Sunday 25 February 2018

Dining in the dark

Ever wondered what's it like to eat a gourmet meal in complete darkness? John Meagher did just that for a novel TV experiment, which airs tonight

Mystery dish: Dylan McGrath at work in Mint in Ranelagh
Mystery dish: Dylan McGrath at work in Mint in Ranelagh
Diners are served in the dark during tonight's Guerrilla Gourmet on RTE1
John Meagher

John Meagher

I thought I knew what pitch blackness was. Turned out I hadn't a clue. It's night time in a wing of the Irish Museum of Modern Art and I'm sitting in a room with no light. The windows have been blacked out so as not to let any moonlight seep through. The lights in the next room have been turned out as well. I put my hand in front of my face and I can't see a thing. Absolutely nothing is discernible in the blackness.

And here's the thing -- it's a really frightening, upsetting experience. You feel claustrophobic and completely helpless. This must be what it's like to be completely blind and in the weeks that have passed I've been haunted by it.

In all, I sit in this blackness for four hours. When the lights finally go up I almost cry with relief. And why did I put myself through 360 minutes of sensory deprivation? To be part of the final episode of RTE's quirky, if uneven, six-part TV series on food, Guerrilla Gourmet.

The idea is that your taste buds are enhanced if you can't see what you're eating and some bright spark in the production company behind the series thought it would be fun to put 16 guinea pigs to the test. Some of them had spent €160 to get a seat in this unusual experiment.

The chef responsible for the seven-course tasting menu would be awarded his first Michelin star the following week. His name? Dylan McGrath, of the Mint restaurant, Ranelagh, Dublin.

Since filming this episode of Guerrilla Gourmet, McGrath has become something of an RTE fixture, thanks to the fly-on-the-wall series Pressure Cooker and a below-the-belt quip directed at another chef, Kevin Dundun, on Tubridy Tonight which achieved the rare feat of having that show discussed at water coolers days later.

But that night last month when I sat with 15 others in the darkness, Dylan McGrath was simply another chef that I'd vaguely heard of. I was curious if it was indeed true that some things are better enjoyed once the senses are blocked. It's not for nothing, I reckoned, that Ann Summers sell blindfolds.

Before the experiment has begun, and while I and the others are quaffing vintage champagne in a holding area, we talk among ourselves about how dark it's going to be.

One young woman is already feeling queasy. She's spoken to the production crew and her boyfriend has to reassure her that she will be able to go through with it.

At the appointed hour, we're lead in groups of four into the dining room. Holding each other's shoulder, we move gingerly through the blackness while a crew member, using an infra red camera, guides us. It seems to take an eternity before we get seated.

The waiting staff, we're told, had spent a week training with blindfolds for the night. They have to ensure that they serve 16 people seven courses each, and the same number of glasses of wine, without breaking anything or falling over. When one considers the sort of haphazard service common to many Irish restaurants when the house lights are on, such a task seems especially onerous.

I'm seated with a trio of Frenchmen -- all based in Dublin and all involved in the restaurant business. One's a chef-patron, another is maitre d' in the establishment he owns, while the third is a waiter in one of the city's best restaurants.

They are also finding the experience to be as odd as I am. "I feel like I'm going to be sick," one of them laughs nervously as we exchange notes on how strange it is that our eyes can discern nothing, just uniform blackness. Levity helps lift the feeling of unease temporarily as one of them, in an accent straight out of 'Allo ,'Allo, makes the following announcement: "I'm scratching my balls right now and no one can see."

Happily, our minds are taken off such thoughts with the arrival of the bread, ably distributed by our waitress, Amelie.

And here's the curious thing: the bread tastes different than any I've eaten before. And that's not just because it's very well made bread. Because I can't see what I eat, I find I am savouring it, chewing it, eating it far slower than I usually would. Something I would normally wolf down without giving much thought to, now tastes very different. I find I savour each morsel, and partly to take my mind off the blackness.

And it's the same story for each of the tiny taster portions that come our way for the remainder of the night. The food -- all mousses and truffles and odd, clashing flavours -- is very cheffy.

It's exactly the sort of fare you'd expect from someone on the cusp of joining the Michelin club. Most of it tastes very good indeed -- perhaps nicer than if I was able to see it.

For six of the courses, we're informed about the dish we're about to eat. For one, it's a mystery as we discern that the chewy meat is duck and the less chewy substance is a scallop.

The wine also takes on a savoury edge I hadn't quite anticipated. Early on, I knock over my glass. Amelie tells us she will leave the glass at 2 o'clock in relation to each plate but such information proves redundant to this klutz.

During the evening, my companions and I talk about what the room might look like. We become almost obsessed about its size and shape and the distance from our table to that of the increasingly loud woman behind us. When the lights finally go on, the room looks entirely different to how I imagined it -- as does our charming and super-efficient waitress, Amelie, as well as the lady on that other table.

My new French friends suggest that the food tasted different because we couldn't see it. Its taste was simply heightened by the sensory deprivation.

Afterwards, when I speak to one of the cameramen who had captured proceedings on an infra-red camera, he mentioned how frequently the diners ate with their eyes closed. It's odd, but we seemed to derive comfort from shutting our eyes to the blackness.

Dylan McGrath emerges shortly afterwards and laps up the deserved plaudits. He suggests it's an experiment he probably wouldn't want to replicate again. And I have to say it's not something I'd be keen to try again any time soon.

The restaurant in Dublin's Westin Hotel offers similar blind tastings on a sporadic basis and it's something that would certainly make for an interesting night.

But the one thing that's stayed with me from the experience is to truly appreciate the gift of sight.

Too many of us take it for granted.

This episode of Guerrilla Gourmet airs tonight on RTE 1 at 8.30pm.

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