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Why culinary twists create more memorable meals

Surprise! You don’t always get what you expect when you eat out. Like that time I ordered a knickerbocker glory and steadily worked my way through the tall sundae glass filled with fruit, nuts, ice and syrups, only to find a very large, very dead blowfly in the bottom.

Chef Heston Blumenthal’s Meat Fruit looks like a perfect tangerine, but the filling is a velvety mousse of foie gras and chicken liver parfait.Credit:Eddie Jim

Other surprises were less traumatic. When I first visited Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck restaurant in the UK in 2001, there were playful tricks everywhere. When a chef builds his name by combining garlic puree with coffee jelly and white chocolate caviar, you often look with suspicion at the bread and butter on the table. Those turned out to be perfectly normal, but not the smoked bacon and egg ice cream with tomato jam. And the dark chocolates infused with pipe tobacco were very creepy, filling my lungs and fooling my brain into thinking I had started smoking again.


A few years later, and Blumenthal was digging deep into Britain’s past to come up with his biggest surprise yet: trompe l’oeil which referred to the “pome dorres”, or fruit-shaped flesh, of medieval England. His Meat Fruit looks like a perfect tangerine, the skin is textured and the small stem and leaf are bright green. But… surprise! The skin is a tangy tangerine gel, the filling a velvety mousse of foie gras and chicken liver parfait.

I’ve never forgotten it – and that’s apparently why chefs like to surprise us. According to the 2015 book Surprise: Embrace the unpredictable and develop the unexpected, by LeeAnn Renninger and Tania Luna, our bodies freeze for a 25th of a second when we are surprised and our emotions are magnified by up to 400 percent. That acts on the dopamine in our brain, which locks it in like a flash moment, similar to remembering where you were when Princess Diana died. It’s a plot twist on a plate.

So is the big green olive – which is not an olive at all – made by Ferran and Albert Adrià in El Bulli in Spain: it is actually green olive juice that implodes in your mouth (not so much sleight of hand as reverse spherification, using sodium gluconate and sodium alginate). And the huge, edible balloons blown by Grant Achatz of Alinea in Chicago that turn an adult dinner party into a kid’s birthday party. They’re the culinary equivalent of “boo!” – evoking amazement, awe and wonder. And memories.


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