Blind dining experience launches in Auckland
A new culinary venture in Auckland invites diners to taste what life is like for blind people, with an eating experience that takes place in complete darkness.
Dans Le Noir launched in France in 2003 and has become hugely popular, attracting A-list celebrities and even members of the royal family to its landmark restaurants in Paris and London.
Guests are guided and served by blind waiters, reversing the traditional imbalance of power between those who see and those who cannot.
It's a thought-provoking experience that encourages people to consider what life is like for the blind, and challenges their preconceptions about food.
* Money tool for the blind released by Reserve Bank
* 3D-printed paintings allow blind people to 'see' art
* Blind south Auckland resident becomes computer pro
* BlindSquare app will help visually impaired access businesses in Wellington
Founder Edouard de Broglie said many people weren't as good with their tastebuds as they might think.
"People often get tuna and veal mixed up for instance, and they also mix up duck and beef," he said. "They think they know, but actually people eat a lot with their eyes."
Dans Le Noir launched in Auckland on Thursday evening in partnership with Rydges Hotel.
More than a dozen blind waiters have been hired for the project, becoming employees of Rydges with the backing of a French team which has temporarily relocated to New Zealand.
Rydges general manager James Billing said hiring blind staff had been a steep learning curve, but well worth the effort.
"It's a great opportunity to support people in our community that would otherwise perhaps not have the opportunity to work in hospitality," he said. "They really want to go the extra mile, and it's been quite heartwarming for us actually."
Billing said dining in the dark gave people a chance to have meaningful conversations with their neighbours, instead of burying their heads in their phones.
"The art of the conversation seems to have been lost a little bit, so I think this is a pretty cool concept because you can't ignore the people you're dining with," he said.
Waiter Carolyn Peat said she was looking forward to sharing the experience with diners.
"It might be hard for some guests to let go of their trust and realise they're being guided by a blind person," she said, with a laugh.
"It's a complete reverse, normally it's us being guided."
Fellow waiter Parveen Shankar hoped the experience would demonstrate to guests that blind people were just as capable as anyone else.
"Some people think we can't do anything, so this is a chance to prove ourselves," he said.
Shankar knows well how difficult it can be to adjust to life in the dark; he was fully sighted until 2004, when he lost the use of his eyes in a car crash.
"When I got blind I said to my mum 'my life is finished', but I was totally wrong," he said. "I started learning and doing things with the Blind Foundation, and I went back and said 'mum, my life hasn't finished, it begins from here'."
Both Peat and Shankar were struggling to find work before being hired to take part in Dans Le Noir.
De Broglie hoped guests would take something unique from their experience eating in the dark.
"Some people will like the sensory aspects, some people will like the social aspects, and some people will like this idea about better understanding disability," he said. "So I hope everyone will find something interesting in this experience."
DANS LE NOIR REVIEW
Pitch darkness is initially an unsettling experience.
Our eyes cast around in the black looking for light - shadows even, anything that could be used as a reference point to make sense of our surroundings.
There was nothing.
Instead, we were completely dependent on our blind waiters to show us to our seats, and explain the layout of the table.
We'd entered the room conga-style, each person placing their hand on the shoulder of the person in front to form a human train that slowly shuffled into the dark.
Without eyes, your hands take on much greater importance.
I felt around the edges of my plate (round), poked a finger into the food (squishy), and then explored further until I found the wine (important).
We decided the first course had to be fish.
We decided the second course also had to be fish.
Actually, it tasted exactly the same as the first course. Was the chef playing games with us?
Spirited debate ensued about the difference between the first and second courses, although this debate ultimately proved inconclusive.
Much later we discovered there had been a serving error and we had, in fact, been given the same dish twice. It was a good illustration of how difficult it is to identify food without using your eyes.
The third dish also tasted like fish - surprise! - however on further chewing we decided it had to be steak. I don't think I've ever confused fish with steak before.
Public service announcement: it's liberating to eat with your fingers, and it's much easier than trying to blindly scoop food up with utensils.
Don't worry; the person beside you is likely enjoying the same finger freedom.
The waiters remind people to go to the bathroom before entering for just this reason - clean hands are essential if you're dining with your digits.
We chatted away to strangers as though they were old friends, freed from the shackles of having to make eye contact or worry about our physical appearance.
"I'm normally quite shy and wouldn't talk this much," one diner confided.
I kept reaching for my phone; a subconscious movement that repeated itself every few minutes like a junkie shaking for their fix.
Dans Le Noir staff had confiscated our phones for precisely this reason - no light allowed, at all.
Eating in the dark is a worthy experience for the intrepid diner. It's definitely entertaining, but is also thought-provoking in ways I hadn't anticipated.