We compared an art-inspired food presentation to a condition where the same ingredients were arranged in a more regular manner, or else in a neat (and hence effortful) but non-artistic manner. Before the participants had tasted the food, the artistic plating was liked more than both the regular and neat food presentations, as well as being recognized as more artistic and complex than either of the other two presentations, even though the participants were not informed that the dish was supposed to mimic a work of art. After eating, participants rated the food presented in the art-inspired as being more flavourful.
Art-infused food design
The fact that the participants in the present study liked the art-inspired dish more presumably reflects that they were actually able to recognize an artistic pattern in the food intuitively. The debate concerning what can be considered as ‘art’ has, for a long time, involved philosophers, aesthetes, psychologists, and, more recently, cognitive neuroscientists [29, 30]. It is reasonable to assume that since art involves, at least in part, the ability to communicate feelings and sensations [30, 31], the art-inspired presentation of the food could have been an edible rendition of the message originally intended by Kandinsky on the canvas ‘Painting number 201’. Indeed, the differences between ratings of ‘liking’, ‘artistic value’ and ‘complexity’ could be attributed to an absolute aesthetic value that would have been transferred from the painting to the food design. According to another point of view, however, one could simply argue that art is that which viewers categorize as such [32, 33].
The concept of an identifiable pattern is not an unusual idea in the field of art , and this could have led the participants to define the dish as being more artistic because patterns (of colour and shape) were easy to identify. If this were to have been the case, the identified patterns could also have influenced the participants’ liking judgments. Although participants’ personal preferences (or taste) in art could have influenced our results, it should be noted that the display of art has been shown to activate reward systems in the human brain . Results reported by Ramachandran  show that people may experience some sort of reward when processing visually complex stimuli (as, indeed, the art-inspired presentation was perceived by our participants). Furthermore, in one experiment, both art experts and novices were found to rate more complex artistic stimuli as being more interesting . Indeed, the way the diners’ interest is cultivated in high-end restaurants through highly complex food preparations and presentations, amongst other factors, is probably a key aspect of designing pleasurable food experiences.
A different perspective on the effect of plating on participants’ responses to the food would be to consider the ‘Art-Infusion’ phenomenon as advanced by Hagtvedt and Patrick . According to this theory, consumers evaluate products more favourably when they are associated with art. In this case, the art-inspired dish might have implicitly suggested a connotation of higher value (or effort) through the visual display, value that might have helped to deliver a more pleasurable eating experience.
Our participants were willing to pay more for the artistic presentation of the dish, both before and after tasting it (note that the consumption of the food did not modify people’s price estimation). These results are consistent with previous research suggesting that the aesthetic presentation of food can result in people being willing to pay more for it . It is important to assess any potential explanation as to why people may pay more for an art-inspired dish (for example, a plate of salad inspired by Kandinsky); for instance, we might consider how the ‘effort’ involved in preparing a dish can be appreciated by a diner and, thus, change the perceived value of the dish. Neatness and complexity might be some of the elements that people are ready to pay more for as well; as the philosopher Denis Dutton puts it, the value of an artwork is rooted in the assumptions about the human performance underlying its creation .
A taste of Kandinsky
When the participants in the present study were asked to rate the expected tastiness of the dishes before they had sampled the food, no difference was reported between the three conditions. Even if the visual properties of the art-inspired condition received higher ratings than the other two conditions, participants were not expecting it to taste better. Interestingly, after consumption, the art-inspired presentation was rated as significantly tastier (up to 18% more) than the other two, even though they were composed of the same quantity of the same ingredients (see Figure 4). A higher rating for the experienced tastinessc[39, 40] of the Kandinsky-inspired dish clearly shows that plating can have an important effect on flavour perception. This observation is consistent with previous findings , confirming that what we see can indeed influence what we taste. In addition to the arguments discussed in the previous sections, we would argue that such percept could be the result of more enjoyment elicited by the act of consuming an aesthetically pleasing product, whose creation requires a more skilful and effortful act. This result supports the theory that cultivating uniqueness in plating and presentation could be central to delivering pleasurable food experiences.
Art or novelty?
The higher ratings given to the art-inspired presentation of food could also be an effect of novelty; one might wonder if any salad that is not just mixed and placed on a plate would seem to be more ‘artistic’. However, the elements of a salad placed in any form would not necessarily seem more ‘artistic’, given the risk that the plating might end up being considered as messy, and therefore less appealing. Indeed, Zellner and her colleagues have shown that people are more willing to try and tend to like a neat presentation more rather than a messy one .
Different food designs could be used in future research on plating, to understand how artistry and novelty are processed and evaluated by diners, and how this can impact on the eating experience. For instance, a novel and artistic plating could be compared to a novel but non-artistic one.
Limitations of present research and directions for future research
There are a number of limitations with the present study that should be borne in mind: First, it is important to note that mixed culinary elements on a plate (for example, two different sauces, or one sauce and one garnish) may have merged to create a new flavour. In this sense, the way in which the three dishes are arranged may, in fact, have led to their having different flavours (physically - as opposed to any effect that they have due to the psychological impact of the dish). The participants were not asked to eat all of the food, but rather to eat as much as they wanted. Interestingly, those participants in the art-inspired and regular presentations tended to eat all of the food, while they left more when presented the neat presentation; some of the participants would try the various elements in the dish without necessarily eating them all. It would be interesting to know the extent to which seeing the various components visually ‘integrated’, rather than separated, affected consumption behaviour and probably how flavourful the food ended up being perceived.
It is also important to note that the present study was conducted in a laboratory setting, a most unusual place in which to eat, granted, and with most of the participants being students . This might explain the large standard deviation found for how much participants were ready to pay for the dish (with a few of the participants being willing to pay much more than the average for the dish). Although the experimental set-up attempted to replicate a restaurant table, the contextual variables of the laboratory setting may, for instance, have influenced how much the participants were willing to pay (presumably being lower than would have been expected had the same dish been served in a restaurant context)d. Moreover, another possible bias in the results regards the time of day at which the participants consumed the food. Indeed, it would be likely that higher ratings would have been obtained from hungry participants and lower ratings for participants performing the experiment in the early afternoon (for example, right after lunch). However, since conditions were randomly distributed across the time of the day, it is reasonable to assume that the groups had an equal number of ‘hungry’ and ‘full’ participants. As a consequence, this might have affected the variance of the data within groups, leaving untouched the differences between groups.
The fact that our participants received monetary compensation for taking part in this study might also have influenced their experience, as it is unusual experience for most of us to be paid to eat. It would also be intriguing to see whether preparing/presenting the dish in different contexts (for example, science lab/gastronomy event/restaurant) would change the way in which people respond to it as welle.
Future research may, in turn, take into account the differences that arise in the perceived attributes of an art-inspired food when exactly the same dish is served in one context versus another [9, 42, 43]. One question that still needs to be addressed is whether it is possible to spot different visual patterns in the dish, and if so, which ones in particular may lead people to consider a dish as being artistic or not. It would also be interesting to test how more specific cues borrowed from the visual arts interact (here we are thinking of balance, symmetry, or colour associations). Future studies may also attempt to understand how knowing (before tasting) the story about the dish and its inspiration can impact the perception of the food. In addition, there is a need to develop objective measures of the resulting complexity of food presentations, since the various aspects of a visual arrangement can affect the resulting complexity of an image, in terms of its various components and their interaction.