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by Adam Sage in Paris

A pioneering research centre is to open in France today in an attempt to answer questions that have haunted cooks for centuries: what makes a good meal and how can we make children eat their vegetables?

The project, which has an official stamp of approval from the French Government, aims to provide what may be the first-ever objective analysis of diners' likes and dislikes.

The ultra-modern centre created by Paul Bocuse, France's greatest chef, will try to find out how taste, smell, decor, waiters, conversation and other factors affect the pleasure of food. The upshot should be a theory of eating to help all professional cooks.

Hervé Fleury, the director of the Paul Bocuse Institute near Lyons, where the centre is based, said: “The research will focus on man's behaviour with food and his relationship to taste, pleasure, finance, health and wellbeing.”

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In the kitchens, chefs will experiment with futuristic technology that can cut cooking times in half and enable boiling-hot food to be frozen in five minutes.

Diners will serve as guinea-pigs in the 100sq m (or 1,080sq ft) eating area, which can be modified to resemble a brasserie, high-class restaurant or canteen.

Their behaviour will be observed in an attempt to discover why they finish some dishes and leave others; why they chat happily or sit in silence; and whether the service is welcome or irritating.

Cameras will film their reactions as they consume their food; microphones will record their conversations, and sociologists, nutritionists, linguists, marketing experts and other researchers will use the material for master's degrees produced in collaboration with French universities.

Five theses have already been accepted. They are on the language and gestures of waiters; how restaurant decoration and seating arrangements impact on diners; what makes for a convivial meal; how to persuade children to eat vegetables; and what makes customers decide they are full (or experiencing specific sensorial satiety, to use the technical term).

Agnès Giboreau, the director of research, said that scientists would try to discover “what makes us feel comfortable at a table, what favours dialogue and contact between diners. We want to study people from several different countries, but not from the UK because they are too different”.

Martin Laville, Professor of Nutrition at Lyons University, said that the centre could help nutritionists to discover why adolescents preferred, for example, chips to broccoli, by looking at “the codes of pleasure”.

Mr Bocuse, 82, whose restaurant near Lyons has had three Michelin stars since 1965, said that the centre would help gastronomy to move with the times. “There is nothing like this anywhere else in the world,” he said.

Other chefs were sceptical. Jean-Pierre Hoquet, chef at the legendary Train Bleu restaurant in Paris, said: “I don't think you can put the soul of a restaurant into a formal academic paper. It's intangible and it depends on so many different things.”
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