Synaesthesia

Kitchen Theory is an innovative project meant to change the way we experience food. Founded by chef Jozef Youssef (a Fat Duck veteran), Kitchen Theory evolved from a website designed to drop all kinds of food science on our minds into a group who have taken a more practical approach to doling out gastronomic knowledge. They now regularly host experimental dinners, with the help of gastronomic experts in academia, meant to broaden the mind and the palate while giving you an experience unlike any other.

The latest in their series of experimental dinners was called Synaesthesia (a term which combines the name of the human trait, synesthesia, with the word for appreciating beauty, aesthetic). Synesthesia is the experience of conjoined senses. For example, a person may hear the word “arrow” and simultaneously taste cheese even though they aren’t eating anything. Or they might experience certain objects/words/sounds/tastes alongside colors (e.g. “milk is a blue food,” or “the melody of this song sounds orange to me” ). Apparently only 4% of the population are Synesthetes, but most of us have this trait, too, to a degree. It’s what allows us to understand and create metaphor. Here’s a great video on the subject.

The dinner I went to Saturday night was the second to last in their Synaesthesia dinner series, and I was SO happy I snagged a ticket. Each of the 13 guests (myself included) were seated and given a drink menu. Questions were projected onto a screen on a far wall. Among them were: If you purchase a bottle of wine during a holiday, why does it taste better on holiday than it does once you’re home again? Would French food taste as good in an Italian themed restaurant? Some of the question slides included photos. On one slide, three plastic cups were pictured. One held red liquid, one green, the last blue. The question was, What flavor is the liquid in each cup?

I had a drink while I pondered these questions (because evvvveryone thinks better on alcohol. OK, not really, but man did I need a drink). I had a Peach & Rose Fizz. Peach juice, rose water, and Prosecco.
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On the table in front of each of us was a black envelope which held the menu for the evening. The hostess urged us not to open the envelope until we’d eaten the second of our seven courses — the first two required guessing on our part. Each course was accompanied by a different instrumental track and set of visuals projected on screen.
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Before we officially got started, we were given little, round pieces of hot sourdough bread accompanied by two domes of butter. The butter on the right was a viking salt butter; the one on the left was worm butter. And I thought my bug-eating was at an end…
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The worms in the butter were “super worms”, scientifically enhanced with nutrition. The hostess told us they were believed to be the future of food (or at least part of it). She also told us the viking salt butter isn’t actually made with salt crystals, but with ash. I knew I had a curious evening ahead of me.

Course one was called The 4 Tastes.
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We were asked to arrange each spoonful in order — salty, bitter, sour, sweet — using sight alone. Pointedly ignoring the associations I would normally make based on color, and focusing instead on what each garnish reminded me of, I arranged mine: black (caviar), green (parsley), red (that white sour stuff that I’ve seen in candy making), and white (I think I was thinking of milk candy here, so OK, this one was color-based). Turns out I was wrong wrong wrong (and should have gone with the normal associations that sprung to mind first). The correct order was white, black, green, red. Those things look like little jellies or mochi don’t they? They actually burst open in my mouth — each was a gelatinous shell full of liquid! The white was filled with raita, black was full of Guinness and accompanied by dark chocolate, green was flavored with lime, fennel & coriander, and red was cranberry & rose.

Next up, Bouba & Kiki.
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Yep, those are two halves of two different plates. We were told to try Bouba first. The guessing game here? Which half is Bouba? This one I did get right. Bouba was on the left side, Kiki the right. Why? Because Bouba is a round-sounding word made of round letters. As a result, it’s taste was more full-bodied and rich. Kiki on the other hand was sharp and citrusy (the letters that make up Kiki are also sharp).

Next: The Sight and Sound of Flavor.
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Poor little fellow had his bum out. But not for long. He was soon enveloped in a delicious bath of white miso veloute, langoustine, hazelnut butter, and saffron. With this dish, we were each given a tiny spray bottle full of safranal (unless I’m misremembering…) the key component of saffron’s scent. We were instructed to try the soup on its own, then to spray a bit of the safranal around to see if the aroma affected the taste of the dish. It didn’t truly enhance or take away from the dish for me — it was delicious either way! I will say though that our sense of smell seemed more important in the presentation of this dish than sight or sound.

Our first main: Marinetti — Cubist Vegetable Patch.
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Sesame and coffee marinated paneer cubes, mushroom crisps, pearl barley, smoked bacon, and maple cream. This dish was inspired by the futurist Filippo Tommaso Emilio Marinetti who had the idea of dinner parties where each guest wore pajamas made of different textures and, as everyone ate, they could rub the diner beside them to see if and how the different textures would impact the eating experience. While I didn’t get so…er…friendly with any other diner that night, I did have a textured cube at my disposal (we all did). Each side had a different feel to it. Interestingly, stroking the cube did impact how much I enjoyed what I was eating! Mostly when it came to the paneer pieces, which themselves were rather firm and odd to chew anyway. The side that felt like smooth, slick fur combined with the paneer turned out to be the most enjoyable, though I couldn’t tell you why. Weird, huh?

There was more scent experimentation with this dish. As we ate, our hostess came around and sprayed three different scents around the room to see how each aroma would affect our eating experience. The first scent was bacon, I can’t remember the second, and the third was pomegranate (the winner for me).

Second main: Born in Papua New Guinea.
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This one came to us packaged in a plastic bag full of smoke, which was then cut open…
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…to reveal my favorite dish of the night. Guinea fowl, sweet corn risotto, and miso cured yolk. Holy hell. This was so. Good. The meat absorbed some of the smoke and so it tasted like it was fresh off the grill. The risotto was creamy and rich. I love when miso is used to flavor dishes. It has such a warm, full quality. It makes food taste…more expansive somehow.

Our pre-dessert (yep, you read that right. Why can’t there always be a pre-dessert?!) was called Give Weight to It.
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Each glass tier could be separated from the others. It was like a food puzzle tower. The first and lightest section held candy floss and a flavor pipette full of lychee juice to be squeezed onto it. The second tier held a cranberry soaked baba — bread, with the taste and texture of a plum or something like it (an effect of the fruit juice). The heaviest tier held a chocolate brownie with a scoop of chocolate cream and cherry tapioca.

The main dessert, Believe Nothing of What You Hear, was an experiment in the “correlation between sound and texture/mouthfeel.”
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Chocolate, passion fruit, and toffee. Not to mention popping candy and popcorn. Enough tastes and textures to make your mouth (and brain) explode. Sharp popping candy, pebbly chocolate pieces, crisp-then-soft (not to mention sweet then salty) popcorn, shards of toffee, tangy passion fruit stars, and a smooth mousse/pudding-like log with a flavor that I honestly couldn’t identify. So much was happening in my mouth that I was just happy to put my brain on autopilot and go with the flow by then.

This was truly a unique adventure for me. I’d totally recommend Kitchen Theory to anyone interested in eating a fantastic meal and learning, not only about food, but about our relationship to it. Their next dining series is called Sensualità. This series is only happening over the course of two weekends, though, so hurry up and get a ticket if it sounds good to you 🙂

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