The taxi leaves me in front of what looks like an abandoned warehouse. "Is this the right address?" I ask the driver, puzzled. "Duì” (“Sure”), he replies in Mandarin. Still hesitant, I get off the cab and tell him "qing ni deng deng yixiar" (“would you please wait a for me a bit?"). But there he is, Greg Robinson, Ultraviolet's sous chef, coming out of the building to greet me.
I had tried my luck booking one of the 10 seats available every night at Ultraviolet, the French chef’s Paul Pairet flagship restaurant in Shanghai, to no avail. But when Paul asked me if I would be interested to take a look behind the scenes instead, I jumped at the opportunity. This is why I couldn't recognize the restaurant - its address is actually a secret. The guests are picked up by a van every night at a meeting point along the Bund, the city’s riverfront.
It's 7 p.m. and the guests won't be here for another hour. Greg lets me in an empty foyer: it's completely dark, and I giggle uneasily. An automatic door opens and we enter the dimly lit dining room, with its big communal table in the center. I don't need to be shown my chair: my surname is projected, written in light, directly on the table surface. Greg describes the equipment of the room: 56 speakers, seven high resolution projectors, four dry smell projectors. And the walls are actually four screens, floor to ceiling high. The whole surface occupied by the restaurant is 900 square meters (about 2953-square feet). In a similar space, a normal restaurant would fit 100 guests per night – here they sit 10, with a ratio of 2.5 employee per guest. "We operate all this from the control room. Let's go”.
We exit the dining room through heavy, floor-length curtains, go through a corridor, and reach the control room, where multiple screens show images from the 12 CCTV cameras located all over the restaurant. We move to the kitchen, which by now is buzzing with activity. “You'll be doing the whole 20 -course tasting menu along with the guests. You can stay here,” Greg says delimiting with his hands in the air a small area of the kitchen that’s reserved for me, if I promise not to be in anyone's way. Then I get to meet Paul Pairet, who, in a baseball cap and a T-shirt, does not look like your run-of-the-mill French chef. I ask him about the idea behind Ultraviolet, which he started to conceive 15 years ago: "What we do here is to unite food with multi-sensorial technologies to create an immersive dining experience,” he explains. “So, just like El Somni,” I say, mentioning The Roca Brothers’ brainchild. Paul looks unimpressed: “El Somni is aiming for art. It’s not what we're doing here. What we do is instead to enhance the pleasure drawn from food by adding images, smells, suggestions, that will get you deeper in the dining experience. I call it “psycho-taste,” or “everything about the taste but the taste,” aka all the factors that influence our perception of taste”.
“Also, we did it first”, he adds with a grin.
I resume my position in the tiny corner of the kitchen: the guests are seated, dinner’s starting. One of the first courses, named Le Gouter (the school kids’ afternoon snack, in French), looks exactly like a slice of white bread next to a bite of dark chocolate. On the walls appears a early 20th century picture of schoolkids in their pretty uniforms. Suddenly the picture becomes animated and the kids stick out their tongue to the camera: this wasn't what it seemed at first glance. Nor is the gouter: what looked like bread is actually lemon-flavoured meringue, the chocolate a foie gras praline.
Now the air in the room smells of iodine, like walking on the beach soon after a sea storm. The next dish, [Oyster] 2, is brought at the table. The shell appears sealed, but a poke of the knife cracks it open, revealing a seawater brine and a dollop of caviar. On the bottom of the shell is the oyster. And then, in a long yet perfectly paced progression, guests are drawn into a tall forest, down in the earth (can you smell the underbrush?) while tasting the the truffle-burnt soup bread; invited to a open-air picnic in the French countryside, a green meadow on the table, where they're served chicken filled with foie gras, black cod and veal shank. After their 20 courses are over, the guests leave the room. But just before they take their coats back, a cock-a-doodle-doo summons them back: "breakfast" is served. What looks like sunny side up eggs with peas and bacon is actually the last dessert.
Standing in my tiny corner of the kitchen, I share their enjoyment of the beautiful food and watch, Big Brother-like, their delight for the perfect show. This might not be, as Pairet would say, artsy, but it is art, art in much the same way a great movie is.