David Burke's Dining in the Dark

The chef explains the idea behind his dinner at the South Beach Wine & Food Festival

Don’t ask chef David Burke how he ended up serving 100 to 200 people a multicourse meal, Dining in the Dark, in the ballroom at The Perry at the South Beach Food & Wine Festival in Miami. He can't shed much light on it. "I don’t know how it came about to be honest," he said laughing. "I was talking with someone months ago about participating in SOBE and all of a sudden I was hosting this dinner. I'm pretty curious about how it's going to turn out because I haven't done this before. I don't think they've ever done this before at South Beach."

As the Miami New Times reported after attending a rehearsal, there were not inconsiderable challenges to planning Dining in the Dark (part of The New York Times Dinner Series) at The Perry South Beach Hotel. Everything had to be mapped with "military-like precision from the exact location of wine glasses (directly in line with butter knives) to plans for escorting diners to the bathroom in complete darkness." The idea was to have the two dozen servers wear night vision monocles to allow them to navigate serving the gourmet menu in the dark, but even still, there was the little matter of the handicapped depth perception that they cause.  

For diners, the dangers seemed to be outweighed by the opportunity to experience a unique dining experience — the $200 per ticket event was sold out. It is perhaps an indication of how hard it will be to get a reservation at Dans le Noir, the new dining in the dark restaurant that started in London, and that Eater reported is slated to open in New York City next week. In the brief interview below, the chef talked about the idea and the challenges involved in staging the dinner.


Will it really be pitch black? Will there be no light?

I'm pretty sure it's going to be pitch black. There will be some kind of light for the waiters, some way for them to see, and I think the idea is to have the guests wear blindfolds. So you can cheat if you want, but it's still going to be dark. And then at the end of the meal, we'll turn on the lights so that you can see who you've been flirting with.


Any hints that you can give about the dishes?

Well, the dishes are going to be finger-friendly things on bones — things that are not so saucy, that you can pick up. You wouldn't put a soup out. That wouldn't be a good idea. But we'll do a dumpling, we'll do three diferent textures — one soft, one firm — and serve meat from different animals, mixing seafodod with meat.


Will you be trying to confuse diners?

We're going to burn some leaves under the bowl so that the room will fill with aroma — thyme, rosemary, and bay leaves. You'll be using your nose, and approaching the meal differntly without your sight, focusing on your sense of smell anyway because you can't see the dish.


Are you serving anything that will stump the diners?

Yeah, octopus. We'll be using octopus in a dish where it would normally not be served. But it's going to be a garnish. It can be neutralized when you cook it, and we can coat it in spices to make it difficult to tell what it is. You can pick that up too, by the leg — legs, arms, an octopus has arms. But you'll be able to feel the suckers. We put that in last minute. It's not on the menu.


In the "if a tree falls in the forest vein," do you plate the same way for a dinner in the dark as you do for a regular dinner?

Yeah, I think we're going to. I think, in general, in the case where you want to serve a barbecue sauce, we would reduce it, and use it as a glaze. I'm sure everyone's going to have a bib, but you want to make sure that the kind of food you serve for something like this is going to work. You're probably not going to come in and serve pasta. I mean, how would you know when the fork is full?


What do you think the takeaway will be for diners?

I think the takeaway is the conversation, the unexpected, the "Who are you?", and the guessing — the "What is this?" There's going to be a lot of, "What is that?" "It's this!" "No, it's that!" Along with the, "Hi, it's Joe from Altanta." The talking in the dark, that conversation is going to be as importanat as the meal. I hope it's done that way. We're talking about doing this at Treehouse. You come with a date, you're separated, and maybe you sit across from someone you can't see. All of a sudden, it's deesert and you finally get to meet him, "Hi Joe!" I think it will be interesting, [laughs] you appreciate your sense of sight when you cut your fingertip off. We'll have lots of napkins. You'll have to use your fingers and feel around the plate. "Is that an artichoke?" The waiters will have to guide you, "That's a glass of red on right, and a glass of white on left, my name's Claude, speak up if you need sometihng." I think it's going to be a big hit. I don't think it has been done before at South Beach, and I think it could be an annual event. I'm already thinking about other things we can do. I have at least five more ideas to make it better for next time.


How exactly do you go about coordinating a dinner for that many people in the dark?

Well the kitchen will have the lights on! And hosts will have flashlights. Maybe they should wear those miner's hats or something.


Not an event for food bloggers to be taking photos at, huh?

I bet someone will. But that's a good question! I mean, people can take photos in the dark without seeing. It's kind of like writing your name in the dark. But I think that at the end of the meal there should be a slidewhow of all the dishes that were served along with a quick Q&A, so people can say, "Oh, that's what that was!"