The Psychology of a Memorable Meal
We have experienced thousands of meals in our lives, but how many do you actually really remember? What made this meal so memorable? Was it the flavor, atmosphere, or the people you were with?
In front of 500 chefs in Copenhagen, psychologist Paul Rozin recently discussed the psychology of a memorable meal. Here are some of the key takeaways every restaurateur should consider:
Ask yourself: what was your most memorable meal?
His question is thought provoking. One of my most memorable meals was at a bed and breakfast in Vermont. It was dinner at an old stone mansion in a sleepy ski town. The dining room was dark, intimate, and completely silent. The atmosphere was captivating enough. But honestly, the ambiance was secondary to the bowl of glory presented to me in the first course. It was the first time I had ever tried lobster bisque. It was so rich and creamy. I had a real moment with that bisque; one that I chased at every restaurant for the next 2 weeks while on a road trip through New England. After 8 years of fantastic meals at incredible restaurants, why is this one that I remember?
Encourage guests to try something new.
If you have your favorite meal at a restaurant, it’s enjoyable, but not memorable. One of the likely reasons I perceived my lobster bisque to be so memorable, according to Rozin, is that a memorable meal generally happens when you try something new. Most restaurants work hard every night to create a memorable meal. You increase the likelihood of this happening by encouraging your guests to try something new.
For Rozin, his most memorable meal was at elBulli, a famed restaurant known years for its molecular gastronomy. He was genuinely moved by a melon gel made to look like caviar. While this particular example may not be not practical for the average restaurant, there is a lesson to be learned here. A memory was created because the dish was unusual and amusing. Aesthetics have become increasingly important. Think about some of the signature dishes created by chains, like the Blooming Onion at Outback. Simple ingredients and big ideas can become magic moments.
Think of a meal like the symphony.
Much like a concert, dinner should be balanced and end on a high note. We trust the conductor and listen to the music provided to us. The same should be true of a chef. Rozin points out that there are too many condiments on tables in America. If you think of a meal as the symphony, you prepare food that is memorable on its own and doesn’t need to be slathered in hot sauce, salt or pepper.
Consider the whole experience.
Two seconds of pain at the dentist paints an awful memory of an otherwise mundane experience. People feel really good after having a really good meal. You want to make sure that your guests are talking about you a month later because of the feeling the meal evoked, not bad service or an uninspired menu.
A psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, Paul Rozin is not a likely food expert, but as he playfully jokes, his family helps to give him credentials. His wife has written four cookbooks and his son is a molecular gastronomer. But really it’s his 25 years researching human food choice, the psychological significance of flavorings placed on foods in different cuisines, and the development of food preferences that has given him an interesting perspective on the psychology of food.