A recent study carried out by CatchOn revealed some intriguing, though perhaps not entirely unexpected, results on the impact of chef interaction on diners’ perceptions

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Can a charismatic chef convince diners that what’s on their plate is better than it actually is? It appears so, according to a recent experiment carried out by strategic consultancy CatchOn. The agency has just released the results of a study that sought to glean some insight into whether the personality of a chef can enhance and improve a diner’s perception of a dish. 

48 unwitting diners, invited to Serge et le Phoque under the pretext that they were taking part in a taste test to help the restaurant refine a dish, were served two versions of a saffron risotto with licquorice and asked to rate both, with scores given to areas such as quality, smell, aesthetics and portion size. In the first version, the dish was created using a rich homemade chicken stock but only served alongside a simple piece of card detailing the ingredients.

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In the second version, the risotto was made using bouillon powder mixed with tap water. However, this time the ‘chef’ (in actual fact Charles Pelletier, one of the co-owners of Serge) came out to introduce and explain the provenance of the dish and its ingredients, detailing how the risotto was inspired by a treasured childhood memory.

The findings? Never underestimate the power of words, or the human touch – 77% of the participants actually went on to rate the inferior risotto as their preferred version, and the dish beat out its higher quality counterpart in every score sector; even portion size, although the dishes were identical in servings. 

In the contentious arena of restaurant reviewing, there are many factors that we, as critics, try to control when carrying out our work. At Hong Kong Tatler Dining, we also have a set of scores that we apply when appraising a restaurant, in an attempt to level out the playing field that is incredibly subjective from the start. What this study tells us is something that we’ve always suspected – that dining out, as an experience, is heavily influenced by the (perceived) connection to another human being, a memory, or a culture. The CatchOn study suggests that in today’s environment, chefs have an opportunity to enhance the diner experience by becoming more engaged with their guests.

“It’s hard to imagine legendary chefs from Fernand Point to contemporaries like Marco Pierre White having to charm diners into embracing their food,” says Virginia Ngai, CatchOn’s director of strategy. “But this the reality of what it takes for chefs to be successful today. They’ve got to be equal parts scientist, artist and storyteller to stand out.”

There’s a fine line, however, between elocution and egotism, and in Hong Kong we’ve already seen countless debates over the cult of celebrity chefdom. As much as one can rhapsodise about their food, what will count in the end towards an enjoyable meal will be sincerity.

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