In contrast to some animals, such as rats, humans usually rest in darkness. “Eating in the dark puts us in a state of conflict,” explains Karyn Julliard. “When we eat, we release highly stimulating molecules in the brain. For some people, it may be that that the stress caused by the lack of light is stronger than the feeling of hunger, to the point of disrupting the level of satiety. Fear of the dark also results in us being less focused on analysing the true perception of food.”
“It is difficult to identify what you are eating if you cannot see it.”
At Dans le noir, the chefs combine high-quality food and fresh and seasonal produce with spices and other flavourings that confuse clients’ senses. “Our chefs choose simple, familiar products, which they then alter sensorially,” explains Camille Leveillé. “The food may be crunchy, soft, cooked or raw.” The recipes are carefully prepared to trick our senses of taste and smell. On the menu for this particular day the starters included a mango and guacamole verrine, scallops with sage and veal tartare. The main course comprised beef fillet in a bitter cocoa sauce, sweet potato mash and chips, saffron bulgur and baby spinach salad. For dessert, there was almond sponge cake, meringue and a chocolate and Espelette pepper gateau.
If some of the participants were able to recognise several ingredients, most were thrown by the lack of visual aid. “By smelling and feeling the food, I was able to recognise most things, such as the steak, salad and chips. However, I didn’t realise that they were made from sweet potato, or that there was bulgur, as these are things I don’t usually eat,” says Élodie.
Mr Le Coz, on the other hand, believes he would be lost if he couldn’t see. “The meal lasted two hours without me being aware of the time, but I can’t say I enjoyed it because I couldn’t recognise the flavours. I thought I recognised the starter of guacamole and the chocolate cake for dessert, but I wasn’t sure. I would make a very poor food sampler in the dark!” For good reason. “When food is in your mouth, it has more to do with the retronasal olfactory senses than the sense of taste,” as Karyn Julliard later explains to me. “It stimulates the sensory receptors in the nasal cavity, which send information directly to the brain. Being in the dark is particularly unsettling for the human species because sight is the main factor that allows us to identify food. Once we become accustomed to this problem, we are able to concentrate on what we’re eating. All that remains is to detect the flavours in the oral cavity using the retronasal sense of smell and the sense of taste. "
Guillaume, a young engineer and wine enthusiast, was left disillusioned by the adventure. “Without being able to see, I was surprised by the tastes and easily mistaken as to what was on my plate. But it was the choice of wines in particular that was misleading. They were clearly chosen so that they couldn’t be identified.” This was confirmed by the manager, Camille Leveillé. “A classic example is getting someone to drink colourless mint water with added red colouring. Most people will recognise a strawberry or grenadine flavour,” according to the researcher Karyn Julliard. “This highlights the influence of sight in determining food.” Recent research also shows that oenologists and perfumers have adapted the neuronal zone of their brain devoted to smell, which is usually very small for the majority of people. “We would normally rather use texture or sense whether something is hot or cold, by placing it in our mouth,” explains Karyn Julliard.
Ultimately, eating in the dark allowed the participants to relate to one another via this experience. “We laughed a lot,” Élodie recounts. “Someone would drop their fork or spill some water. That made everyone relax and helped us to get to know each other without being overbearing.” The atmosphere even allowed us to toast one another even though we were strangers! This experience, both human and culinary, opened our eyes to a sensory world where physiological limits are tested and self-adaptation and self-discovery are key.