What you see, when you can't see
When you think of a sunny day, do you picture the sunshine? Or do you think about the feeling? The warmth of the sun's rays on your skin, the smell of artificial coconut from your sunscreen and the tingle of a cold fizzy drink touching your top lip. We live in a sensory world, where our experiences are not only defined by what we see, but how we experience them.
Ask any great salesperson and they will tell you that to sell something you must not only convince the eyes, but all the other senses too. Consider "the happiest place on earth" Disneyland knows how to sell, but more importantly, they know how to sell an experience. From "air smellitizers" that pump nostalgic aromas of delicious waffle cones, buttery popcorn and sunscreen scents at hotel lobbies, to enforcing a no fly zone within 3,000 feet or 3 miles of the Disney parks radius. Disney knows how to manipulate our perception and feast on our wild imagination.
Our world is experienced not just through our eyes, but through all of our senses. So what happens when you suddenly lose that ability to see? For the past decade there has been an increase in popularity of dine-in-the-dark or "Dans Le Noir" restaurants, where people actually pay to eat their meals in complete darkness. There is a theory that eating in complete darkness can enhance other senses and create a unique gastronomical experience. I decided to check it out for myself and share my experience.
We were greeted by a young woman that took our temperature and offered us a locker to store our things, this included anything with lights, phones, watches etc. We sat down at a small table displaying the menu options for the night, but unlike other menus, these were coded in colours. No descriptions of the food were given, and we had to choose from the Red (meat), Blue (seafood) and Green (vegan/vegetarian) menus.
As we awaited for the hostess to return, I felt my hands clam up, like I was about to get on a rollercoaster, excited yet a little nervous. I was skeptical about eating seafood in the dark, and asked the hostess if there would be shells or bones. She assured me that all the food was safe, with no shells or bones to worry about. I felt at ease, then other anxious thoughts spurred, would the smell be too pungent? What if they give me octopus?! Before I could dwell deeper into a whirlpool of assumptions, the hostess emerged and guided us towards the entrance of the restaurant.
We walked into a dark hallway, where we met Ghow, he was blind and would be our waiter for the night. "You have four guests" said the hostess and then she walked back towards the lighted lobby.
"Welcome to dans le noir, I am Ghow, I will be your waiter tonight, are you friends or family?"
"We are all friends" we replied sheepishly.
"Wonderful, and who is at the front?"
I hesitated slightly, still making sense of what I was about to walk into.
"me" I said awkwardly..."Sonia!"
"And behind Sonia?"
I nudged Lucas gently...
"and behind Lucas?"
and behind Shammi?
Due to Covid-19 measures, I held on to a long metal stick which connected me to Ghow, and we continued to make a conga line between us four. We walked slowly into pitch darkness, each step with slight hesitation, each stride with a little more trust than the last. My eyes open wide, desperately seeking a flicker or even a speck of light. When we finally sat at our table, we all couldn't get over how buzzy it was to be in such darkness, the kind of darkness that one doesn't get used to, the type that is hard to distinguish between closed eyes or open.
We began getting acquainted with our surroundings, playing footsies to understand the distance between each other, lightly tapping the table and brushing its edges with our fingers. A sense of relief came over us once we were seated and we could hear others laughing and experiencing the same shock as us.
There was something familiar about being in complete darkness, similar to being alone in your room. It feels private. What I found distinctly odd was being away from the overwhelming spill of information. The pings, vibrations, notifications, and breaking news alerts. I was suddenly so aware of how visual our world is, the scrolling of bottomless images, the virtual ads that you can't seem to escape even while you're commuting to work.
Because we could never see him coming, Ghow always surprised us. He gave us each a glass and challenged us to pour our own water. I was surprised at how quickly we familiarised ourselves with the distance of the table to our mouths, how quickly I could distinguish the knife from the rest of the cutlery by its weight. It was like having enhanced compensatory abilities. We tucked our napkin into our collars, and eagerly anticipated our entrées.
The first thing I noticed was the smell, the aroma of the sea, fresh fruity chutneys and crisp herbs dancing together in harmony. I felt like that little mouse on Ratatouille that tastes the cheese and strawberries and then experiences synesthesia. I could hear others trying to guess what meat they were tasting, descriptions of buttery, salty and softness. Was it veal, was it lamb, or beef?
I recall feeling slightly agitated that I couldn't see what I was about to eat, that I couldn't strategise where the best placement for my fork was. What if I got a fork full of sauce and no meat? It was difficult to estimate the size of the bite, sometimes leaving me with no option but to eat like a toddler. It was awkward at first, but once I realised everyone else was experiencing the exact same thing, I relaxed. After all, no one can see the mess I'd made.
Each plate was a new experience and talking point, each bite a new sensory awakening. We laughed together as we not only savoured our food, but savoured the moment. No worry of coriander stuck to your teeth or pressure to make eye contact, just laughter, tasty food and great conversation.
As we made our way out, and our eyes met the luminescence of light again. Our world seemed a little brighter, a little more colourful, and our hearts a little more grateful for the ability to see it. ✨