Recently I visited Dans le Noir, the restaurant where you eat in the dark, served by blind people. It recently came to the attention of the nation though Ant and Dec’s Saturday Night Takeaway show. Now you may be forgiven for thinking that’s why I was there but actually I had heard about it from a fellow coach. This slightly bonkers idea had me intrigued.
The restaurant is based in Shoreditch, London and is completely unassuming; you could walk past it every day and never notice it. Once inside, you are greeted by ‘sighted’ people who take your order. You wait in a darkened corridor to meet your blind host who takes you to your table. Our host was Carl. From the moment we are introduced, Carl takes control, explaining how he will take us to our table, reassuring us that he will be on hand throughout the meal. He says the experience can be unnerving at first and if that’s the case he recommends closing our eyes.
He asks the person at the front of the line to put their hand on his shoulder and then everyone else to put their hand on the person’s shoulder in front. As we take a few steps forward we are hit by complete darkness. Carl talks to us as he helps us make our way to our table. There are four of us in the line and he seats the people either side of me first. I then take his shoulder and he leads me to my seat.
As I am being seated the people next to us are already introducing themselves, two couples from Essex who are warm and friendly. Once seated, I feel around the table to familiarise myself with the world I’m going to inhabit for the next hour and a half. I am overwhelmed and take Carl’s advice to close my eyes. After doing this repeatedly I calm down and stop trying to fight the fact that when my eyes are open I can’t see a thing.
There’s great banter between my friend and I and the four people from Essex but when I’m not engaging with them I notice was how noisy the restaurant is, the noise is unnerving and quite disorientating. I knew that by removing one of my senses, my other senses would become more acute but I wasn’t prepared for the sense of unease this would create.
Our starters arrive and somehow I manage to take my plate from Carl mid air – whether it’s a sixth sense or luck I have no idea but what I do know is that it feels really good to be able to do it without being able to see. Carl advises us to eat with our fingers, a daunting idea given that we have no idea what we are eating. After a number of unsuccessful attempts to eat with a fork I resort to eating with my fingers as per Carl’s advice. I had expected my taste buds to be heightened but that didn’t happen. I tasted scallop and asparagus, carrot, ham and a crispy ball of some sort. There was also a sweet chilli jam – eating that with my fingers was not a pleasant experience!
Carl clears our plates and our main course arrives. He explains that there are three parts to it and so the taste experiment begins again. This time it is not so easy to ‘guess’ the ingredients and there are a few things that just don’t work for me (the meat) although I love the celeriac puree and the cinnamon apple. You see pictures of the food and find out the ingredients once you have finished your meal and left the dark room. The cinnamon apple was in fact peaches!
As we are part way through our main course our friends from Essex leave. We want to meet up in the bar afterwards but they have a train to catch. It’s quite amazing to think we had such a great night with people who we could pass in the street and not know who they are.
The restaurant is getting quieter so we are able to chat with Carl. He has been with the restaurant since it opened and is very candid about what life is like as a blind person. He is also incredibly forgiving of those amongst us who are so tied up in our own lives we fail to see when people may need our help.
So what did I learn from the experience…. well its like the old adage says ‘you can’t really understand someone until you have walked a mile in their shoes’. Never have I felt this more – after an hour and half in complete darkness I wanted to be able to see. It also made me realise that the DDA (Disability Discrimination Act) legislation we have to adhere to doesn’t begin to address the needs of those who cannot see. Sure the adaptations help make life easier but let’s be honest how many of us have begrudgingly made adjustments because we have to and then complained about the impact on our budget and design. I know I have but not anymore because now I realise these adjustments are baby steps. I haven’t walked a mile, in Carl’s shoes maybe just a few hundred metres, but my view of the world has changed.
The question is how can we do more? Unfortunately I don’t have the answers but I am sure there are people out there who do. So the next time you are planning a new outlet or refurbishment I would implore you to find the right people and make bigger and bolder adaptations than those laid down by legislation. I would also recommend you visit Dans le Noir if you want to increase your awareness and empathy. And if not for any of these reasons it is a fantastic team building exercise because you have no choice but to listen to those around you.