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Design is on the Menu

With the right balance, experience designers can bring the human element to multi-sensory dining.

Sharing food together is one of the most primal communal acts we engage in — it can be sensual, intimate, surprising, even transformative.

Michael Pollan’s own manifesto espouses that “the shared meal elevates eating from a mechanical process of fueling the body to a ritual of family and community, from the mere animal biology to an act of culture.” Dining has become a cultural communication tool — we understand that food doesn’t just exist on a plate anymore; food is design, food is communication and food is a pillar of contemporary culture.

For the best in the industry, it’s no secret that dining is both a physiological and psychological act. Top chefs with an appetite for the fantastical, experimental, and the sheer paradigm shifting — the BlumenthalsRoncerosAchatzesRedzepis and Adrias — understand that to get inside the mind of the diner they must coax not only tastebuds — but design for allthe senses.

“People don’t come to our restaurants because they’re hungry.” — Joseph H Baum

To achieve multi-sensory harmony, restaurateurs and chefs are enlisting the help of collaborators in sometimes unlikely places to carefully craft experiences that begin even before a guest has even set foot in the door — or indeed realized they are hungry. Sound engineers, artists, food scientists, psychologists and designers of all kinds can offer new and elevated perspectives on dining and the social experience of sharing food together.

You needn’t look any further than the deliciously provocative events conceived by Emilie Baltz in New York, the future leaning food science lab experiments of Dr. Irwin Adam Eydelnant in Toronto, the fantastical and immersive events of Bombas and Parr in London, or the high energy over-the-top extravaganzas of Paul Pairet’s UltraViolet in Shanghai , and Paco Roncero’s breathtakingly expensive Sublimotion in Ibiza — to realize that multi-sensorial dining is hitting a kind of cultural zeitgeist. Big brands in the food, beverage and automotive fields are also realizing its pulling potential for connecting on a deep emotional and intellectual level with the most varied types of targets. This kind of democratization of the avant-garde has seeded an environment ripe for experimentation and collaboration across design disciplines.

Good dining should be multi-sensory — it’s these sensory elements that influence and add to our perception of flavor, contribute to our overall enjoyment of a meal and make up our memory of a dining experience. The environment and our memory of it is often a key factor in a guest returning to one particular place over another.

To be clear — I’m not talking of gimmicky projections over tables, ill-conceived audio, soulless selfie machines, or the over-use of liquid nitrogen in the dining room. While these elements have their charm, they’ve also had their day — diners these days are an extremely cultivated lot and are looking to be teased and tempted in much more elegant ways — to have their experience molded so subtly that they might not even realize they’re being influenced.

And that’s exactly where the joy in it lies — for both designer and guest.

I’m talking about subtle choreography of senses; embedded within the diner experience that take the guest on different temporal, spatial and emotive journeys — through priming and anticipation — to emotive takeaways. One might prime guests with subtle olfactory invites that return over the course of dinner, perhaps embedded into the napkins themselves — or the use of custom made cutlery and plateware that is designed to evoke a particular emotional response in the user. It’s at this intersection of sense and perception that I think there is particular resonance and potential for experience designers to create memorable dining experiences.

Where multi-sensory dining is concerned, there exists a delicate balance between using the right tech that necessarily uplifts or enhances the experience — while not completely overshadowing it and creating dissonance in an experience that should be nothing but intimate and holistically received. I mentioned that good dining could be transformative — and I think this idea can become a reality when you take diners on a journey both temporal, spatial and of course gustatory. When you provide moments for reflection and digestion — both literal and mental — you leave space for people to build up mental memories and process emotional responses. Best of all, they get to talk to each other about the experience with each other over the dinner table!

The idea that there is incredible value in the act of transformation within an experience is an already persistent trope in the world of retail and experiential marketing and branding . Credited with popularizing the notion of ‘The Experience Economy,’ in a paper by the same name, Joseph Pine and James Gilmore argue that “businesses must orchestrate memorable events for their customers, and that memory itself becomes the product.”

“More advanced businesses [might] begin charging for the value of the ‘transformation’ that an experience offers.”

Curating an unforgettable dining experience has as much to do with how the guest remembers the experience — and how they felt their mindset was transformed over the course of dinner — as it has to do with the food itself. A great dining experience is something that goes beyond diner expectations and becomes a valuable opportunity to foster deeper connections with our own internal states and each other. Delivering on all the social, emotional and sensual aspects, will leave guests satiated in mind and body, and most importantly, — hungry for more.