Serving meals in darkened rooms has become so commonplace since the concept first popped up in Europe more than a decade ago that The Blind Cafe, which is hosting a pair of dinners in Seattle this weekend, promotes its event with the slogan "NOT just another dinner in the dark."
The first restaurants to turn off the lights and hire blind servers touted the sensory advantages of tuning out visual cues. "As taste buds work overtime to discover fresh nuances in well-known flavors, even simple, everyday foods like potatoes or plain yogurt morph into nouvelle cuisine," Time Magazine explained in a 2002 story about German's first darkened cafe. But Rosh Rocheleau, founder and executive director of The Blind Cafe, says he's far more interested in drawing attention to the potential conviviality of a shared meal.
"We're doing it more as a tool for people to have to relate and connect," says Rocheleau, a sighted musician who learned about darkened dining while hitchhiking across Iceland. "We're not a high-end dinner, but at the end, you come out all buddy-buddy. Whether it's a car crash or an Outward Bound trip or going through the dark together, experiences bring people together."
The Blind Cafe staged its first dinner in Boulder in 2010, and has since brought the concept to Aspen, Portland and Austin. Rocheleau says the non-profit has received numerous requests to add Seattle to its itinerary; He and his staff are now transforming the basement of Fremont Baptist Church into a fully darkened space. "It's a lot of work, but we're putting people in an environment where they don't have control," Rochealeau explains when asked why he doesn't just issue blindfolds instead. "Chaos should be regarded as fantastic news."
Rocheleau doesn't yet know what's on the menu, but stresses it will be a vegetarian meal, in keeping with The Blind Cafe's commitment to inclusivity. Although The Blind Cafe's materials make clear that the dinner is not a "blind simulation experience," the event includes testimonials from the servers, all of whom are visually impaired. Diners are also encouraged to ask questions about blindness.
"People ask questions they'd never ask in the light, for all sorts of reasons," Rocheleau says. "They ask about dating and all sorts of things."
The question-and-answer session benefits from the sense of closeness forged over dinner, says Rocheleau, who believes diners are typically too distracted to fully engage with their table mates. Participants are forced to relinquish their cell phones and accept whatever The Blind Cafe decides to serve.
"Dinners in the dark have been more filet mignon, sit-down culinary experiences," Rocheleau says. "We take it to the next level. We put you at a table with people you don't even know, and there's bread in the center of the table and you have to figure out how to break it."
Although Rocheleau was initially hesitant to leap into the field of blind advocacy, he was encouraged by a blind classmate at Naropa Insitute.
"There are too many pity parties for blind people," he says. "This is something different."