Open Your Senses to the Blind Cafe Experience
By Christina Dunham
No doubt, San Francisco is a foodie’s paradise. With more restaurants per household than any other city in the United States (at 39.3 per 10,000 households according to Trulia), it also has one of the largest concentration of bars in the nation. A quick scan on travel site TripAdvisor provides you with a mind-boggling selection of 4,067 San Francisco restaurants.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, fierce competition among restaurateurs has transformed food preparation and presentation into performance art. Celebrity chefs are lauded like rockstars, and audiences revel in the stagecraft and elaborate platings, enthusiastically sharing images online for all the world to salivate over.
Food, after all, is a multi-sensory experience. A dish’s visual appeal informs our sense of its palatableness. We anticipate flavor based on the food’s color, texture, hue and temperature. Visible cues enable our eyes to “taste” and enjoy the delicious creations we see on television cooking shows and magazines. No doubt about it, food’s aesthetic appeal stimulates our appetite and enhances our eating pleasure. Thus, the chef’s maxim, “A dish well-presented is already half eaten.”
But what would happen if the visual component was removed from the equation? Would the dining experience be just as pleasurable?
Enter the Blind Cafe. With banquets held in pitch-black environments, it’s “dinner in the dark” taken to a whole new level. There are no visual cues to go by… just taste, touch, smell and sound to guide your dining experience. A sensory tasting built around communal suppers, and enhanced by an “unencumbered music listening” concert.
The brainchild of Brian “Rosh” Rocheleau, the Blind Cafe seeks to eliminate the visual distractions and high-tech interruptions that often accompany (and detract from) the experience of dining out. A product of Tibetan Buddhist-inspired Naropa College, Rosh was inspired to find ways to encourage people to interrelate at a more fundamental level through the shared experience of music and food, to enjoy social connections free of self-consciousness and judgement, and along the way, to foster a greater appreciation and awareness for the unique challenges and abilities of the blind.
Rosh, a musician and community organizer, founded the Blind Cafe in February 2010 after visiting a “cafe in the dark” in Iceland, a pop-up coffee shop created as part of a week-long disabilities awareness campaign. “I was traveling alone on tour across Iceland for about a month when I stumbled upon the cafe. When I first entered the room, the complete darkness felt like a shock to my nervous system, like I had jumped into ice cold water and suddenly couldn’t breathe. But then…the nervousness disappeared and I felt elated by the acuteness of my other senses.”
“I could hear dishes clanking and people chatting away. I had to pay attention to my feet, legs, hands, and develop an awareness of my body and surroundings,” he recalls. “The waitstaff at the cafe were all blind, and I honestly didn’t think much of that at first. I knew nothing about blindness, hadn’t known anyone in my life with sight issues other than wearing glasses.”
Rosh continues, “I bumped into a table full of people and asked if they had an empty seat. They just chuckled and said they didn’t know. They couldn’t see anything either. I finally found a chair after feeling around in the dark for a bit, and immediately struck a conversation with other folks. I felt this sense of community that instantly formed between myself and all these strangers around me. We were all in the dark together and there was something met, a need, deep inside. Suddenly I wasn’t so alone anymore.”
“So it hit me. The darkness… this is something we can do to help people feel more awake, alive and present with themselves and others, without the burden of self-consciousness and prejudice. I’ve always had a deep calling to work with people, help them connect with each other, and so I thought, maybe I could do this in Boulder, CO, with the addition of music. I thought, what would it be like to perform in the dark? What would it be like to listen to music in the dark? If people knew they were not being seen, would they feel more freedom to cry or laugh or express outwardly their emotional responses to the music?”
Upon returning to Colorado, he kept the idea close to his heart and thought of ways to re-create his experience. He recalls, “I was apprehensive about starting the blind cafe because I didn’t know any blind persons and I was afraid people may judge me the wrong way.” So when he met Ruth Harrington, who happens to be blind, while taking diversity classes at Naropa University, it was kismet. He shared his idea with her — a dinner, discussion and concert in the dark — something she fully supported, and encouraged.
Shortly after, Rosh met Gerry Leary, a blind man who had worked as a mechanic for 30 years, and now owned a coffee shop, the Unseen Bean, in downtown Boulder. The duo joined forces and brought the Blind Cafe to life, soliciting food donations, enlisting a blind wait staff, recruiting volunteers, mobilizing fellow musicians, and selling tickets to family and friends.
And after a sold-out first event, they knew they were onto something.
The Blind Cafe has since served up 27 family-style suppers for thousands of culinary and music enthusiasts not just in Boulder, but in Austin, Seattle, and Portland, hiring local Chefs in each city to design the tapas-style tasting menu. What’s most impressive is that the event is purely powered by donations and volunteers, with proceeds benefiting charities like the California Association for the Blind, Guide Dogs for the Blind, and Cincinnati Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired.
Asked what keeps him going, Rosh says, “I feel inspired and motivated by the hundreds of volunteers who offer so much of their time, life, and energy to help create something. That deeper calling to be part of something and create it together is met somehow through this event.”
“Few things bring people together like music and food. Because the darkness bumps them out of their habitual mental/emotional patterns of thinking, feeling, tasting etc., it offers the opportunity of an enhanced dining and listening experience. The darkness forces them to work together, navigate the table, and break bread together. It offers them a fresh perspective on their own life experience, triggering them to be more present.”
For the first time ever, the Blind Cafe is coming to San Francisco this fall. Organized locally by Collette Simko-Knauss of Events by Collette, the event is already generating a lot of buzz within the local foodie community. With only nine seatings between October 10 to November 9, tickets are guaranteed to go fast.
If you are an aspiring chef and are interested in being part of this event and creating a sensory tasting in the pitch dark, contact Events by Collette today. Sponsorship opportunities are also available. Tickets are offered on a sliding scale from $85-$150 and include a delicious vegetarian tasting menu, glass of red wine, and a concert by Rosh’s string orchestra. Advance purchase required through Brown Paper Tickets.
Voltaire wrote that “Taste is not content with seeing, with knowing the beauty of a work; it has to feel it, to be touched by it.” The Blind Cafe hopes that by bringing people together in the dark, they will come away truly seeing what it’s like to be fully alive.