Are You Ready for Smoked Duck With Squid Ink Risotto … in "Outer Space"?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because you can now transport yourself into a parallel universe and tease all your senses while eating a fancy meal.
By Tania Bhattacharya
You’ve just settled in to a fine dining restaurant when the room lights up and you’re transported to outer space. An iPad lets you “explore” your projected surroundings — so you can zoom into specific constellations or scribble messages that will show up as projections. The cutlery is made cold using liquid nitrogen to add to the space experience. As your senses acclimatize, out comes the first course of the 90-minute meal — smoked duck and lentil salad with a squid ink risotto moon rock and roselle bubbles. Or artisan mozzarella with heirloom tomato jam and balsamic pearls, if you’re dining at the Ritz-Carlton Doha, where this event — aptly titled Whimsy — was launched in January.
The brainchild of the people behind Malaysia-based 2Spicy Entertainment, Whimsy kicked off in Kuala Lumpur last April, but its calendar for 2020 is already filling up: There’s Bangkok in March, Singapore in May and Los Angeles by the third quarter of the year. And Whimsy has company. From Tokyo to Phoenix and Mumbai to Copenhagen, entrepreneurs, chefs, artists and tech whizzes are coming together to change the way you eat. Multisensory experiences, where several senses are excited during the course of a meal, are emerging as the future of the fine dining industry.
Like most industries, fine dining too has been hit by the coronavirus pandemic. Last week, star Seattle chef Tom Douglas announced he was closing most of his restaurants for the foreseeable future. But multisensory dining experiences are even more exclusive, smaller gatherings than most fine dining restaurants, and typically cater to only a handful of people at a time — reducing the risks of virus transmission and so, of cancellations.
In Tokyo, the global artists’ collective teamLab has partnered with Sagaya Ginza, the specialty Saga beef restaurant. An eight-seater space comes alive with high-quality 360-degree art projections depicting Japan’s natural beauty through the seasons. Since December, Grand Hyatt Mumbai Hotel and Residences has hosted dinners with Le Petit Chef, an immersive dining experience created by Belgian company Skullmapping in 2015.
The idea is to bring together food, occasion, theater, technology and interaction.
Balraj Pannu, 2Spicy
Chef Rasmus Munk’s Alchemist 2.0, which opened six months ago in Copenhagen, combines technology, theatrics, architecture, multimedia elements and social responsibility with food to represent his idea of holistic cuisine. It has already won two Michelin stars. And at Kai, the stunning restaurant at the Sheraton Grand Wild Horse Pass in Phoenix, Arizona, chef de cuisine Ryan Swanson marries fine dining with the traditions of the surrounding Gila River Indian community through food. These initiatives hope to tap into a growing demand for unique food experiences. In a 2018 survey by Eventbrite, 75 percent of respondents were willing to pay more for experiential dining.
“The idea is to bring together food, occasion, theater, technology and interaction to create a unique multisensory dining experience,” says Balraj Pannu, regional director of 2Spicy.
The concept isn’t totally new. But from a handful of top chefs like Heston Blumenthal, Paul Pairet and Paco Roncero over the past decade, multisensory dining is now spreading rapidly across the planet. Each experience is unique.
At the Sagaya Ginza, diners enjoy a 12-course menu (including variations of Saga beef, tiger pufferfish and Echizen crab) with everything from dinnerware to ingredients chosen so the immersive experience captures the “cultural background” of the cuisine, according to a teamLab statement. A bird painted on a ceramic dish leaps out and perches itself on the branch of a tree that emerges from a different dish. “The sizes, shapes and interactions of the objects are affected by other dishes on the table, creating a world of constant change,” the teamLab statement continues.
At Celini, the Grand Hyatt Mumbai restaurant that’s the first to offer multisensory dining in India, Roger Marti, the director of food and beverage, is convinced that “video captures 60 percent of the mind, while the food captures about 20 percent.” Dishes are tailored to local palates. One of the accompanying videos, specially made for the Mumbai edition, is for a chicken-based course because beef and pork are tricky to put on a fixed menu in India.
But the food gets more avant-garde in Europe, where fine dining trends are set and crushed. At Munk’s Alchemist 2.0, guests move from room to room experiencing multiple emotions alongside 50 courses; some guests have even cried during the four-hour extravaganza. “There are so many elements that can be a part of a dining experience but simply don’t have a place at traditional fine dining restaurants,” says Munk.
The explosion of sensorial dining experiences across the world has made them marginally more affordable. Where a meal at Paco Roncero’s Sublimotion costs about $1,650 per person, the most expensive Whimsy package at Ritz-Carlton Doha is around $550. There are serious limitations on the number of diners who can be accommodated per session, which means you have to reserve way in advance (Alchemist 2.0 is fully booked until March 31, 2020).
But that extra exclusivity works to the advantage of multisensory restaurants at a time most people are wary of crowds because of the coronavirus.
Some of these initiatives are also using themes that increasingly resonate with audiences. Munk’s dishes include Plastic Fantastic, drawing attention to the fact that a third of all cod caught in Northern Europe contains plastic. It’s grilled cod jaw brushed with smoked bone marrow, topped with a cream of Comté cheese and a plastic covering made from starch and dehydrated cod skin bouillon.
Across the pond too, sustainability and a return-to-roots sensibility are prominent, although popular haunts like Barton G. don’t skimp on theatrics. One of their new dishes is the orange chicken, presented in a birdcage with an iPad featuring a dancing chicken. “We’re really aiming to bring more technology into our presentations. People still find it unexpected in dining, even though tech has really bled into every aspect of our lives,” says Attila Bollok, corporate executive chef at Barton G.
At the Sheraton Grand Wild Horse Pass in Phoenix, chef Swanson infuses some dishes with smell (burning desert herbs tableside with a rabbit course). “[At Kai,] you know you are sitting in the middle of the Sonoran Desert and about to learn something special about the people who have lived here for centuries,” says Swanson. Similarly, in Atlanta, local chef Joey Ward elevates dishes through smell. Fall Is in the Air, for example, features foliage made of sweet potato and pumpkins over venison; an aroma of dry spices is released at the table.
It’s all part of a global gastronomical revolution, says Munk. One that’s safer than most restaurants amidst the coronavirus scare. So, dinner at the bottom of the ocean, anyone?
- Tania Bhattacharya, OZY AuthorContact Tania Bhattacharya