In what could be unpalatable news for food snobs and celebrity chefs, researchers have discovered that the appreciation of a meal lies not so much in what you eat, as where you eat it.
Food researchers who served up exactly the same chicken dish in 10 different places found that the better the ambience, the better diners said the food tasted. A meal of chicken à la king, which was given low marks in a residential home for the elderly and a boarding school, got top marks when it was served up at a four-star restaurant, although it had been made from the same ingredients, cooked in the same kitchen, stored in the same plastic bag and accompanied by the same Uncle Ben's rice.
According to the researchers, the findings demonstrate that food is overrated and the ambience – or situational variables as they are known in the business – is underrated.
"The results show that in many cases the environment is actually far more important than the food," said Professor John Edwards of Bournemouth University, who led the study. "Go out to a place where they serve pretty poor food, but where the atmosphere is good, the company good and the waiter polite, and it is probably more enjoyable than a stuffy place with brilliant food."
In the research, reported in the journal Food Quality and Preference, Prof Edwards and his team set out to see if there were differences in the way an identical meal was greeted in the different establishments and settings. "Ten locations, representing different types of food service situations, were used in this study. In every location an identical dish, chicken à la king and rice, was produced centrally, distributed and served to the customers, and measurements taken. The dishes were identical, the chickens even came from the same flock,'' said Prof Edwards.
The diners, who were not told why the research was being done, were quizzed about the meal – what they thought of it, whether they liked it, and to comment on its appearance, taste, toughness and texture. Wide variations were found in the scores on all counts. The meal got the lowest rating on appearance when it was served in a boarding school, When the same meal was given to diners in a four-star restaurant it got top marks.
The restaurant also came out top on taste, while diners at a freshman's buffet gave it the lowest mark. For texture, the school chicken scored lowest, while the university restaurant bird got top marks. All told, the dish got the worst overall marks when it was served at an Army training camp and the best in a four-star hotel restaurant.
"The main finding is that location contributes significantly to food acceptance. This study goes well beyond anything published on contextual effects on food acceptance, and virtually [all] the data showed significant differences across the eating locations,'' says the report.
Prof Edwards, who is a member of the panel led by Loyd Grossman which has been looking at how to improve NHS hospital food, says the findings have important implications.
"When we eat, there are three things that make up the occasion: the food, the consumer and the situation. Most people just consider the food and only now are we beginning to understand the importance of the situation, the ambience, what the waiter says, and so on,'' he said. "In a hospital setting we have found that when we compared patients who ate in bed, those who ate next to bed, and those who ate in the company of others, it was the latter who consumed more.''
It is not just food that tastes better in more appealing surroundings. Researchers in Norway and California have discovered that the appreciation of a glass or two of Chardonnay is heavily influenced by where it is drunk. Not only did the wine itself score far higher in a reception room than a lab, but researchers found that the quality of the environment in which it was drunk, as well as the availability of food, were a lot more important than the taste of the wine.
How to cook up an ambience
So how do you create the right ambience? Top chef Gary Jones says that making the diner feel at home is vital.
The executive head chef at Raymond Blanc's Le Manoir aux Quat' Saisons, where the bill averages £100 a head, says creating the right environment is crucial. "Ninety per cent of customers are going to be nervous coming to the door. If you can win them over in the first smile at the door, you are already on to a winner,'' he says.
"People have to feel comfortable: that is why they have favourite restaurants. Decors differ and people will feel more relaxed in certain places – and to make people feel relaxed is the key aim,'' says Mr Jones. He has doubts about music, though. "Music is subjective, and for some people it is a necessity but for others it is a pain. Everyone is different. Atmospherics can be brought in many ways, not just through piped music.''
Art on the wall, dark carpeting and stiff white or off-white tablecloths are all features thought by behavioural psychologists to make the eating experience more attractive. Dining ware is important. The colour of the china has to complement the food. White is preferred. Never use plates the same colour as the food, like blue grapes on a blue dish. And never put more settings on a table than there are diners. Other tips from behavioural psychologists include never using a red and white chequered tablecloth – unless, presumably, serving Italian food in Naples.
Eating with others increases the appreciation of the meal by 44 per cent. A companion's looks can also affect the meal: apparently, women who consider their dining partner attractive eat very little.
And finally, there's the importance of service with a smile. As Mr Jones says: "I know that if I send perfect food to a table, and the person has been waiting in a queue or is late arriving, my food won't taste as good because they will be agitated and annoyed – although being British they may not say much.''
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