Designer for Hire

Diary of a blind diner

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3 Story Magazine’s Gillian Drummond on a blind dining experience that opened her eyes (and nose, and ears, and taste buds).


Blindfolds on, and the blind dining experience begins. Photo by (a blindfolded) Gillian Drummond

What I expected when I accepted an offer of a blindfolded dinner was what was promised: sensory overload, a lot more attention paid to what I was eating, and an olfactory revelation in which smell would count as much as taste.

What I didn’t expect were the accompanying feelings - of co-dependence and vulnerability - and even a slight change in my personality.

Hosts Kristine Jensen of Gallery of Food and Nancy Bender, owner of the Whistle Stop Depot, kicked off our adventure in the same playful mood as they meant it to go on.

We gathered at a downtown parking garage - I, my husband, and a busload of other diners. We were blindfolded shortly after boarding the bus so that the venue would remain a mystery. I could still see through the scarf across my eyes. I toyed with cheating, but thought better of it. After all, if I was reporting on this, I needed the full-on blind experience. So I requested an extra scarf. Result: total darkness, and just the reassuring hand of my hubby in mine.

I had one advantage over the others, which was that I knew where we were going. But that didn’t make me any more confident as I was led off the bus, down the steps, across a parking lot and into the Whistle Stop Depot. Funny how slow you go when you can’t see. You take tiny steps, despite the assurances of your guide (we each were assigned a member of staff to walk us in) that you were not going to bump into anything.

We were led to our seats, our hands gently guided towards the table, a glass of water, and a wet cloth. The cloth would come in handy, since there was no silverware.

The idea was to get our auditory senses going wild, and the ongoing music – pipes and drums, rattles and, later, a band – certainly did the job. In addition to that, performers wandered around the two tables chanting, laughing and reciting poetry. It was a haunted house, a loud party, a Native American ritual, all rolled into one.

The menu had been put online in advance. And as the courses rolled out - five of them -  we were told what food we were being served. But still we found the food difficult to identify. So we tried to help one another. ‘What’s the crusted thing?’ ‘Oh, careful, that mushy thing’s hot.’ ‘Oooh, that’s lemon on the side’.


Well, you try taking photos blindfolded.... Photo attempt by Gillian Drummond

Did I like eating with my hands? Absolutely not, especially when it came to the only meat course: quail. It felt like I was picking apart somebody’s (rather than something’s) body. That said, the food was revelatory (see menu below). You felt the need to explore your plate first, and therefore ate more slowly and carefully. That, in turn, made the taste buds take notice. I wasn't prepared for the food to be so, well, mushy... I'd thought things like cream of avocado, pesto and salsa would be classed as too messy for finger-eating blind. But that's why we had the wet napkins. I only passed on one thing: a plate with sliced jicama and pickled vegetables. The vegetables just tasted way too strong.

We were served cocktails too, and had fun trying to determine both the liquid and the salt/sugar around the rims of the glasses. Was there chocolate in there? Maybe. We thought we tasted citrus, but weren’t sure. There was lime, but something else too.


Time for some sensory overload. Photo by Gillian Drummond

A curious thing happened to me, social butterfly, chatterbox, and lover of gatherings and new people. I went deathly quiet. Not being able to see who was across from me just shut me up entirely. I didn’t realize how much eye contact, smiles and body language counted in social interaction.

I knew my husband was to my right, so no problem there. I reached out a hand to the person to my left, and touched him on the arm: “Hello, who are you?” It was a strange intro. How often do you touch someone and then ask who they are?

“Hi, I’m Bill,” he replied. We chatted at length (I giggled to myself when I found I was nodding to Bill as he spoke, and turning to face him.. even though he couldn't see me.) He was a geologist, an expert in caves, and also well-versed in Native American ceremonies. So being in the dark was something he was used to. He could even identify some of the rattling noises that passed us, as performers shook things in our ears, stroked us with feathers, and spritzed us with rose water.

I tried to talk to the person opposite me. “Who’s across from me?” I asked, twice. No reply. So I did not persist. Meantime, my hubby was having a ball with the people to his right and opposite him. Being blindfolded had not seemed to quell their sociability one bit. In other blind dining experiments, the hope has been that the darkness removes your preconceptions, and protects you from shyness. That hadn't been the case for me at all.

When it came time to visit the bathroom, there was nothing for it but to act like a kindergartner again, raise your hand and declare that you needed to go. A server was at my side immediately. She passed me on to ‘Anna’, who led me to the loo. She walked me into the stall, closed the door on me, and said I could remove the blindfold, but only to pee. When I came out again, blindfolded once more, she led me to the sink. “The faucet’s there, and the soap is right beside it,” she said, without actually taking my hand and guiding me. I fumbled. For a blind person, ‘there’ meant nothing.

After four courses, another plate was put in front of us, very quietly. “There’s something there,” said my hubby, “and there’s a spoon as well”. He put his fingers in it anyway. It was smooth and cold: ice cream.

Then our blindfolds were gently removed – to cheers all round – and we faced not only two long tables full of diners, but our dessert. I was disoriented; the band I thought I was taking photos of was actually to my right. I had been convinced they were straight ahead of me. There was music and dancing afterwards, but most of us wanted to leave. Nancy would tell me afterwards that the most consistent feedback she had was that people, although having enjoyed themselves, felt dog tired. Tapping into all of your senses so intensely must do that to a body.

Oh yes, the photos. Trying to take photos for an assignment whilst blindfolded is, ahem, challenging. It puts a whole new spin on the concept of point-and-shoot.


Blindfolds off! Photo by Gillian Drummond

Blind dining experiences are not new; the French-owned Dans le Noir? restaurant - where customers dine in the dark, with blind waiting staff - is franchised in London, Barcelona and St Petersburg. Sadly, it didn't work in New York City, where the franchise closed. As for Kristine and Nancy, they plan another blind dining event in the Fall. (Stay tuned to Kristine's Facebook page for details.)

So how did we rate it? Ten out of ten for adventure and pushing the boundaries, eight of ten for food, and overall a huge thumbs-up. How often do you leave a restaurant or dinner party gushing, laughing, reliving the experience, analyzing every single bite or sip? Certainly, it seems, when you are dining blind.

* See The Backwards Building Project, our feature on the Whistle Stop Depot, in this issue. For information about Kristine and Nancy's next blind dining experience, call 520 488 0869.

The Menu

Chilled Savory Avocado Crema
Sweltering in a Crisp Cumin Masa Drape
Mango Mojo Drizzle

Summer Squash Birds Nest
underneath a delicate Sweet Corn Alfredo
Sprinkling of Miniature Caramelized Onion Gnocchi

Thirst Quenching Jicama Wafer
with Herbed Goat Cheese
Special Escabeche Salsa

Smoked Quail dressed with Sunset Shaded Chile Threads
Perfect Lemon Pesto

Sultry Tropical Passion
Icy Scoops of Dulce del Barrio’s Favorite flavors
Smoked Cacao Mesquite Cup ~ Caramel Velvet

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