The sensory intelligence of dining in the dark
A dark-dining restaurant in Phnom Penh offers a unique sensory experience while providing employment for visually impaired people.
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In the entrance of a tall, traditional Khmer building in Cambodia, a dim purple light illuminates Honey, a 29-year-old server who greets her guests.
“I will be your guide today during this dining experience”, Honey, who prefers to use this nickname, says in English as she opens a safe box. “But, before we can proceed upstairs to the dining area, you’ll need to leave anything that can be a source of light — mobile phones, torches, cameras, wristwatches — anything that can disturb the darkness.”
As patrons lock their electronics in the safe, Honey takes each patron’s hand and puts it on her shoulder. “Follow me”, she instructs. “It will get darker as we move upstairs, and the dining area is pitch dark.”
With every step on the wooden stairs, the purple light diminishes and eventually disappears. As the group moves through several layers of thick, light-blocking curtains, they enter a pitch-dark dining area. During this trek, guests’ eyes will futilely try to adjust to the dark, the guests fumbling while they follow Honey’s confident steps.
“We’ve arrived at your table”, she says as she takes each guest’s hand and places it on the mat, presumably next to the silverware. What she doesn’t tell them is that for her, this experience is commonplace. Honey, along with all of the waiters at Dine in the Dark, are blind — and they’ve been guiding patrons to this dining experience in the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh since 2013.
Stimulating the senses
In 2012, Julien Wallet-Houget, a 35-year-old Swiss social entrepreneur, launched Dine in the Dark in Bangkok. At the time, Wallet-Houget was fascinated not only by what people ate, but also by how their experience shaped the way they tasted and remembered food.
“I was interested in lifestyle, unique dining and evening experiences”, he says.
After exposure to blindekuh (the Blind Cow), a sensory restaurant in Switzerland in 1999, Wallet-Houget became intrigued by the idea of tasting food without using one of the primary senses: sight.
“When you mute one sense, it intensifies the others”, Wallet-Houget says. “When there are no other distractions, you only focus on the food. Your tongue takes notice of sensory details that you might not otherwise realise.”
Indeed, at the restaurant in Phnom Penh, patrons find a new intelligence in their palate with exposure to any one of the four three-course ‘surprise menus’: International, Vegetarian, Khmer or the Chef’s Special. Once the courses arrive, they contain a mix of crunchy and sponge-like vegetables, hot and cold starters, and a dessert with hard and soft fruits. Halfway through the meal, guests often give up using cutlery and opt to eat with their hands instead, which is when they might find that they’ve been eating on a heart-shaped plate.
“Dark dining provides an element of surprise”, Wallet-Houget adds. “We combine different textures, heat and consistency, and generally try to be playful to make it a stimulating experience.”
As it turns out, the experience is not only invigorating for the taste buds; over a prolonged period of time, lack of exposure to a primary sense also rewires the brain in a process known as cross-modal neuroplasticity.
For patrons experiencing the loss of sight for the first time, they won’t have the same abilities that a visually impaired person has developed, like the ability to concentrate and listen better or to pay more attention to inputs from other senses. However, because vision has a dedicated neural role in perceiving taste, removing diners’ visual stimuli alters other relative inputs (smell, touch, taste), changing the way they perceive their meal.
Dining with a purpose
When it came to launching his own sensory-dining restaurant, Wallet-Houget wanted it to be more than just a creative experience. After spending years in the aid sector, Wallet-Houget, who previously worked for the United Nations, decided to develop an enterprise without donors or charity, one that instead expanded work opportunities for the local community.
It occurred to Wallet-Houget that he could give a purposeful twist to his business in Southeast Asia by exclusively hiring and training blind waiters.
“[In Cambodia], people with visual impairments often have very limited employment prospects”, he says. “Unfortunately, I’d say our waiters are overqualified for their jobs, but they don’t have a lot of other options.”
Honey, for example, is among 144,000 blind people in Cambodia, a country with some of the highest rates of blindness, and poverty, in the world. According to the International Labor Organization, people with disabilities are among the most vulnerable in Cambodia due to a lack of equal access to education, training and employment. And, while Cambodia is a country of 14 million, many people with disabilities live in isolation due to limited infrastructure and restless traffic.
“It’s very rare that you see disabled people in the streets”, Wallet-Houget explains, “even rarer to interact with them or talk to them”.
While Honey has beaten many odds after being abandoned by her parents — she is about to graduate with a Bachelor’s degree in English Literature and speaks some Japanese from her time as an exchange student in Japan — navigating the streets of Phnom Penh is still a challenge. On narrow alleyways whizzing with motorbikes and tuk-tuks, she has to ask strangers to assist her in crossing the street. She admits she sometimes finds this too overwhelming and simply prefers to stay indoors.
It’s for this reason that the Dine in the Dark experience is also about empathy, inspiring a role reversal.
“When you walk into a pitch-dark room with a visually impaired guide, you step into their world for a moment”, Wallet-Houget says. “They know this world, and you don’t.”
While Honey noted that some people fret and panic when they first enter the dining area, many nonetheless report having had a meditative evening. With electronics switched off, focused on their food, patrons aren’t worried about how they look eating with their hands or about who will contact them next. Instead, they eat mindfully, savouring surprise dishes in the dark.
“Eventually, they relax and enjoy their food”, Honey says. “And they realise being in the dark isn’t actually too bad.”