Blind waiters in a pitch-black restaurant: the toast of Paris diners comes to town
Does eating a meal in total darkness make your food taste better? London will soon be able to find out
Sunday 01 January 2006
We have been treated to bacon-and-egg ice-cream and the £100 pizza, but the latest culinary experiment on offer to British diners will have them rubbing their eyes in disbelief. For it is a blind tasting like no other.
Despite a bizarre approach to haute cuisine, the restaurant Dans le Noir has won over Parisian diners, and next month it opens in London. Guests will be led to a pitch-black dining room and served food that they cannot see. Guiding them will be a team of 10 blind waiters.
A clamour for tables is expected when the restaurant starts to take bookings this week, for Dans le Noir is being hailed as a crucible for the culinary craze of 2006.
It has already sparked a debate over the role of sight when it comes to eating. Those supporting the dining-in-the-dark concept, including charities for the blind, say it will open up diners' other senses and liberate their tastebuds.
Traditionalists, on the other hand, insist that looking at a stunning creation before eating it is a fundamental part of haute cuisine.
Edouard de Broglie, the man behind the British venture after launching the Paris restaurant, said his interest was in the sensory, not the social aspect of dining.
"The preconception of what food tastes like because of how it looks is gone," he said. "All your other senses are abruptly awoken and you taste the food like you have never tasted it before."
But other top chefs were scathing. Marco Pierre White, who has opened a string of London eateries and was the youngest chef to be awarded three Michelin stars, said: "For me, the eyes must be used as well as the palate. It's all part of the show.
"And seeing top waiters in action is a key element of the service. I think this is conceptual more than real. It is not fine dining. But I guess it saves a few pounds on electricity.
"Part of a wonderful dining experience is seeing Mother Nature's creations on a plate. I think the critics will have a field day."
Other novelties that have seduced metropolitan diners in recent years include a £100 pizza topped with white truffle shavings at Gordon Ramsay's Maze Restaurant in London. And Heston Blumenthal impressed critics with incredible creations such as bacon-and-egg ice-cream and snail porridge at the Fat Duck in Bray, Berkshire, voted the world's best restaurant last year.
Mr Blumenthal said he was interested in trying out blind dining. "I will have to give it a go," he said. "But I don't think we are ever going to get to the point where people will be flocking to restaurants in the dark."
Yet Dans le Noir, which opened in Paris more than a year ago, remains packed most nights, serving three courses for £39 per person, without wine.
The Independent on Sunday visited it last week to discover what the attraction of eating under cover of darkness is.
We made our choices from the menu before shuffling into the blacked-out room in single file, hands placed on the shoulder of the person in front.
Immediately, the world felt both infinite and claustrophobic, as we found our seats. But with a gentle reassuring touch, the waiter, Benoit, explained that there was a napkin, knife and fork and an unbreakable glass on the table. Then he disappeared.
You cannot signal your waiter, but calling his name brings him to back to your side. Soon, the food arrived. With our hands, we discovered that the vegetables and scallops had been neatly presented, which all seemed rather pointless.
The pudding - chocolate fondant and ice-cream, apparently - left us perplexed. It could have been anything mousse-like. Our tastebuds may well have been aroused, but they were confused. After an hour and a half, we were desperate to return to the people and colours outside.
But the owners of Dans le Noir are confident that it will be a huge success in the UK. And it has already won praise from the Royal National Institute for the Blind and Action for Blind People for creating jobs for the blind.
The chef, his team of three, and a handful of front-of-house staff can see. But the 10 waiters are all officially registered blind, and have been subjected to a rigorous training regime.
Nicolas Chartier, project manager of the London branch, insisted that diners would have nothing to fear from blind waiters carrying hot dishes.
"It may seem, at first, a recipe for disaster, but the waiters are highly skilled," he said. He added that diners would learn about life as a blind person. "The waiters show us what it is like to experience their world," he said.
"When you cannot see, you depend on the waiter to guide you, so a special relationship develops between customers and the blind. It makes you rethink everything."
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