This weekend, I attended the Taste3 conference in Napa. Taste is an unusually structured conference focused on food, wine, and art: each speaker has 18 minutes to present on his or her topic, and then we move on to the next speaker. No panels, no audience questions. Just presentation after presentation after presentation. Then we eat (and eat and eat).
Presentations ranged from earthworm farming to molecular gastronomy in the pastry kitchen to the ravaging of the kauri forests in New Zealand. Our own Thy Tran gave an engrossing presentation about the Sikh community in California. All in all, the conference was approximately thirty presentations over two intense, inspiring days.
Early on the first day, Rene Koster presented. He is director of the Restaurant of the Future Research Foundation in the Netherlands. The restaurant of the future is an actual restaurant in the Netherlands that is basically a lab in which researchers can test all sorts of environmental factors and their affect on consumers.
The New York Times reported on the restaurant of the future in November: "How will people behave if we put out fresh flowers, or shine a red light on a dish?" asked Nico Heukels, research director of Sodexho, a leading food services company and partner in the project. "What if we put out square or colored plates? Will they choose healthier things if we spray fruity scent in the air?"
In a move that elicited gasps from the audience members, Koster showed us that each cash register has a discreet scale underneath it so that the researchers can study a customer's weight vs. how much they eat, and how much they purchase.
While there is a lab contingent to the research (which tests eye movement, chewing habits, and facial expressions), the fascinating part of the restaurant of the future is the actual restaurant. Everything is modular, so researches can test the effects of a long buffet vs. center islands, lighting, waiter service vs. self-service, abundant service plates vs. sparse, table size, and chair type among other things -- basically anything that can be changed in a restaurant, they change and test.
I have no doubt that labs such as these will trickle down to choices that restaurateurs make in future restaurants. After all, restaurants are big business -- they may as well give us what we want, whether we consciously know what that is or not!