One of the hottest tickets at the 2012 South Beach Wine and Food Festival is Thursday evening's Dining in the Dark at the Perry South Beach Hotel, part of The New York Times Dinner Series. The sold-out event, hosted by David Burke with Market 17, allows diners to experience food in a unique way. By turning out the lights, a meal becomes an exploratory adventure in touch, taste, and even sound.
The Dining in the Dark experience poses unique challenges to the coordinators of the dinner. Everything needs to be mapped out with military-like precision from the exact location of wine glasses (directly in line with butter knives) to plans for escorting diners to the bathroom in complete darkness.
Miami New Times was asked to sit in on the rehearsal, where wait staff from The Perry South Beach Hotel are training. Though the staff is highly skilled, everything changes when the lights go out.
The scene is more science fiction movie than dining experience. Two
dozen people dressed all in black stand in a row, each with a night
vision monocle strapped onto their heads. Instead of going into battle
with Terminators, these men and women are training to serve a four
course gourmet dinner. After some time acclimating with the night vision
scopes, it's time to try out a dinner service.
Staff from the
South Beach Wine and Food Festival and others recruited to serve as patrons are walked into
the dimly lit ballroom and seated. Kirsta Grauberger, managing
partner at Market 17 restaurant in Fort Lauderdale, which holds nightly dining in
the dark experiences, lays the groundwork (and a few rules) for the
"This is a completely dark dining experience. At first you may
feel disoriented, but go with it. Once the food and wine starts
flowing, you'll be more comfortable. If you have to get up, raise your
hand and someone will come and escort you out".
Then the lights
go out. It's dark. There's some nervous giggling and quips ("get your hand off my leg"). Anticipation is in the
air as the wait staff serve for the first time.
Servers practice pouring water ("don't fill up the glass the whole way") and
placing empty dishes down in front of the diners. Working slowly at first,
the staff start to get the hang of it. What's so difficult when the
staff can see in the dark? I'm about to find out as I take my turn with
the night vision goggles.
With the night vision goggles on, the
room is turned into monochrome green. Water, white wine, and even red
wine look alike. The only way to tell the difference is by identifying
the different glasses. Then there's the difference in depth perception.
Because you're looking through one lens, everything is out of whack. I
try to touch the back of a chair that I think is right in front of me
and it's about two feet further away than I think it is. This is not
But it is old hat to Chester Alvarez and Diego Rivera, who
work the dark dinners at Market 17. They're training the Perry staff
and will serve as captains the night of the event. They've done this
thousands of times already and tell me that the main challenge for
servers is getting used to those changes in depth perception, especially
when it comes to pouring wine and water.
A few more dry runs,
and it's time for the staff to actually serve food. This is a complete
run-through, so we leave the ballroom and are led back in as if this
were the actual dinner. After the introduction, the lights go off and
we're served our first course. Though we have silverware, all the
dishes are designed to be eaten with your hands. I'm not going to give
away any part of the menu (the fun is in the discovery), but other senses do
come into play - texture and taste, especially.
Grauberger tells me that the key to a successful dining in the dark
event is allowing the chefs to play with unexpected textures, spices, and flavor profiles
in the foods.
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And for diners? Grauberger says to bring a sense of
adventure, relax and enjoy the moment. And don't wear the white silk
Prada number -- just in case.