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To Make A Memorable Meal, Start With A Memory

Think about the last great dinner party you went to. What was the most unforgettable detail? The conversation? The service?

If you can't quite remember what you ate, you're not alone. While we often remember having a good time, we tend to remember very little about the food, or more specifically, what it tasted like.

That's something that frustrates Washington, D.C., chef and entrepreneur Bryon Brown. He still recalls a great meal with his beloved Aunt Michelle, even though it happened 10 years ago.

Dinner with a side of memory: A supper club extravaganza staged in Washington, D.C., this spring enlisted all the senses — and some actors and musicians, too — to enhance diners' experience and memory of the food.

Brown grew up in East Harlem in the 1980s; his family didn't have a lot of money, but Aunt Michelle was always there, encouraging him. When he got his first paycheck, he took her out for her birthday to a fancy Italian restaurant in Manhattan. He remembers how the waiters glazed the wineglasses, how well they treated his aunt, and what she was wearing. "She was in ... her Sunday's best, she had on a big hat, Sunday's, and she's really old school," he says, cracking a broad grin.

It was a big deal for both of them, but something still bothers him about it: He can't remember the food.

He believes he can change that for other people. "Food is a conduit to joy, and if you see it that way, you could use it to your advantage and create these very memorable moments," Brown says.

But how, exactly, to do that, he wasn't sure.

Fast forward a decade to this spring. Bryon Brown launches a project called Sensorium. "It's a feast for the senses," says Brown. He hired actors and musicians to harness the senses and enhance diners' experience of the food — his food.

Sensorium is a unique, 12-course dinner party that's part circus, part play. It was held in a three-story high geodesic dome in a field near Washington's Anacostia River this spring.

When we first heard about Brown's project, we knew he had to meet Ed Cooke.

Ed Cooke is an international memory champion and founder of Memrise, a website designed to make learning languages fun. He's the kind of guy who memorizes 16 decks of cards in an hour for fame and glory, and enjoys reciting Paradise Lost to strangers in a park for fun. He's also the guy who taught author Joshua Foer to become a memory champion in his new book, Moonwalking With Einstein.

Cooke became interested in memory back when he was 18, back in England. He was laid up in the hospital for about three months and surrounded by octogenarians, and he thought to himself: I've got to keep my memory going. He studied the interplay of the senses under neuroscientist Charles Spense at Oxford University.

We knew he'd be game to advise Brown on the memory science part of Sensorium.

But first — why is remembering the taste of food so hard?

The Science Of Taste

Cooke says taste is the trickiest of all the senses to pin down because it is fleeting and hard to describe.

"You can remember basic attributes of the taste like sweet or sour, crunch and so on, but to actually reproduce it in your memory is a very elusive thing," says Cooke.

We also have a poor vocabulary to describe taste, and have to rely a lot on metaphors to describe it — the pudding was a cloud of chocolate, and so on.

Cooke says taste also relies on other senses — sight, smell, texture and even sound — to help it out. But those other senses can hinder taste, too. For example, being on a noisy airplane makes food tastebland.

I ask Cooke why we would want to remember anything when we can just look it up on Google.

Cooke says a lot of people have this attitude. They think memory is boring. It's for drills and shopping lists. "But there's another way of thinking about memory as sort of a rich, colorful, imaginative emotional playground for your soul. And that's the way you have to think about it to be able to remember effectively," he says.

And taste especially "has enormous opportunities for playing around and being experimental," he says.

And that's what Bryon Brown's Sensorium is all about.

Making A Memory Stick for Food

To make a lasting memory, whether its food or anything else, Cooke has three basic tips. First, make it vivid.

"You know, if your PIN number is 4197 or something, if you just imagine it as a couple — a 41-year-old married to a 97-year-old — immediately, even if it becomes slightly creepy, it also becomes memorable and in fact, for just that reason," Cooke says.

Much of the Sensorium show was vivid, Cooke says. For example, during the fish course, actors holding fish puppets swum around the room while the dome pulsed gently with soft lights and music. It made the diners feel as if they were swimming with the fish underwater.

Next, Cooke suggests making each course distinct from the others "because if there isn't a break, two things will kind of merge together in your memory," he says. Another course involved miniature bites of salty pork belly and sweet potatoes presented on dollhouse-sized chairs and tables instead of plates. Definitely distinct, says Cooke.

And third: Include a narrative or a story or a piece of music that ties all the courses together. "A brain loves a narrative, and by having a narrative, you can kind of collect everything together under one roof in some sense," Cooke says.

This is where Brown and Cooke disagreed. Brown and the actors feared that squeezing their project into a story would sound a bit cliche.

"The challenge is, how do we incorporate some of these memory techniques and still have the artistry intact?" Brown said, just before opening night.

Brown's Big Dreams

Brown wasn't always a chef, but he always had a plan to get there. He worked hard, fell in love with the chemistry of cooking and molecular gastronomy, and dreamed of running his own kitchen.

But without the money to open a restaurant, he didn't have a lot of options. Then he came up with the idea of creating one-night supper clubs for paying guests; he called it Artisa Kitchen.

He partnered with local art galleries, where he met many of the actors he later hired for Sensorium.

David London, a magician, worked at one of those galleries. He and Brown immediately clicked.

"His approach to food is very similar to what magic and illusion is," London says. Both Brown and London use science and logic to make their art look effortless.

London later became Sensorium's master of ceremonies, leading diners through several courses of the meal and coordinating with the other actors.

The Show

Just before the first show, Brown had a few extra challenges to deal with. The lights and the sound system couldn't be installed properly because the dome was leaking. And there was a strange echo that his crew had to address using sound-absorbing foam.

But opening night waits for no man or dome, so Sensorium opened April 9. Diners waited anxiously in the entryway, sipping a spicy sangria and meeting the actors.

Once they were let into the dome, diners were seated at several round tables surrounding a tiny stage.

"Welcome to Sensorium," the master ceremonies intoned, and diners were led through a parade of dishes, including a salmon salad on a bed of dry ice, sunchoke soup, and a dessert of chocolate soufflé sprinkled with salt.

Cooke praised the show as well, calling it "truly close to being spectacular," but he says he wished there was a narrative.

As for the diners? Many remembered several courses, but none I talked to could remember all 12.

"They began with a pearl they call that caviar... the order I can't quite remember, but then we had a soup course," said Arturo Brillembourg, a diner who is the treasurer of the Washington Ballet.

"The taste of the Pop Rocks stayed with me all evening long," said Carl Ballard, a diner and broadcast producer at AARP.

"It was something out of Alice in Wonderland a little bit. It was really kind of bizarre, but in a fabulous way," said Lauren Green, who also works at AARP.

Brown's pretty happy with how Sensorium went. He put on almost 50 dinner shows in the month it ran.

But he's not resting. He will be holding various workshops around D.C. this summer to brainstorm ideas for the next iteration of Sensorium. He hopes to open a Miami version this fall, and he's already talking to investors in New York City.

"I want to make people notice that Sensorium and Artisa Kitchen are a force to be reckoned with," he says.

Next time? "We're definitely going to use a lot more of what Ed has taught us," Brown says.

This story was produced for broadcast by Rebecca Davis.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

And today in "Your Health," something different. We're going to bring you along on a little experiment designed to help you remember eating good food - using some memory science techniques. And we have our food reporter, April Fulton, here to tell us about it.

Hi, April.

APRIL FULTON: Hi, Renee.

Well, you know, Memorial Day is about memories, so this project we're going to talk about today is designed to enrich the senses and hopefully, create lasting memories of food.

Now, do you remember the last time you went out to a nice dinner, you had a good celebration, some friends?

MONTAGNE: Well, a good friend took me out to one of the nicest places near my home in Santa Monica, and we had...

FULTON: What did you have? Do you remember?

(Soundbite of laughter)

MONTAGNE: It's funny you should ask. It was fish. OK, it was cod. It was cod. The thing I remember best, though, about it was the sort of lovely side dish, pea shoots.

FULTON: Do remember what it tasted like, though?

MONTAGNE: Garlic.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FULTON: Like garlic. OK. Well, that's pretty good.

MONTAGNE: And I do remember the pea-shoot flavor, although it's very - can't quite describe it.

FULTON: That is true. See, it turns out that we don't really have a good vocabulary to capture the experience of taste. And it's also quite fleeting. Unless you're actually eating it at the moment, it's very hard to describe.

So today, we're going to meet Chef Bryon Brown of Washington, D.C., who wants to change that. And he's working with this British memory expert, Ed Cooke, who's kind of a muse for him, that we've hooked them up with.

MONTAGNE: Sounds interesting. What, exactly, are they doing?

FULTON: Well, they are putting together a very unique, 12-course dinner with performers, lights and music. And they're all focused on making the taste of the food memorable.

MONTAGNE: Yeah. It sounds a little like a circus.

FULTON: It could be kind of like a circus, but it's very focused on the food. They're doing it in this geodesic dome out in the middle of a field near the river - Anacostia - in Washington, D.C. And when I heard it was going up, I headed over to check it out.

I found Chef Bryon Brown in an open field by the Navy Yard.

Mr. BRYON BROWN (Chef): Hey, what's going on?

FULTON: Brown's hard to miss. He's tall, athletic, and he's wearing a jacket that can only be described as traffic-cone orange.

Mr. BROWN: We're building our geodesic dome, and we're getting up the skeleton structure. And then once we finish this, we put on the skin.

(Soundbite of banging)

Mr. BROWN: Coming down.

FULTON: This is the first of several visits I make to Chef Brown's dome in the week leading up to opening night. Remember, he's got this ambitious experiment going in taste and memory. If he can pull it off, this extravagant dinner event, he'll have reached a personal goal that began years ago with a special dinner.

Mr. BROWN: It happened 10 years ago, and I speak about it all the time - anyone who is willing to listen - about this powerful memory of mine.

FULTON: That memory is when he took his beloved Aunt Michelle to a fancy Manhattan restaurant for her birthday. She was all dressed up. She was in her Sunday best. She had a big hat on. And the place was amazing.

Mr. BROWN: They had a 12-course, authentic Roman tasting menu, and it - the level of meticulousness that they took to our meal, that stuck with me forever.

FULTON: It was a big deal for both of them.

Mr. BROWN: You know, growing up in East Harlem, we didn't really come from anything. And so I was in a financial place where I could say, hey, Michelle, look what I've done with myself. And so it was that kind of moment for me.

FULTON: Bryon Brown remembers how the waiters glazed the glasses, how they treated his Aunt Michelle. But he cannot, for the life of him, remember the food that he put in his mouth. And that really bothered him. It's something he wants to fix when he puts on his own dinner performance.

Mr. BROWN: Food is a conduit to joy, and if you see it that way, you could use it to your advantage and create these very memorable moments.

OK. Here is - sort of where the stage will be.

FULTON: So now he finds himself in this field with a crane, lifting the framework of the dome into place - layer by layer, like a cake.

(Soundbite of helicopter)

Mr. BROWN: That's Obama, checking it out.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FULTON: And it's only taken him two years of professional cooking to get here. He started working in restaurants around Washington, including one called Minibar - Jose Andres' world famous hot spot for molecular gastronomy. And that's where Brown fell in love with the chemistry of food. He studied late into the evening after work, learning things like...

Mr. BROWN: How to gel.

FULTON: Like turning apple juice into tiny spheres, kind of like caviar.

Mr. BROWN: How to foam.

FULTON: Whipping tiny air bubbles into artichoke juice to garnish a roast.

He goes out on his own, eventually. He comes up with these elaborate dinner parties at art galleries. He calls them supper clubs.

Mr. BROWN: I feel myself as, ultimately, a host. I do great parties.

FULTON: And they're a sold-out success. Now, he wants to combine great food and great memories, like the one he shared with his Aunt Michelle.

Mr. BROWN: I said to myself: What if I could manufacture for people these very memorable moments?

FULTON: But how to do it? Enter Ed Cooke.

Mr. ED COOKE (Co-founder, Memrise.com): This one really caught my imagination because it's, in some respects, ludicrously ambitious.

FULTON: Cooke has a formula for remembering. And he should know. He's an international memory expert. He's the kind of guy who memorizes 16 decks of cards in an hour to win competitions, and who thinks it's fun to recite "Paradise Lost" to strangers in a park. So we asked him to help Chef Bryon Brown make the taste of his food memorable.

Mr. COOKE: What I'm super excited about, about what Bryon's doing, is he's really giving the mind all the help it can be given to pull apart the memories of these tastes, to kind of put them in a sensory context, which kind of amplifies and differentiates them - you know, like a glorious, sensory panorama.

FULTON: So how do you create a glorious, sensory panorama? Chef Brown wants to do it with actors, lighting and music. He wants to appeal to all the senses, and he's called it Sensorium. But Cooke says it'll take more than that to make memories. In fact, it takes three things, he says. First...

Mr. COOKE: Make it vivid. You know, if your pin number is 4197 or something -if you just imagine it as a couple - a 41-year-old married to a 97-year-old, immediately, even if it becomes slightly creepy, it also becomes memorable and, in fact, for just that reason.

FULTON: Next, Cooke says, make the dinner courses distinct from one another.

Mr. COOKE: Because if there isn't a break, two things will kind of merge together in your memory.

FULTON: And then create a story, a narrative.

Mr. COOKE: A brain loves a narrative and by having a narrative, you can kind of collect everything together under one roof, in some sense. So OK, this is the meal of Little Red Riding Hood.

FULTON: So for the first course, Little Red Riding Hood's walking through the woods. The next course, she meets the wolf, etc., etc.

But Brown and the actors think it might sound a bit cliche.

Mr. BROWN: We've purposely stood away from making a narrative of once upon a time.

FULTON: But Ed Cooke pushes back.

Mr. COOKE: This is just the - kind of the boring memory person, or whatever, in me speaking, but I do want some structure here.

FULTON: Speaking of structure, by this point, the dome is up.

Mr. BROWN: It's a rainy day today, right? But it's holding up, though.

FULTON: But there are some problems that nobody anticipated.

(Soundbite of clapping, echo)

FULTON: There's a funky echo. The voices are bouncing off the walls. They've got to fix that. And on top of that, the dome is leaking. That means the sound system and the lights can't go in yet. But the actors have to start rehearsing.

(Soundbite of music, crowd chatter)

FULTON: In a couple of days, they'll start a grueling schedule of two dinner shows a night, six days a week. And Chef Brown, he has to play the bad guy.

Mr. BROWN: I'm not everyone's greatest friend right now. I have the pocketbook strings, so I'm the one that has to say no sometimes.

FULTON: In spite of all the problems, Bryon Brown can just picture opening night.

Mr. BROWN: The other night, I came out here and I was like, look at what you got yourself into. But at the same time, I was like, look at what you're creating.

MONTAGNE: And April, I know we're going to hear tomorrow how Chief Byron Brown actually pulls this off. And it - I mean, it sounds pretty ambitious.

FULTON: Well, it's definitely ambitious. But according to our memory expert Ed Cooke, if he follows the simple rules, he can do it.

MONTAGNE: Sounds good. Thanks very much.

FULTON: Thanks.

MONTAGNE: That's April Fulton, from NPR's Science Desk.

You can find a video of the Sensorium dinner, and learn how to make your own memory dinner, at npr.org.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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