Earlier this month, Copenhagen University sensory science professor Michael Bom Frøst revealed the results of his research into the relationship between the complexity of a cuisine and people's enjoyment of the dining experience. According to Norwegian research scientist Martin Lersch, who reported on his presentation at Khymos, previous studies of fine dining had suggested that there was an optimum level of complexity for maximum enjoyment. In other words, both too simple or too intricate a dish would be equally disappointing.
Obviously, defining complexity is not a simple task in itself. Lersch notes that, despite the term's inherent subjectivity and the potential gap between intended and perceived complexity, "the term is often invoked by chefs, both as something to strive for and something to avoid."
Statements such as "primary flavors often depend on secret ingredients to make them more interesting and complex" (Michael Roberts), "less is more" (Gordon Ramsey in a comment on an over-complicated dish in one of his TV shows) and "simplicity" (the term used in the Manifesto for the New Nordic Kitchen) all allude to different levels of complexity.
Nonetheless, Frøst and his graduate students set out to test how complexity affected dining enjoyment at Noma, named best restaurant in the world in 2010, making sure that their research group included people who were used to avant-garde cuisine and others who wouldn't have recognized a Parmesan foam if it hit them in the eye. The results, writes Lersch, were surprising:
To make a long story short, the real complexity-liking curve was not a U-shaped curve, but rather a steadily increasing curve which flattens out as shown below. "Maybe we really like complex dishes," says Michael Bom Frøst. The results also showed that experience level of the diners had no influence on the curiosity, surprise, novelty, or complexity responses. However, hedonic/liking and familiarity received higher scores from the this test group. One further conclusion was that novelty is a better predictor of liking than complexity in high end dining.
Based on these findings, as well as his previous studies, Frøst proposed a "Recipe for the Best Meal Experience," combining the perfect ratios of familiarity to surprise (20 to 1), complexity and novelty (30 to 1), and even meal length (not too long!) for maximum enjoyment. Something to bear in mind for your next dinner party?
Images: Frøst's "Recipe for the Best Meal Experience" slide, photo by Martin Lersch; a U-curve showing the expected correlation between complexity and liking; and the real complexity-liking curve. All images via Khymos, where you can read a full report on the seminar.