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British celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal is a culinary magician, conjuring up the sounds of the ocean in a concha, and culinary explosions on the palate.
The ocean is a long way off – and then again … The waiter brings it to the table ensconced in a giant conch shell perched on a wooden display box with a glass lid. In an old inn west of London, oysters and baby eel are served in sea foam and sand; sea urchins and sea spray, algae and flotsam. "My ocean is different than yours," says one guest to another as he pulls the hidden headphones out of the shell. The whispers and giggling begin to disappear as guests insert the small white earbuds and lose themselves in the sound of waves rolling over the beach, and the melancholy song of the seagulls and the sea breeze. The soundscape is deceptively real. As guests close their eyes, they forget that the sea is rushing in from an iPod Nano hidden in the spire of the conch shell. The sounds transport them from the tables of The Fat Duck in Bray, England, to the beaches of Mykonos or Hawaii. The man responsible for their teleportation is one of the finest chefs in the world. But, despite his three Michelin stars, 46-year-old Englishman Heston Blumenthal shows no sign of pretense or celebrity posturing. His stocky build and shaved head with reddish-blonde nubs make him look more like a striker on an English football team. Self-educated and with a boyish accent, only his designer glasses give him away.
"Eating is the only activity that uses all the senses."
A menu eccentric and off-the-wall
As a young man, Blumenthal was impressed by a book he read by Harold McGee: On Food and Cooking. Since this revelation, his epicurean coupling of stove top and laboratory has given rise to such breathtaking dishes as sardine sorbet and cauliflower chocolate. Some call it mole-cular gastronomy, but to Blumenthal it is a passion for uncovering the promise of multisensory perception. "Eating is the only activity that uses all the senses," says Blumenthal. Sight, smell, taste, texture and sound. "Intensifying the senses casts a spell over the culinary experience." Professor Charles Spence, an experimental psychologist at Oxford University, helped him break the magician's code. His Crossmodal Research Laboratory is impressive: "Every surface was covered in a jumble of cables, connectors, headphones and sound mixers," says Blumenthal. To make his point, Spence gave him headphones, microphone and a package of potato chips. "Nibble away!" Spence recorded Blumenthal as he crunched on the chips and then played the sound back over the headphones. Depending on how the psychologist adjusted the sound, Blumenthal's perception of crispness modulated. It had the same effect on carrots. "Amplifying the sound can increase the perception of crispness by 15 percent," says Spence. An effect he has been able to measure: among test subjects, the sense of crispness improved by up to 10 percent.
Since that first meeting almost ten years ago, the chef and psychologist have become a successful team, experimenting together, publishing scientific papers and advising major food producers. "Heston is very modest and didn't learn much about science in school," says Spence. "But he has a natural curiosity and is very good at translating our findings." Sound of the Sea is the result of one of these experiments. Serving oysters to their lab assistants, Blumenthal and Spence found that they tasted much better (and saltier) when listening to the seasides natural music. "Sounds can stimulate our imagination," says Blumenthal, "taking us to another place, another time." Immediately, Blumenthal conjured up images of guests seated at a table, wearing high-tech headphones. The chef is also an avid hi-fi fan. Lazing around on his beanbag at home, he puts on his Sennheiser headphones to listen to Spanish acoustic guitar, lounge music and dance tracks. He is inspired by the spatial effect of the HD800: "It's almost as if you're listening to albums in 3D," he told the Daily Mail. The celebrity chef enjoys music and its subtle nuances as much as he does food. "The range of frequencies you get from the Sennheisers is just amazing. It's like buying a whole new record collection and a whole new stereo system."
"Sound can stimulate our imagination, taking us to another place, another time."
Diners are blown away by the sensory experience
But his ideal – having guests don designer headphones while they sit at the table – is soon shattered. Though Blumenthal is indeed a true sound taster – he is also a realist. Large headphones are intrusive and would ruin his guests' expensive hairstyles. He played around with infrared transmission and directional speakers, but didn't get a satisfactory result. The perfect solution? An iPod would provide an unobtrusive way to carry the sound of the sea from the conch shells to the conchas. He had invented a new specialty. "Each sense is interlinked with the others," say the chef and psychologist. If you pluck a string, the others vibrate along. Sometimes that leads to a huge crescendo, which Spence calls "a hyper-additive." For example, when Blumenthal serves jelly of quail, langoustine cream, and parfait of foie gras on oak moss and truffle toast, and a waiter then sprays a mist of oak essence, alcohol and hot water over the "forest floor," the magic of the multisensory experience is complete. "Diners taste, feel, see and smell the oak's essence." But is that the final chord of a gastronomical concert? Surely not. Blumenthal bubbles over with his ideas of chocolate hidden in "Pop Rocks," fragrant dishes and lickable wallpaper, lighting and holograms. One of Professor Spence's latest inspirations is to use a touch screen for a plate, which would react to the fork's dance and activate sounds, music, special lighting effects and odors. And, Blumenthal asks, why not work with magicians, musicians, screenwriters and directors to give an evening out as much emotion as a movie? But even without the added fanfare, many a guest has shed a tear at The Fat Duck – overwhelmed by the overall sensory experience.
When he started his research for this article, Hilmar Poganatz was immediately overcome with despair. How can one "taste sounds" and "smell tones"? The search led our writer and editorial concept developer into the world of multisensory perception. Poganatz learned how closely hearing and smell are linked to the palate when he wrote this portrait of British celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal. Since then, he's had a craving for oysters, which supposedly taste better when served to the sound of waves.