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If you are in possession of all five senses (let’s agree to leave intuition out for now), which would be the hardest one to do without? Imagine a plate of spring asparagus, topped with a warm poached egg, the golden yolk oozing out, shavings of fine Pecorino cheese and fresh petit pois scattered around; sea salt and black pepper pots sit next to you. Which sense could you bear to do away with to enjoy this simple meal?
It’s a question we’ve been asking ourselves since elementary school and I’m not sure there is one sense you could single out with ease. To an eater, and for clarity’s sake let’s use that grotesquely pompous word – gourmand, the sense of taste, smell, touch, sound and sight combine to form a package that is vital to the identification, synthesis and enjoyment of a dish. What happens when you remove one sense? Do the other senses benefit from amplification in direct response to the absence of one? Are your faculties and powers of perception as reliable if one or two are removed? And, how privileged we are to indulge in this conversation, this sort of ‘game’, when so many are without one, or more senses and they have adapted well to a world that at times, demands all five.
This is what happened when my sense of sight was temporarily blocked during dinner one evening in Dubai. The scene was set at the aptly named Noire at the Fairmont Hotel when the host met our group of seven, with a pair of night-vision goggles strapped to his forehead. It felt like the set of a science fiction movie, only the cast, in other words the guests, were dressed very smartly, as can be expected from the Dubai dining scene.
After a session of tasting cocktails in a black glass to get us adjusted to things to come (we all faired poorly in this taste test), we were escorted to the dining room by a waiter. Cell phones and electronic devices were switched off or handed over to staff. It was alarmingly pitch dark in the room, and I was sure the floor sloped downwards. That can’t be right, I said to myself. I strained my eyes, waiting to adjust and hoping to see a glimmer of light. Seated next to my partner, I squeezed his leg and he held my now clammy hand, reassuringly.
“Excuse me, Madame,” a waitress said, and I pulled my hand away in modesty. Strapped to the waitress’ head, I knew, was a pair of U.S army-issue night vision goggles and she guided my hands to my cutlery. Very close to it was plastic tumbler filled with a beverage I wasn’t able to identify. Perhaps it was a sweet cocktail, with the taste of berries and cinnamon? I wasn’t too bothered about being able to identify what was going to arrive for dinner – it’s all kept hush-hush at Noire. After all, identifying and assessing ingredients and their arrangement together is what I do most days, like many food writers. The waiters revealed nothing, despite us trying to engage them sneakily; the chef presented textures and flavors to test and confuse the taste buds. That the meal was served at room temperature makes perfect sense, for practical reasons. For this type of bold venture, the last thing you’d want to do is have a guest burn their tongue on the soup. I noticed from the start that the noise levels in the room were particularly high. I made a note that it wasn’t just our group, every table seemed to be talking at a higher than usual volume. Was this to compensate for sigh?
Though I was familiar with my group of wonderfully funny, entertaining diners, I found myself frowning and coaching myself to relax. At one point it sounded as if we were shouting, a medley of voices rising and then, the laughter. Soft giggles turned into hysterical gabbling. What was this little cube – a carrot, a beetroot, a turnip? How could our trusted sense of taste, smell, touch and sound be so out of sync? Also, what if we needed to suddenly evacuate the room (or use the bathroom), the thought plagued me somewhere in the backyard of my mind.
Finally, we were escorted out, and our eyes blinked rapidly in the light as we adjusted to it. The world seemed too bright, too gaudy. The chef was waiting outside, to present the meal to us. Gob smacked, a few of us food journalists learnt that the main was in fact chicken in a beef-based sauce, not lamb. Only my partner had it right. I strapped on the night vision goggles and the weight of it startled me. I couldn’t imagine wearing it for more than a few seconds. And yet, a band of young, slim-framed waiters had done so with ease, and grace, for the last two hours.
On our way home, I pondered the varied reactions at the table, particularly from two enthused guests who thought dining in the dark would be a perfect activity on a date. Not a first date, we all agreed. Maybe it could be a third. A doomed relationship, I found myself thinking with a chuckle. Have you dined in the dark? We’d love to hear your impressions.
These experiences employ blind or partially sighted wait staff, and aim to give the diner the experience of life without sight. Try it!
• Dans Le Noir: Paris, London, New York, Saint Petersburg
• Dining in the Dark KL: Kuala Lumpur
• Opaque: locations across the USA
• The Blind Café: San Francisco, Boulder, Seattle, Austin, Portland
• Dialogo nel Buio, Milan
• Noire: Dubai