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Idealog dines in the dark

Digital editor Ben Mack learns what it's like to live with a visual impairment while eating dinner in complete darkness.

The blackness was suffocating. Crushing. Engulfing. Yet, somehow, also strangely comforting.

Nyctophobia (a severe fear of the dark) is one of the most common phobias in humans. After all, the dark – the unknown – can be a scary thing… unless you’re me. That’s because personally, I find the unknown to be incredibly exciting – and utterly irresistible (case in point: read up on how I spent my Christmas holidays aboard a cargo ship in the South China Sea). So when I was invited to “a unique press conference and dining in the dark experience” at a fancy hotel in Auckland there’s no way I’d be able to afford otherwise, I already knew my answer before I’d even finished reading the email.

My only fear: if I was going to be eating in the dark, I was praying there would be no vegetables. Or at least no green vegetables (plus cauliflower). Would that be too much to ask?

Dans le Noir? (French for “In the dark,” with the question mark intentional) is an international company offering patrons a unique experience by eating in complete darkness, guided and served by low vision or blind people. Begun in France in 2003, more than 1.2 million people have been served worldwide, including A-list celebrities and the British royal family. I’d actually heard of the concept before – there was a restaurant where patrons dined in complete darkness while served by low-vision wait staff that was a big hit in Berlin when I was living in the German capital (it was an especially popular date spot).

But it’s not a charity – it’s a business, and runs without any charity or public support. 

As the company claims, dining in absolute darkness is a sensory experience that awakens senses and enables guests to completely re-evaluate their perception of taste and smell. Further, they claim that darkness eradicates shyness and fosters free conviviality erasing preconceptions. Communication becomes more intense, authentic and spontaneous. Further, they say the experience can help people empathise with people who are blind, have low vision or are otherwise differently abled.

I was just worried about the possibility of inadvertently eating Brussels sprouts.

It was a gray autumn evening as a co-worker and I strode into the 267-room Rydges Auckland hotel for the event, the kind of monotonous, depressing weather that – were it to be described with an awkward food analogy – could best be classified as “pea soup.”

As one might expect, the inside of the hotel – which to me looked more like the lobby of so many other CBD office buildings than a hotel, the kind of place where men with Omega watches and women with Kate Spade handbags strode past at precisely 9am and 5pm five days a week – was warm and dry. Directed to the foyer just above the ground floor, we joined a small crowd of just over a dozen other people as a team of various people in black Dans le Noir? T-shirts explained what was about to happen. I’m sure they didn’t intend it, but their tone reminded me of teachers speaking to particularly dim-witted children.

Down a hall was a series of black curtains. This was the entrance, we were told, to the dining area. Allegedly, it could seat up to 60 people at a time. 

We were to be led in six at a time, with one of the staff to help guide us through the dark.

“Now, does anyone have any special diet?”

That was my cue.

“Um, I don’t eat vegetables,” I said, my American accent cutting through the still air thicker than molasses.

Guffaws.

“You are allergic to vegetables?” Her French accent was certainly thicker than my monotonous northwest Oregonian.

“He’s just joking,” my co-worker suddenly cut in.

Was I?

“Alright, now everyone put a hand on the shoulders of the person in front of you.”

We did as we were told.

“Now we go in. Have fun.”

We all shuffled forward awkwardly, like a conga line at Adagio at 6.30am (there I go with a Berlin reference again). Suddenly we were plunged into complete and utter darkness, where it was as if an occult hand had taken away all light in the world and hidden it away in a dresser drawer. 

There were a lot of gasps, naturally. I just shrugged. I was actually kind of used to the dark. Clearly, not too many of the other guests had spent nights in the infamous Yanggakdo International Hotel in Pyongyang, hoping the North Korean security detail wouldn’t catch you poking about and sentence you to many decades of hard labour – and then not having to worry about any of that because the power cut out just as you were about to walk out your door when you weren’t supposed to after you had pressed your ear to the door and it sounded like the gun-toting guards left because they thought you had gone to sleep (aside: that actually happened to me).

I have no idea why I did it, but I was blinking quite a bit. Odd. I also found my head swiveling in the direction of any unexpected sounds – which was all of them. Isn’t it amazing how much we rely on our vision for just about everything?

Our awkward conga line sitting down on high-backed chairs somewhere in the void – which was increasingly reminding me of one of the many small, pitch-black rooms at Kater Holzig before it shut down – we were told we’d be served several courses with a wine match, the first of which was already supposedly in front of us. Fingers fumbling through the dark, I felt a small, smooth, porcelain object. A spoon of some sort, like the types found at fancy soirees businesses host to convince other people how cool and innovative they are, before launching into speeches in which only about 15 percent of what they’re saying is understood by anyone.

I weighed up my options. Seeing as this was the first course, there was a chance whatever was on the spoon was vegetables. Then again, there was a chance it was something that tasted better, like… well, like anything not a vegetable.

I tried smelling it. Whatever it was, it was fairly odourless. 

I could hear the sounds of people eating. Actually, I could hear a whole lot more than just people eating. Like the waitstaff walking about. Conversations about what it was like to live with low vision or blindness. People getting to know their tablemates better. The journalists immediately to my left discussing their desire to attend a yachting event in Chechnya. My other senses really were heightened in compensation for my lack of being able to see even a few centimetres in front of me.

I’ll add here that the need for impeccable manners were something that was drilled into me from an early age (believe me, you did not want to confuse your soup spoon with your dessert spoon when visiting my grandparents). So the idea of using my fingers to actually touch my food was appalling. But things were getting desperate. I had to know if I was about to ingest broccoli.

I gave the center of the spoon a light tap. It was squishy, like tiramisu or sponge cake.

The mystery was deepening.

I was running out of options. What was I to do? Dare I risk everything?

It was at that dark moment in that dark place I remembered I had a voice box.

“Excuse me,” I asked the man immediately to my left, “But do you know what this is?”

“I think it’s fish,” he said matter-of-factly.

Lifting my spoon higher, I took his word for it, and hesitatingly put it in my mouth. Later that night, long after we’d left and returned to the light-filled world, I would reflect on the experience, pondering the implications of not being able to see, and how great it was that businesses like Dans le Noir? employed people who had difficulty seeing, while still treating them with the same equality and respect such people deserve.

But in that moment, all my attention was on whether or not I was about to eat cauliflower and trigger a gag reflex.

It did indeed taste like fish.

Thank God.