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How a Chef Can Trick You Into Liking Terrible Food

Can presentation actually make food taste better?

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Brenna Houck is a Cities Manager for the Eater network. She previously edited Eater Detroit and reported for Eater. You can follow her on the internet at @brennahouck.

Turns out special attention from a chef and a little storytelling can actually make your meal taste better. According to CNN, a new study by Hong Kong-based hospitality firm CatchOn found that diners will perceive that food tastes better if the chef is present, even if that food is inferior.

During the study, 48 diners were invited to Hong Kong restaurant Serge et le Phoque to take part in a taste test. The dish — saffron risotto with licorice and lime — was made two ways. The first plate of risotto was prepared with nicer ingredients including homemade chicken stock and was served with a card stating the ingredients. The second plate was made using stock from bouillon powder and water, but presented by the chef Charles Pelletier. During his presentation, Pelletier told diners that the second risotto featured "very small but important" changes, including "Iranian saffron, Japanese rice, French licorice — this is the licorice [he holds it up]. It looks like a stick of wood, we would use it as candy as a kid and suck it — it's weird but it's good! Bon appetit, merci beaucoup."

77 percent of participants preferred the bouillon risotto to the homemade stock version.

Following the tasting, diners were asked to rate each version of the dish according to quality, overall taste, aesthetics, smell, portion size, and, finally, to choose their favorite dish. The study found that 77 percent of participants preferred the bouillon risotto to the homemade stock version. The "inferior" dish also consistently rated higher in terms of quality, taste, aesthetics, smell, and portion size even though portion sizes were identical for both dishes.

"It's hard to imagine legendary chefs having to charm diners into embracing their food," says CatchOn's director of strategy, Virginia Ngai. "But this is 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."

In a surprise twist, CatchOn later revealed that Pelletier isn't the chef at Serge, but rather the co-owner. Pelletier says that this speaks to the importance of storytelling as a component to communicating successfully with diners. "As restaurateurs — and particularly here because we run surprise menus — we have to talk about the food as people don't know what they're going to be having," he says.

Fine dining isn't the only place where presentation counts toward success. Researchers reporting in the Journal of Sensory Studies recently found that consumers are willing to pay more for coffee if it features latte art.