Chefs are using technology, interactivity, and storytelling to create multisensory culinary experiences around the world.
Once upon a time, “dinner with a show” simply meant tacking on some live entertainment. But more recently, some creative chefs have been rethinking that old formula by imagining how diners might truly engage all five senses. Accordingly, the concept of dinner theater has been transformed: Dinner now is the theater.
Often dubbed “immersive dining,” these restaurants use interactive storytelling, light shows, and thematic soundscapes to create multisensory gastronomic experiences that evoke emotions and memories that go well beyond the food. Instead of simply watching actors on a stage, dining guests can actually take part in the performance.
The fare is getting ambitious, too: In lieu of steak and lobster, a menu might feature a truffle foie gras terrine, for instance. While the concept behind these dining experiences varies widely, one thing is consistent—they’re all wonderfully memorable.
Gingerline: Presenting edible absurdity
The contemporary concept of immersive dining may have very well been born in East London. In 2010, Suz Mountfort and Kerry Adamson—the founders of Gingerline who consider themselves the originators of the term—began combining food, theater, sets, and shows into single-room events. They launched Chambers of Flavour in 2012, with an aim of putting on different culinary adventures annually. During these productions, guests are escorted through multiple rooms, each one showcasing avant-garde, narrative-based performances that culminate in an edible course.
The experiences take place along the East London or Victoria Underground tube lines, although guests don’t know the precise location until they receive a text just before it begins. “The degree to which people loved it became addictive to us,” Mountfort explains. “Secrecy lends a lot of creative freedom, and we realized we could really unleash our imaginations.”
One interactive Chambers of Flavour event, for instance, created rooms meant to represent a mermaid’s underwater home, while serving seafood-inspired courses such as the Sea Bed Pickle, a spice-cured salmon, wakame seaweed, and horseradish snow concoction. Gingerline experiences host about 600 guests weekly; they are catered to by servers/actors, who may involve guests by asking them to perhaps pluck food from the ceiling or be part of a game show.
Laurie Raphaël: Food as tradition and fable
Through their cuisine, chefs at Laurie Raphaël strive to creatively convey the story of Québec’s culinary evolution. Chef Daniel Vézina opened the chic restaurant in 1991, though the family-owned Québec City eatery only recently began highlighting themed courses to take guests on gourmet regional excursions—without leaving the dining room.
“When people come here, they don’t just eat; they learn about Québec, our traditions, the seasons, the products, the background, and our history,” says Laurie Raphaël executive director Laurie-Alex Vézina.
Once guests are seated, five multicourse menu themes are presented, each exploring aspects of Québec’s heritage and traditions, such as the seasons, or cuisine from the region’s First Nations. Hyperlocal ingredients like Boileau deer, fresh catches from the St. Lawrence River, or eastern Canada’s ubiquitous maple syrup drive the menu. The decor helps tell the story of Québec, too: Regional artisans crafted the plates, tableware, and the artwork, while a local designer helped with the interiors.
WA Theater Restaurant: Asian-styled culinary storytelling
Across the globe, cultural tales of another sort are told through the cuisine at WA Theater Restaurant in Hong Kong. In late 2017, WA’s chief executive officer, Shigemasa Shibata, teamed up with chef Hideaki Nagaya to employ seasonal ingredients sourced directly from Japan as a means of storytelling. According to restaurant rep Miranda Chan, in their gastronomic theater, they consider farmers to be the producers; chefs, the actors; and guests, the audience.
With the aid of videos, servers set out to share the stories behind the dishes. One popular course, “Fairy Tale,” is a culinary interpretation of a fable about a Japanese fisherman. As the server tells the tale, the dish’s serving box is opened to release a mist, and then reveals an assortment of seasonal items that the chef relates to the fable, such as sea urchin served on a kelp cracker.
Ultraviolet: Plating fantastical feasts
The team behind Ultraviolet in Shanghai is also pushing the boundaries of multimedia in the dining experience. Launched in 2012, the establishment is among the first to incorporate digital technology into its culinary presentations.
Its signature “Psycho Taste” philosophy proposes that eating is a gateway to the mind, and food prompts emotional triggers. Fully immersing guests in the chef’s vision for each course involves orchestrating the dining room’s ambience through lighting, 360-degree projections, sound, music, scent, and even temperature changes.
For example, the Truffle Burnt Soup Bread dish is created from a toasted piece of bread that’s soaked in meunière sauce, then topped with truffle slices and meunière foam. A glass dome infused with cigar smoke covers the dish. Falling leaves combine with the aroma of wood, earth, and mushrooms, as well as the sounds of pigs and birds piped in, to create the impression of foggy, forested surroundings.
At the one seating per night (Tuesday through Saturday), 10 guests are shuttled together from a designated meeting point to a hard-to-find location in a historic Shanghai neighborhood, where their 20-course culinary journey begins. Chef Paul Pairet’s intricate dishes, complemented by the kaleidoscopic environment in which they’re proffered, earned Ultraviolet three Michelin stars in 2018.
Spoonik: Latin America flair and fare
Beyond the doors of Spoonik in Barcelona, forward-thinking gastronomy has taken on a different, but equally interactive, form. Brainchild of executive chef Jon Giraldo and chef Jaime Lieberman, the establishment, which debuted in 2015, serves entrées paired with mood-setting sounds and hypnotizing light shows. Guests might see the image of a swirling universe or flames projected onto the table, accompanied by ambient mists; Pink Floyd might serve as the soundtrack to an unveiling of a plate of molecular gastronomy.
“We believed that we had the attention of the customer for about three hours, so why not give them more information on what we had in our mind when we created the course,” Lieberman says. “For us, music and light were the main tools to create these experiences. We created a gastronomic circus.”
Accordingly, stories of the chefs’ Mexican and Colombian heritages and personal journeys are told at each dish’s presentation. For instance, the “Ode to Maize” pays tribute to how corn is eaten daily in their home countries. The corn soup, diners learn, is a recovered recipe from chef Giraldo’s great-grandmother. Unusual serving pieces, such as a mirror or a mold of a mouth boasting a gold tooth, add visual layers to the stories.
Saved by the Max: A TV dinner
Fans of certain TV shows can visit the iconic restaurants that they’ve seen featured in programs like Twin Peaks or Cheers, but in 2016, Saved by the Max partner Derek Berry actually brought a ’90s pop culture TV sensation back to life, with his pop-up restaurant based on the sitcom Saved by the Bell.
“Being a superfan of the show, I was able to recreate parts of experiences very authentically,” Berry says. For instance, a show catchphrase, “What’s up, preppy?,” greets guests just as they would be at the series’s counterpart hangout, The Max. A locker-room packed with show props, meanwhile, makes for a popular photo opp. Period music plays in the background, with show sound bites wedged in between.
Berry selected acclaimed Chicago chef Brian Fisher of Michelin-starred eatery Entente to helm Saved by the Max’s cuisine. Comfort foods such as “Tori’s Fried Chicken,” a coconut-milk waffle served with Korean fried chicken and spiced maple syrup, populate the menu; a full bar with similarly themed cocktails add to the experience.
After a sold-out stint in Chicago, Berry crowdsourced new location ideas from social media followers, leading to a move of Saved by the Max to Los Angeles in May 2018, where it will stay until September 2019 (before heading out to its next temporary home base).