The Idea Festival's Lights Out Dining series was launched to give participants a different take on the necessary--and sometimes distressingly mundane--act of eating. We hoped to awaken diners' appreciation for flavors, both subtle and bold, as well as aromas and textures, by removing their ability to see what they were eating.
We figured the absence of sight would sharpen their senses of taste and smell.
One thing we didn't reckon on, though, was the boost it also seemed to add to their vocal capacities. What a racket! As soon as the 35 guests at Louisville's Asiatique on Bardstown Road strapped on their blindfolds, the decibel level in the room shot up by a factor of ten or more.
I had expected awkward silence at first, an uncomfortable period in which the strangers seated next to one another groped for something to say while they also groped for their silverware and drinks. I had even asked Chef Peng Looi and his staff to be prepared to turn up the volume of the piped-in music, to provide a diversion should the silence become too painfully obvious.
Fat chance. Best I could tell, people struck up instant rapport, finding lots to talk and laugh about even before the first courses arrived and they got down to the serious effort of tasting, sniffing, and discussing table-to-table what the offerings were, what they included, and how they were prepared.
And pretty quickly the din was so great, and so constant, it was nearly impossible to interrupt it--even to give Chef Looi a chance to identify, after each course, the foods and cooking methods everyone was wondering about. Then the hubub would grow even louder, as individuals congratulated themselves for recognizing the fish beneath the wasabe emulsion as sea bass, or razzed their neighbors for failing to tag the key spice in the sauce draping the filet of Malaysian Sunfish as turmeric.
It went on like that for three hours. Six courses, each testifying to the chef's determination to balance sweet with savory, fire with tongue-coating silkiness, and classic European methods with Asian ingredients. (We'll be posting the menu and many photographs soon.)
For now, I'll say giving up an all-important sense was never so assuring. When I couldn't quite recall where I had set my wine glass and began feeling for it, one of the staff was there in a moment, guiding my hand. The waiters provided quiet direction as they delivered each course, too, identfiying the order Chef Looi urged us to follow, to fully appreciate the flavors and sensations they offered.
Did we taste and smell with greater intensity?
I did--but sporadically.
When intrigued by a flavor combination I'd never before encountered, like foie gras and spicy chocolate for example, I'd say yes; not being able to study the dish with my eyes made me depend more on the powers of taste and smell to explore and enjoy it. And at least a couple times my nose helped me identify a cloying element my tongue just wasn't quite getting (and my eyes never could have tagged), such as the touch of vanilla cognac added to the dessert champagne.
I found it's still possible to be drearily human, though, even in a gaggle of raucous, blindfolded gourmands, with great food at my fingertips. It's still all about paying attention. When I remembered to do that the fare was extraordinary--a treat to explore and dissect. But sometimes, even with a mask across my eyes reminding me this was a special undertaking, I'd slip into the too common mode of eating simply to eat, barely savoring what I'd just placed in my mouth in the headlong, automatic urge to place something else there.
Maybe I need to be blindfolded all the time, so I could really begin to see.