A team of scientists, led by chef-in-residence Charles Michel at the Crossmodal research lab at Oxford University, thinks they might have some insight as to why people enjoy a beautifully-presented plate of food—and it has nothing to do with Instagrammable dishware.

For their study, which is published in the journal Food Quality and Preference, Michel and his research assistants conducted three online experiments with 12,000 people using an image of Michelin-starred chef Alberto Landgraf’s dish, ‘Pickled Red Onions.’ Their experiments revealed that people both enjoy more, and are willing to pay more, for plates that are oriented in a way that seems ‘visually correct.’

All  photos:  Andy T. Woods
All photos: Andy T. Woods

Numerous studies have already shown how food psychology affects our daily eating habits. We know, for instance, that color contrast plays a major role in how much we eat from a given plate. Thanks to Michel’s experiments, we can reasonably argue that foods that come to a single point or angle are perceived as being more delicious if that point faces away from the diner.

In the study, Landgraf gives an explanation of his plating theory:

I put the onions upwards because I think it’s the most natural way for us to look at it, and to identify it as an onion. When you think about Japanese cuisine, it’s offensive to point things towards people, towards the guest or towards the chef.”

plate orientation 3

It turns out that the test subjects agree with Landgraf. Not only did they prefer the visual appeal of the onions when pointed upward and to the left; they were also willing to pay significantly more money for that version of the dish when compared to the other orientations.

Interestingly, rotation of individual elements within the dish also affected participants’ visual judgments—not just the image of the dish when perceived as a whole. However, the study is also cautious to point out one perceived limitation to its data—participants recruited for this study were financially compensated.

As a result, the research team explicitly states that:

“It is commonly thought that participants recruited through MTurk are likely to be disinterested in the studies they take part in, thus presumably questioning the reliability of the data.”

If you want to experience this for yourself, a version of the experiment is currently being presented as part of the Cravings exhibition running at the Science Museum in London.

[via ScienceDirect, Wired.Co.UK]