Diners prefer a visually attractive dish, say it tastes better and they’ll pay more for it, an experiment cooked up by a chef suggests.

Psychologists and food scientists tested an idea favoured by some top chefs: the visual sensation of an edible culinary masterpiece can enhance a diner’s experience of a dish. We do taste with our eyes first.

Art-inspired salad

Researchers arranged a salad (right) to resemble artist Wassily Kandinsky’s Painting Number 201 (left) and found that people rated it as tastier, and were willing to pay more for it. ( Artists Rights Society (ARS)/ADAGP and journal Flavour)

Franco-Colombian chef Charles Michel was classically trained in French cuisine. During a visit to the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Michel was inspired by Russian abstract artist Wassily Kandinsky’s Painting #201.

"I realized how beautiful the colours and the movements and the lines were and kind of immediately, I thought this could be a salad. These beautiful colours could be a salad," Michel recalled in a Skype interview.

"The small text of the painting said that colour is a means of exerting direct influence upon the soul. I had that seed of inspiration, an epiphany there watching the painting and then started doing this Kandinsky-inspired dish in my events."

Prof. Charles Spence of Oxford University came to one of Michel’s events and the experiment was born.

Michel arranged a salad in one of three presentations:

  • Simply plated with all of the elements of the salad tossed together.
  • Elements arranged to look like one of Kandinsky's paintings.
  • Elements were organized in a neat but non-artistic manner.

The salads had a total of 30 ingredients, including seared portobello mushroom slices, cooked and raw broccoli sprouts, a variety of endive salad, raw red and yellow pepper cut into fine brunoises, beet and carrot purée and Spanish olive oil.

AGO Chef Jeff Dueck

People do taste with their eyes, says Jeff Dueck, head chef at the Art Gallery of Ontario. (Kas Roussy/CBC)

During the study, 60 volunteers aged 18 to 58 were given just one salad each to rate before and after lifting a fork.

The results showed an increase of 18 per cent in the tastiness ratings for the art-inspired presentation.

"People intuitively recognized the artistic presentation as being more complex and more artistic and they liked it more," Michel said.

Participants were also willing to pay more for the Kandinsky-inspired plating, the researchers said in Friday’s issue of the journal Flavour. The diners also gave a higher rating to the tastiness of the painting version.

CBC News asked Jeff Dueck, head chef at the Art Gallery of Ontario, to help recreate the experiment. His muse was Autumn Foliage by artist Tom Thomson, who inspired the Group of Seven.

Dueck said he thinks the expectations and heightened interest of an art-inspired dish makes the flavours come alive.

"We've had dinners like this with other artists and people have come and paid to be in that evening and to experience the food in a different setting. It does work," said Dueck.

With files from CBC's Kas Roussy