Dans le Noir? (translation: “In the Dark?”) is a “dining in the dark” social franchise network that began in Paris, France in 2004. The stated mission of Dans le Noir? is to encourage and foster empathy with – and a greater understanding of – people who are blind and visually impaired. It is managed by the Ethik Investment Group, a French consulting and event-marketing corporation, which has added Dans le Noir? restaurant franchises in Paris, London, Barcelona, Saint Petersburg, and – most recently – New York, with Casablanca planned to open in November, 2012.
A recent, highly negative Dans le Noir? review on the New York Eater blog caught my attention. Was it just insensitive or was there also something not right with the restaurant? Obviously, there was some disconnect between the stated Dans le Noir? mission and the New York execution. You can read additional background and an excerpt from the review in Dining in the Dark: Does Its Mission Succeed? Part 1.
I decided to take my questions to Daniel Aronoff, New York City’s premier (and only, methinks) blind food critic. You can read about his always-interesting culinary experiences at The Real Blind Taste Test© blog and @blindblog on Twitter. Daniel received the People’s Choice Award in the Dining and Entertainment category of CBS New York’s Most Valuable Blogger Awards 2011.
Our Conversation and Review of the Review
We met on a weekday afternoon in Manhattan, at the Union Square Barnes and Noble. Fortified with espresso, we talked about the review and what it might – or might not – reveal about prevailing attitudes towards blindness and blind persons.
- Me: Maureen, a sighted person who has professional experience working with blind adults.
- Daniel: A blind person who emphasizes the responsibility that blind people have in educating sighted peers to – hopefully – avoid misconceptions and stereotypes about blindness.
Me: First, we have to be clear that these are our initial, and personal, impressions. We agree that a next step is to dine at Dans le Noir?.
Me: I think the Eater reviewers wanted to like the experience, but, for whatever reason, it wasn’t positive for them. They did say this initially: “Going in I was curious, not afraid. I was excited, and thought it could be fun.”
D: It seemed they went to review it as a restaurant. Did they understand the underlying purpose? Throughout the review, they kept referring to it as a restaurant – not as an experience to learn about blindness. That’s a problem for me. Also, I wonder if the reviewers know any blind people?
Me: Part of the problem, I think, is that Dans le Noir? seems to plunge diners into the dark, without providing any tools to help its patrons cope or adapt.
D: It’s different if you’ve been blind since childhood, as I have. There are many skills, such as eating, that you learn through trial and error and through many years of experience. You operate on a kind of “autopilot” once you learn certain skills. But for someone sighted, trying to learn eating skills in this setting isn’t fair to the person and doesn’t reflect the true blindness experience.
D: My big issue is this: Because the reviewers didn’t “get” the purpose of this experience, they’re now holding it against the restaurant: “This is a restaurant that has not been reviewed by any critics, and there is perhaps a reason for that: this restaurant should not exist. No one should go there.”
Me: Yeah, that’s pretty harsh. But here are my thoughts about that. When I did my background research and learned more about Dans le Noir? dining experience, it seemed that their goals were noble and lofty – maybe too highfalutin’ – but they didn’t provide the concrete, everyday tools to help customers cope and grapple with the experience of being blind. I mean, without that concurrent preparation, it’s essentially a parlor trick, not an educational experience.
D: It seemed there was a big fear of the unknown going on, too. When the reviewers said, “I wasn’t sure where you were or where the wall was,” well, that was point, wasn’t it? To lose those landmarks?
Me: OK. As a lifelong sighted person, I understand that. Do you remember how disoriented I was when we went to Dialogue in the Dark together? Ha! I was off in my own little world, tapping my cane in a corner of the subway car setting. Not my finest hour.
D: And remember what I said when we first talked about Dialogue in the Dark? Instead of learning about blindness, people who visited the exhibit seemed to treat me with either more pity or more admiration afterwards, neither of which I welcomed. A woman from my building approached me and said, “I saw the exhibit and it was so scary. You must be so brave to live like that!”
D: I also think it wasn’t fair to sighted patrons in several respects, as in when the waitress explained to the reviewers that they’d have to pour water by “sticking their fingers into the glasses.” To me, that’s setting the person up to fail – because they haven’t been given even minimal training.
Me: Agreed! I used to teach that skill to my graduate students and it took several classes before my students felt they had mastered the skill. It’s not easy, believe me.
D: You know, darkness is scary, but it can also be illuminating. There are many insights about blindness to be gained from such an experience, none of which I sensed from this review.
D: And there should have been some naming of the foods the reviewers were eating. The menu seemed out of the ordinary and should have been described. The reviewers mentioned eating “conch fritters” and “wild boar,” which are not everyday menu items.
Me: What I noticed was that there was no mention of the reviewers’ interactions with other people until the end, and no mention, really, of anything other than their small “world of two” at their table. The reviewers’ world condensed dramatically, which I have noted in my own sighted students during “eating skills” class. All socialization stopped the moment the blindfolds went on.
D: What it shows me is how much sighted people rely on vision to enjoy food and eating out. This will help me improve the appeal of my reviews for a sighted audience.
D: I wonder if there is an educational component at the conclusion of the meal, as there was after Dialogue in the Dark? We’ll have to check that out when we go.
Me: So our next step is to make a reservation and check it out for ourselves. Remember when we visited Dialogue? I totally fumbled and you said you felt “empowered,” because you were “in the zone,” completely in your element. I think you’re going to feel empowered once again, Daniel.
To be continued. And please feel free to leave your own feedback, observations, or questions in the comment section.