Food has always had a special place in my heart, and I’m sure everyone can relate to the pleasure of beautifully looking food (highly recommend /r/foodporn). Whether it is a gourmet steak, or that perfect macaroon, food manages to provide an aesthetic experience across all five senses.
When I think of aesthetically pleasing food, the main focus is almost always on its presentation. The visual aspect is so huge to our perception; it can make your $12 steak look like a $35 entrée and turn a regular bowl of oatmeal into something worth your Instagram feed. So what makes food look good?
First, I have to my best to define an aesthetic experience. For an experience or perception to be deemed an aesthetic experience, it has to meet some criteria. First, it must evoke some strong emotions, which can be positive or negative. Aesthetic experiences should gives us in essence, ‘the feels’. Secondly, I agree with Leath that a high level of concentration is also needed. As he puts it, to “focus on one type of activity, the one we do in the present moment”. I don’t believe one can have an aesthetic experience when not in focus. Imagine, eating a bag of chips while watching TV. It’s basically impossible to appreciate and invoke a deep emotional reaction to the potato chip when really you are just scarfing them down as you watch Friends. (Speaking from experience)
Working at Montana’s during my winter break, I was always cooking food. My goal was to find out why some food looked so much better than others. If you take a look at the photos below, it’s not hard to tell which is more aesthetically pleasing. The two plates or more or less the same content, but one looks way better than the other. But what exactly made it look so much better? What could be improved to raise the aesthetic quality? As I was working, my goal was to produce the most aesthetically pleasing dishes possible. I believe creating and experience require the same two things I outlined in an aesthetic experience; emotion and sole focus, which is quite hard to have in a busy kitchen. Anyone who has worked in a restaurant knows the importance of multi-tasking and especially not to get over-emotional. So finding these moments to concentrate on maximizing the aesthetics was very rare, but very rewarding. Of course my coworkers did not appreciate me rearranging the same plate multiple times,but to me there’s no better feeling then seeing all the care and focus I put into creating something as beautiful as the photo on the left.
In the end, when I ask “what makes food look good”, restaurants and coworkers have taught me that they are measurable, tangible things: golden brown, tall, crispy, bright. I’m sure these all make for more aesthetically pleasing food, but philosophically, I think the reason why those characteristics make them look better, is because we have always associated these characteristics with good food in our memory. Many people love crispy, bright food because it tastes great, but that doesn’t mean it is the most aesthetically pleasing for everyone.
In fact, maybe what makes food look good doesn’t have anything to do with the food at all. Whether it’s crispy or soft, golden brown or soggy and purple may not even matter. It may just depend on our memories and past experiences, and the feelings they have associated with a certain experience . Take a look at this korean-style porridge. To many of you guys it may look really boring; yellowish-gray and soupy isn’t aesthetically pleasing to most people, but it is to me weirdly enough. In fact, I think it is more aesthetically valuable than any food from Montana’s. If my original criteria was to produce a deep emotion or feeling, all I can say about Montana’s is “that looks good”. On the other hand, this porridge gives me feelings of comfort and home, and that’s why I really want some good porridge right now.