A multi-sensory experience is one where numerous senses are engaged in a way that will, ideally, optimize and enhance a particular moment. When applied to dining, it means that the experience will go beyond the food being tasted, no matter how delicious it might be. The diners are presented food and drink that is enjoyable, while sights, sounds, smells and more are also calibrated for maximum pleasure. The shapes, feel and heft of cutlery and glassware may be strategically chosen, and plating can be artistically created to amplify the overall experience.
Although multi-sensory dining is a modern concept, it’s not a brand-new one. Farmer Lee Jones, for example, has been referring to this type of experience every time that he points out how people eat with their eyes first—and Chef Jamie Simpson has been creating these types of experiences with his artistic plating techniques and more.
“Multi-sensory dining,” Jamie says, “is a scenario where people can get fully immersed in what’s happening in that precise moment. When serving a seafood course, for example, we could use audio and projectors to add to the experience. We could think about aroma, we could incorporate sand and light. We could focus on temperature and explore other ways in which to deliver the dish. With multi-sensory dining, nothing is set in stone. The idea is to envision how many different directions we can take one single concept.”
Here’s an example. Since 2015, the Culinary Vegetable Institute has been hosting a 12 Days of Christmas Event. And, during one of these holiday events, the guests were invited to climb onto a horse-drawn wagon with graduated bells included for auditory enjoyment. Guests were then trotted out to the pine trees on the property, located behind the beehives.
“We took them into a room,” Jamie shares, “a room that had been created out of branches. Inside, there was a single small tree, decorated with lights. Plus, there were ornaments, each one having the name of a guest on it.”
These ornaments were actually blown sugar balls—not too sweet—that contained partridge and pear. “The guests could break open their ornaments and scoop out the insides,” Jamie said, “as a creative way to bring guests to the table.”
And, the earth-tang scent of the pine trees, the wind on the cheeks, the glow of the Christmas lights, the crunch of the cold ground beneath boots and shoes, the carol of the bells played out in time with the horses’ hooves, and the beauty of nature all around—each of these added to the sensory experience in a stunning and unique way.
Further Defining the Concept
Sometimes called “experiential dining,” there is no single definition for what multi-sensory dining really is.
When hearing examples of it, such as what happened in the pines of the CVI, people can relate to the concept and understand what’s being delivered. But, actually defining the term can be more elusive. This is due, at least in part, because all dining experiences are, to some degree, multi-sensory, whether agreeably so—or not so much. For example, a meal is automatically more pleasant when a room smells crisp-linen-fresh versus one where your nose picks up the scent of rotting food. The experience is more pleasant with engaging conversation than when your tablemates are arguing.
But, having laid down that groundwork, what is it that makes something a successful experiential dining moment?
One site refers to the notion of “psycho-taste.” This is when a chef creates an ambiance that “allows eating to evoke memories, associations, ideas and emotions”—in a way that helps diners to pair these feelings with the dish being consumed.
And, what quality multi-sensory dining experiences have in common, another site suggests, is that chefs experiment with—even “play with”—what it means to serve food, using a variety of sensory details to create an overall experience. Examples given include:
- When background noise is taking place, we have a greater capacity to experience savory flavors.
- Desserts that are round can be perceived as being sweeter.
- Heavier cutlery can cause diners to have a better taste-related experience.
Another site, meanwhile, shares how strawberry mousse was considered to be sweeter and more enjoyable for a group of diners when served on a white plate versus a black one.
Including these types of sensory add-ons right can’t overcome a dish that just plain tastes bad or is otherwise unpleasant, but it can add subtle layers of pleasure to the dining experience. When layered upon a dish that is marvelous on its own, the experience can then be truly spectacular.
Science of Synesthesia
“Humans can only make sense of life, interact and communicate using their senses. We have no other way of sending and receiving information–which forms our perspective and reality. Life therefore can be seen as a continuous series of sensory experiences which create our existence. Eating is considered among the most sensory of all activities in which we part take. We draw on all our senses when we eat; sight, smell, touch, taste and sound.” (Kitchen-Theory.com)
The scientific principle that underlies the notion that we draw upon sight, smell, touch, and sound— as well as taste—is known as synesthesia. This refers to when one sense—in this case, taste—is triggered when another sense is stimulated.
This type of dining is getting plenty of attention right now, and here are thoughts about this trend.
Multi-Sensory Dining Trend
“Modernist cuisine sits at the intersection of art, science and philosophy. Encompassing a range of culinary innovations, multi-sensory dining is a style employed by some of the world’s most renowned chefs to provide context to their food.”(CordonBleu.org)
This, remember, is not a brand-new concept, and here’s how it was described in a book published about three years ago.
Charles Spence, author of Gastrophysics: The New Science of Eating, says the following: “Everything from the colour of the plate to the weight of the cutlery in your hands, from the background music to any ambient scent, as well as the lighting and even the softness of the chair you are sitting on—it all has some effect on what we think about the food and drink we are tasting.”
MSensory.com—a website that explores the engagement of multiple senses in virtually every aspect of life, including but not limited to dining—believes that this type of dining experience will continue to gain momentum. In one article, the site notes how the “full and intense experience” of multi-sensory dining goes beyond taste, with the following also being important: “the decor, lighting, the smell wafting from the kitchen, the presentation of a meal on the plate, the air temperature, the music at the venue.”
Interestingly enough, this website pairs information about the multi-sensory trend with that of “food telling, or food with a message.” This is described as the trend towards providing diners with transparent messaging about the ingredients in each restaurant dish. We’re happy to see that included because we’ve always advocated for the transparent sourcing of quality ingredients.
That site also quotes an expert as saying that, “Food is better when it’s fulfilling, not just filling. We know that to be truly good, food has to be good for every link of the food chain.”
And, once again, we agree. That involves choosing partners with sustainable philosophies, such as The Chef’s Garden—partners that go beyond simply stating philosophies, instead putting them into daily practice. Here’s more about one of CVI’s sustainability foci: maintaining a minimal-waste kitchen.
Engaging Multiple Senses Within a Single Plate
Throughout this post, we’ve shared information about incorporating experiences from multiple senses into the overall dining experience. Now, here’s more about creating a culinary dish that individually present diners with varieties of sensory experiences.
For example, Jamie may choose a specific ingredient and then consider:
- the flavor of the dish
- how pleasing the aroma is
- the texture on the tongue
- sounds made while chewing
- how it appears on the plate
If using petite mixed carrots, as just one example, he’d think about that candy-sweet carrot flavor, its intensity of flavor, deep and vibrant colors, delightfully snappy crunch, clean, fresh, earthy aroma, and even the vivid feathery tops.
The culinary technique used to create a multi-sensory experience within one single dish is also crucial. To quote Jamie:
“It can be as simple as ‘How far do you sear it? How hard do you sear it? Do you poach it? Do you grill it? Do you fry it? Do you dry it? Do you freeze it?’ Balance can also be in colors or flavors ─ flavors of high acidic notes, and deep dark charred alkaline notes. It can be a balance of color—greens, blues, purples, pinks, yellows— whatever. And if there’s a certain amount of pastel to a color, then that level of pastel can be applied to other elements in the dish, which is really fun. Usually just achievable by adding milk or cream.”
Sensory Role of the Structure
The building where the dining experience takes place also plays a key role. A sleek, futuristic, concrete and glass building may be ideal, for example, for a restaurant featuring hydroponic crops, ones grown without soil and a minimum of water. That’s not the type of farming that takes place at The Chef’s Garden—not even close—and so that’s not how the physical structure of the Culinary Vegetable Institute was designed.
The CVI was created to be the perfect place to serve diners in a way that connects them with the source of their food. So, the location and the layout, the surrounding grounds and more were designed with that in mind.
Actually, simply strolling the grounds of the Culinary Vegetable Institute is a multi-sensory experience, all by itself.
As you look around the outside of the CVI, you’ll see the 11,000-square-foot facility built of locally quarried limestone, with a pine and cedar exterior. It sits on approximately 100 acres of fertile land that contains intriguing experimental vegetable, forest, and herb gardens.
Then you walk inside.
The wild cherry, black walnut, tulip poplar, oak and ash interior was designed by the Jones family, with a dining room that’s 1,426 square feet, with 22-foot ceilings. The kitchen is open, so you can see the chefs interact with one another. This creates an intimate environment that adds to the overall sensory experience.
The chefs inside this open kitchen are on a never-ending research quest of both ancient and contemporary techniques that they apply to vegetables to transform them into new flavors, textures and colors that perpetually delight and invigorate everyone who steps foot in the culinary center.
This deep and constant experimentation and analysis has made the Culinary Vegetable Institute one of the most well-respected vegetable research facilities in the world. There, chefs and farmers work in tandem to learn from one another, encouraging each other to evolve through a constant exchange of information that sparks new ideas and galvanizes unbridled creativity in both the kitchen and the field.
Bring Your Chef Team to Experiment
The Culinary Vegetable Institute at The Chef’s Garden is the farm’s world class educational, research and event facility designed to inspire every person who walks through its doors. Forward thinking chefs from around the globe convene at the Culinary Vegetable Institute to share their knowledge, host culinary events, research new techniques and learn about vegetables from the culinary center’s devoted team of chefs and growers.
The vast array of ingredients sustainably farmed in the fields at The Chef’s Garden are the starting point for cultivating new ideas and exchanging information in a setting that is welcoming and invigorating all at once. Chefs are invited to experiment with and taste products they have never seen before, brainstorm ways to use every part of the vegetable from root to leaf, and imagine cutting edge ways to transform vegetable waste into products that are both sustainable and extraordinary.
Please contact us to discuss how we can help your restaurant team!