He is introduced as Cyril.
A blank smile plastered across his face.
His sunken eyes expressionless.
“Cyril is your waiter.”
Cyril turns his back to face me. I place my hand on his shoulder. His posture is perfect, even though he’s spent his entire life looking down, or so I imagine.
Cyril leads me through red velvet curtains. We plunge into infinite darkness, and I am beholden to his personal compass. In a deep, clear unapologetic voice, Cyril explains that there are no steps and that there are four menus – red (meat), green (vegetarian), blue (fish), and white (surprise!). I’m a sworn vegetarian and a contrarian. I relinquish control and opt for white.
A few paces later, the chatter surrounds us. I’m surprised. Why talk through such a unique experience? But that’s what many people do. Talk through experiences.
Cyril offers me a chair. I sit. He gently puts my hands on the silverware and leads me to the location of my wine and water glasses. My napkin.
Then, he leaves me. Alone. In the dark. In public.
This is when the mind plays tricks.
I have no understanding of the room’s size or layout. How many people are here? How would I escape without running into tables and falling to the floor, like flagging down a random driver after a midnight car wreck.
Observing my feelings, rather than reacting to them, demands disassociation. I listen to others socialize, as if at a class reunion or a fabulous dinner party. I start to realize what it must be like to have no body language. No facial expressions or gestures of context. There are only tones of voice and a feeling of being outside of everything. It’s also peaceful to be without sight. Body parts relax. Musculi faciei release. The brain slows. All I can think is, “I wish I could write all of this down.”
Cyril returns with my first course. I’m euphoric. I expect the dish to awaken my taste buds and challenge my sense of all things edible. But, the first course is… chewy meat. And, the second course is… more chewy meat, albeit slightly distinct with tough, spidery sinews. Not having to think about visual presentation gives a chef the freedom to go for taste, texture and temperature, abandoning the pretention of display. What happened here?
Happy Birthday is sung around a candle-less cake. I call out, “Make a wish!” At some point, I yell, “Speech!” I’m a heckler in the dark, a meat-eating heckler. I understand elderly people who chew with their mouths open and yell things without invitation.
I also appreciate the futility of forks: a violent object disrupting any sensual connection we might have with what we’re putting into our mouths. My fork in the right hand serves as a shovel while the left bare hand navigates the food after a good feel for grizzle or extreme heat. I put unchewed pieces in a pile on the corner of my plate and imagine the look on the dishwasher’s face.
The main issue for me now is, “What would a blind person do?” Does a blind person tell the chef that the dish is awful? I gently call Cyril aside and ask. He says that Yes, he would tell his waiter if a meal weren’t good. I ask how he knows what to order if he can’t read the menu. He says he asks the waiter to describe it to him. If it isn’t up to what he thinks it should be, he says so.
“It’s all about trust,” he says, as it should be for everyone putting their faith into strangers. My preconception was, “I don’t want to be a burden. I’m already blind.” Then I thought, “How shallow.” Cyril agrees and brings the chef out to meet me.
The chef is hardly a chef at all. As he checks his phone under the table, breaking the darkness of the room with a cold blue glow, I realize this man has no idea of the experience he could offer, and he doesn’t care. “I’m off to France in a week. I’m scrambling to find a sous chef and two prep cooks.” This is when my years of working in restaurants, from back to front of house, kick in. “You don’t have to think about presentation here. A bowl of rice prepared well is better than venison or alligator (dishes one and two) that I can’t chew.”
I chat with Cyril after the “chef” returns to the kitchen. Cyril speaks with power and presence. In the dark, we have one of the most honest conversations I’ve ever had with a stranger in a restaurant. Thus, the brilliant concept of Dans Le Noir (in addition to employing blind people, putting them in the power position, and donating a portion of proceeds to charity) is revealed.