A diner (cautiously) tastes a dish.
Photo: Lucia Buricelli
Twice a week, the basement of 193 Henry Street in the Lower East Side hosts Dinners in the Dark, offering a four-course menu with unlimited wine. The menu can accommodate a variety of dietary restrictions but is always a surprise to the blindfolded guests of Abigail’s Kitchen. “We’re not trying to trick people,” Abigail Hitchcock, the dinners’ founder, explains. “It’s meant to be fun.”
It is fun for the diners — and for the staff, who watch as participants interact with their food and one another in surprising ways. Hitchcock pulled back the curtain (literally — it’s red velvet) and let photographer Lucia Buricelli in to see what she sees after her guests have gone dark.
“When I first started the dinners, I was thinking how different a food experience that would be not only for the guests but for me as the chef. I’ve always said I don’t care if something is beautiful, but we eat with our eyes first. If something is gorgeous, it’s easy to get excited about eating it. When people are blindfolded, I can’t rely on sight to draw them in initially.”
“When I conceive a menu for Dinners in the Dark, I have to hone in on the other senses I’m trying to get people to notice. You always want your dishes to be interesting, but making sure there’s enough aroma and texture variation becomes the primary focus for each dish.”
“When you can’t see, the customer is really surrendering to the chef — it’s a lot of trust. At the start of dinner we give them a blindfold and an orientation on how to interact with the waiters: Raise your hand if you need something, since you can’t make eye contact.”
“During the meal, we mostly leave people alone. It usually takes about 15 minutes for them to really start noticing how the other senses have become more heightened. It doesn’t take long for people to start using their hands and feeling around. They’ll find an asparagus, for example, and then there’s this aha moment. Oh, it’s asparagus! And then they pick it up and put it in their mouth. No one would ever do that in a normal restaurant setting.”
“Human interaction opens up in a fascinating way during the dinners. Guests will start to talk to their neighbors more than they would in a normal restaurant setting. A lot of people come on dates, and they’re more openly amorous — kissing, leaning, and holding hands in ways they might not otherwise.”
“It’s surprising to me, but people will often guess the right color of things, even if they’re off with the actual food. For a recent menu, we did a corn soup, pureed for a bit of texture, with a ricotta-stuffed zucchini blossom. A lot of people were sure it was butternut squash or sweet potato, so they’re in the orange family. It makes me realize how color really does have a taste.”
“You can usually tell who has been dragged to a dinner by friends or for a corporate event and clearly doesn’t want to be there. We tell them they can always take the blindfold off — just don’t spoil it for everybody else. But we usually win people over. I’m most surprised that we’re doing it 17 years later. It started as an experiment, but it’s only gotten more and more popular. “
Photographs by Lucia Buricelli