a reasonable 20 dollars at Amazon.

From the introduction: “The objective of this book is to appreciate the complexity of meals; to see the psychological, physiological, cultural, nutricial, biological, sensory, food service/catering, and other business aspects of meals; and to see the interdisciplinary nature of understanding meals; meals are complex, but understanding meals and addressing meals in the practical world requires a more complex view of the meal.”

Book: Kitchens (G.A. Fine 2008)

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Taking the restaurant as a metaphor for delivering compelling user experiences means being interested in the backstage as well as the frontstage. Backstage work in the restaurant (a.k.a. the kitchen) has been the ethnographic subject of the American sociologist Gary Alan Fine (1950). He published his findings in “Kitchens: The Culture of Restaurant Work“.

About the book: “Kitchens takes us into the robust, overheated, backstage world of the contemporary restaurant. In this rich, often surprising portrait of the real lives of kitchen workers, Gary Alan Fine brings their experiences, challenges, and satisfactions to colorful life. A new preface updates this riveting exploration of how restaurants actually work, both individually and as part of a larger culinary culture.”

The day begins slowly. Entering an empty, clean kitchen on a cool summer morning, one has little sense of the blistering tornado of action to come.

Mixologist Homaro Cantu Explains

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Chairman and founder of Cantu Designs and executive chef of Moto restaurant Homaro Cantu shows how our expectations of food based upon what we know or are familiar with can be used to change texture, taste, smell and flavor and create new experiences. Great example of designing a new food experience with known ingredients but with different processes. Transmogrification (a.k.a. the process or result of changing from one appearance, state, or phase to another) is what he does.

From Pop!Tech 2006: “Part mad scientist, part artist, chef Homaro Cantu pushes the traditional limits of known taste, texture and technique in a stunning futuristic fashion. With lab partner Ben Roche, Homaro slices and dices technology to reinvent the way people eat.”

Watch his presentation at Pop!Tech 2006.

In this podcast (ITConversations), he talks about his background, restaurant and dishes.

courtesy filip borloo

What’s Your Cooking Personality?

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Personas are documents describing multiple relevant aspects of a target audience. Is someone’s behaviour structured or rather chaotic. This also reflects in cooking styles. Is ‘mise en place’ obvious or not (e.g. cooking while preparing).

Now, enrich your persona descriptions with traits of people’s cooking personalities. They reveal a lot. “Cornell University researchers studied nearly 800 family cooks and determined five distinct types. So what’s your cooking personality?” – by Tara Parker-Pope (NYT)

What’s Cooking? The Evolutionary Role of Cookery

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Be human, start cooking! – “Cooking is a human universal. No society is without it. No one other than a few faddists tries to survive on raw food alone. And the consumption of a cooked meal in the evening, usually in the company of family and friends, is normal in every known society. Moreover, without cooking, the human brain (which consumes 20-25% of the body’s energy) could not keep running. Dr Wrangham thus believes that cooking and humanity are coeval.” – From an article in The Econonomist on Richard Wrangham’s thesis (anthropologist – Harvard University)

Experience Design in the Kitchen

Lucia Terrenghi reflects in this position paper “Sticky, Smelly, Smoky Context: Experience Design in the Kitchen on the challenges to design, setup and evaluate a user experience in hybrid contexts, i.e. physical and digital ones, of everyday life.

It is an exploration of the introduction of digital display technology into the kitchen environment. The paper looks at the complexity of the cooking context and considers how the introduction of technology in the kitchen can affect the cooking experience.