Lights Out, Taste Up: The Journey of Dining in the Dark

Food Features Dark Dining
Lights Out, Taste Up: The Journey of Dining in the Dark

Since the opening of Switzerland’s Blindekuh (Blind Cow), which is said to be the first restaurant to introduce dark dining in 1999, the concept has continued to expand and flourish across the UK, Germany, India, Dubai, Asia, America and The Netherlands.

“Pioneered by the likes of Axel Rudolph, psychologist, and owner of the Unsicht-Bar [in Germany], the concept was developed with the idea of ‘shedding some light’ on the sensory world of the blind,” writes Charles Spence and Betina Piqueras-Fiszman.

In their article Dining in the Dark, published in The British Psychological Society in 2012, Spence and Piqueras-Fiszman write that this empathic approach is meant to “place the blind at something of an advantage relative to their normally sighted counterparts.”

After visiting a dark dining restaurant in Paris, Sandra Ballij and Bas de Ruiter decided to bring the concept to Amsterdam. Thus, opening Ctaste in 2007.

The restaurant employs 26 staff, including 14 who are visually or hearing impaired.

With the opening of the restaurant, Sandra and Bas wanted to help reduce unemployment for groups with sensory disabilities, raise awareness and offer diners a chance to dine in complete darkness.

The mystery, the desire for a new experience, and of course, the unique way of dining – are all intriguing and alluring aspects that bring customers in daily.

Served by highly trained blind or partially sighted servers, Ctaste offers a three-course dinner menu of fish and fruits de la mer, meat and poultry or vegetarian. Otherwise for something lighter there’s the option of high tea, high wine, beer, ice cream and chocolate tastings – all in pitch darkness.

Upon arrival at Ctaste, diners are told to put all their belongings into a locker, especially their phones, followed by a quick briefing about a few “must-knows.” Then, holding on to the waiter’s shoulder, the diners are led into the darkness in a single file.

Unable to make out any form or shapes around you, just the voices of other customers creates a sense of vulnerability, and slight anxiety, as the darkness is quite confronting.

The sudden sound of a waiter coming near you creates that same excitement of when you see a waiter bringing out food.

Then finally:

“The wine is just at 12 o’clock and the dish is right in front of you. Ma’am, I am now passing you a spoon, have you got it?”

Once dinner is over, the waiter guides you back into the light to discuss what you ate and drank. Turns out the soft bread with something fishy was actually a tortilla wrap filled with cream cheese, date, walnut and honey. Who would have thought?

When you can’t rely on your sight to identity what’s in front of you, it encourages the other three senses – smell, hear, and touch to work that bit harder, therefore, enhancing the food you’re eating and challenging your palate.

As a result, the chefs tend to use stronger flavors and unique combinations of textures to compensate for the lack of sight.

Ctaste also works together with Horecavakpunt, the food industry association in the Netherlands, who recognize training companies and hospitality schools to ensure that students get the best practical experience.

Bernadet Naber, the spokeswoman for the Association explains that business owners must comply with The Equal Treatment Act Disability for the Netherlands.

“Entrepreneurs must gradually increase the general accessibility of their company for the disabled unless it is a disproportionate tax for the entrepreneur. If a disabled person requests a simple provision or measure (for accessibility), then the entrepreneur must agree if it is not disproportionately burdensome or disproportionate to their company.”

A few restaurants in the Netherlands provide a braille menu, Bernadet explains, and those that don’t usually read the menu out to the customer.

“Hospitality is central to our entrepreneurs, so they will do everything they can to help the guest who needs help.”

Mövenpick Hotel Voorburg is one example of a business that has ensured accessibility for all customers. There’s a disabled toilet and extra-wide doors for easy passage of a wheelchair, along with blocks so that tables can be increased for people in a wheelchair or scooter, and there is indoor parking for scooters.

The sales and marketing manager at Mövenpick Hotel Voorburg, Marjolein Kist says:

“We take into account people with disabilities. We do this without too much notice so that the person feels at ease with us. We see it as our social responsibility and believe that people with disabilities [are] equal and need to be addressed with respect.”

In the Netherlands, from a population of 17 million, 2 million people have a disability, including people with limited or no hearing or sight, and those with a physical or mental disability.

And just like everyone else they want to find jobs, shop, dine out and enjoy things that are readily available. However, this can be challenging and at times, not always possible due to physical and social challenges.

In January this year, Martin van Rijn State Secretary for the Dutch Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sport, launched the ‘Participating with a disability’ campaign during the Horecava trade exhibition held at the Amsterdam RAI Exhibition and Convention Centre.

The purpose of the campaign is to create awareness and insight into how people with disabilities can fully participate in society.

Businesses that attended the exhibition were also asked to view their food, beverages and companies from the perspective of people with disabilities, and if needed, make the required adjustments.

In the Trend Watch: Dining In The Dark article, Chef Vaibhav Bhargava says:

“[Dining in the dark] is all part of a shared dining experience where you feel what it is like for the blind to eat a meal in a restaurant. When the lights are on, visual cues dominate the dinner and many sensory nuances are missed, but in an experience like this, you are left to imagine the possibilities, the challenges and the excitement of tasting the food you cannot see.”

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