Dining in the darkness

Charity inspired experience of 'blind eating'

Last updated 11:00 27/08/2014
blind dining

SURPRISE: Matt O'Conner samples tiny morsels without knowing what they are.

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A blindfolded dining experience was one of the sellout events of Visa Wellington On a Plate. Sarah Catherall shares her blind-dining experience.

Completely blinded by a mask, I hold tightly on to my friend's shoulder and follow her up a steep, narrow flight of stairs into a restaurant where I've dined several times before.

WBC co-owner Clay Toomer takes us one at a time to our seats, and, the world still completely blacked out, I drop down into my chair. My drink is "at 2 o'clock", water ahead of me "at 12 o'clock". Suddenly, everything I know, everything I love about dining out - soaking up the atmosphere, looking around at fellow diners, watching my friends as they talk - has gone.

For the next two hours, my friends and I dine in darkness, and learn, for a brief time, what it is like to be blind.

Our first drink is a craft beer, and rather than staring at the colour of the drink and knowing instantly what it is, we're left to guess. How do we do that?

By dipping our noses down into the glass and taking a long, deep sniff. "It's beer!" one exclaims. But it's a fruity, floral, sweet beer, and I'm overwhelmed by the strong smells.

Our waiter with a foreign accent (something I might not normally focus on but my hearing is elevated) puts a plate down in front of us and I gingerly reach out, my fingers feeling for the finger food. What I notice about this first course is its texture - long, crunchy, crispy pieces huddled on a plate. They crunch in my mouth, not all the same flavour. "Kale crisps, yum," says my friend. There are other flavours, too, and I'm not sure what they are. Later, chef Tom Hutchison reveals what we've eaten, to gasps of surprise in the room.

Tonight, we're at the WBC blind dining event with about 20 fellow diners. Hutchison created the concept four years ago, at his other restaurant, Capitol, after being approached by the charity, CBM, which among its causes funds cataract surgery in Third World countries. CBM ran a blind dining fundraiser in Auckland last week at Simon Gault's Euro, when enough money was raised through the auction alone to fund 200 cataract operations in Africa and other poorer countries.

The initial Wellington event went so well that Hutchison ran it as a Wellington On a Plate event two years ago.

"We had one group recently who took their blindfolds off a lot, but the underlying idea is that you experience what it's like to be dining as though you are blind."

"It's not a guess-what-I'm- eating kind of event. There are sounds, touches and smells, eating with your fingers, that kind of thing, and everything is heightened."

Our second course is some kind of soup, served in a shot glass. I have no idea what it is, and part of the fun of blind dining is the guesswork involved. There's something lumpy in there, and fairly intense flavours, too. Once that's gone, we're served a plate of small morsels on china spoons. "Eat them from the left to the right," we're told. The first spoon has a shell on it. Is it a clam? "No, no," says one friend. "A pipi!" exclaims another. Later, we learn we were all wrong - it was a tuatua. There are three other flavours: a smoked fish, a chinese vegetable thing, and the last one has intense lemon coriander Thai flavours. A bowl of noodles is a surprise - I have no idea that mushroom and salmon caviar is atop. I'm trying to eat it with chopsticks and the noodles are slipping everywhere.

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The main course is drenched in a delicious, distinctly beetroot sauce. When dessert comes, candy is popping in my mouth, atop a wobbly jelly. Hutchison deliberately created a menu with different textures and a medley of flavours designed to excite and surprise.

I taste icecream, and later learn that it was deep-fried into an icecream ball. Without visual cues, the flavours all blend together. The texture of the food is overwhelming, and my tastebuds are working overtime.

We're huddled around the table, talking, and the other interesting thing about blind dining is you focus intensely on your fellow diners and their conversation. There are no other distractions - no fellow diners to look over at, or a waiter to watch, or a busy kitchen to distract. Behind the mask, I feel cut off from the world, and I do notice that I'm quite happy to have my friends sitting so close, and my knee touching one of them. Also, behind the blackened mask, I don't enjoy food and wine in quite the same way: I'm a far more visual person than I realised.

When I pull my mask off to look around and observe other diners, I notice a few things: Diners at one table are still moving their heads around to listen to the person talking; one of my friends is still gesturing with her hands as she talks; diners seem comfortable using knives and forks, and picking their glasses up without spilling anything. My bib is completely beetroot stained.

In the time that Toomer and Hutchison have run the blind dining event here, only one glass has been broken. Toomer says that at one blind dining night, three blindfolded friends spent the whole evening holding hands.

When we all pull our masks off at the end of the night, and go up to the bar to see the lineup of the food we've eaten, some of us are amazed that there's not as much food as we thought. The surprise of the night is the tripe dish that Hutchison cleverly disguised. Without seeing what we ate during the night, and because new plates were constantly brought out, we couldn't properly judge our intake.

At another table, a fellow blind diner, Mark Russell, of the PR firm The Ideas Shop, found that by losing his sight, his other senses were amplified. "We were tuned into the conversation a lot more. We knew some of the wines, but there were a few foods that we didn't have any idea about," he says. "It was great fun but also great to have your sight back." My thoughts exactly.

I'll definitely savour my next sighted meal out.

DINING OUT A MINEFIELD FOR THE PARTIALLY SIGHTED

Brent Houston regularly eats out, but the visually impaired Wellington man prefers a few favourite restaurants he knows his way around.

Dim restaurant lighting doesn't help the partially sighted man, who can see little more than candlelight on the table when he gets to a restaurant. "I'm almost completely blind in a restaurant because of the lighting. The first thing you have to do is find your way to the table, and find out where the seat is, and where you are in the room. Once you get past that, you have to figure out what's on the table in front of you, and where all the glasses are. Then it's a guessing game, too, of what you're eating."

A regular at Monsoon Poon, Sweet Mother's Kitchen and the Thai Chef, staff at those places have got to know him, and his disability is recognised because of his cane. Recently, a Monsoon Poon waiter told him that his glass was "at 12 o'clock" - such cues help.

"I'm often with friends and family, and they help me with the menu, and there are also now apps on the phone that you can point at a menu and it will read it back to you. Although, they don't always work, as there can be issues if there are multiple columns on a menu, that kind of thing."

Food presentation means nothing, and the Datacom employee has to focus on the smell, taste and texture of what he eats. Houston began losing his sight at the age of 17, through the degenerative eye disease retinitis pigmentosa (RP).

"It can all be a guessing game when I go out for dinner," he says, adding that he's impressed that people are signing up for WBC's blind dining event. "It takes a lot of guts for people to put anything in their mouths."

- The Dominion Post

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