The meal had barely begun and I was already engrossed in an attempt to get a massive, disembodied tongue to lick a virtual cone of melting ice cream. That's when the electricity in the miniscule room abruptly shut off. Andy An, an industrial designer and the dinner's organizer—who was acting not only as the food runner but also as server/game master—hurriedly disappeared in the direction of the circuit breaker.
Not the most fortuitous of starts for Meal of Fortune, a dining experience that took place recently in the workspace of Babycastles, a Manhattan video-game collective and gallery, in conjunction with Mouth Arcade and Theory Kitchen. The evening was billed as an immersive four-course pop-up restaurant, featuring digital and analog games with food pairings. An told me, "The concept of Meal of Fortune is to do an edible arcade. I wanted to reimagine the restaurant experience as arcade because I wanted to see if gamifying our food would make us appreciate it more."
As An fooled around with the circuit breakers, the other two dozen diners and I sat quietly. Enveloped in darkness, and unwilling to so much as exhale for fear of causing a Rube Goldberg-esque chain reaction, I began to contemplate the current state of tasting menus. Were atypical hybrids like the one derailing before my eyes the solution to the unending torrent of uninspired and downright "totalitarian" tastings lamented by the likes of Corby Kummer and Pete Wells?
Of course, that's not to say that I'm under the delusion that all tastings should follow Meal of Fortune's steps and focus their efforts on the fusion of games and playing with one's food. It's simply that An, alongside 22-year-old chef Theo Friedman and video artists Thu Tran and Will Rahilly, are allowing diners to feel something that is wholly absent in the oversaturated mass of tastings: They're using interactivity to foster and embrace an atmosphere that promotes choice and dialogue between chef and diner. And what they've created is a hell of a lot of fun, even if things take a wonky turn once in a while.
Nowhere is the emphasis on give-and-take more apparent than in the first edible game, the aptly named Seasoning Strike. The best way to describe this particular dish/game would be to call it a metaphysical exercise in allowing diners to season their food ... with mini-bowling. When it was my turn to play, I stood at one end of a miniature bowling alley and rolled a rubber ball at several identical, 3D-printed, seasoning-filled shakers. They were placed in front of a metal screen that was directly above my plate of food—an "edible garden" consisting of beets, rye, and dehydrated olives. I was encouraged to "season" my food as much as I damn well pleased, even if it meant effectively ruining the plate of food in the process. This game playfully turned me into that longstanding pariah of fine dining—the customer who dumps salt and pepper all over his already perfectly seasoned dish.
While Seasoning Strike may have been all about validating diners' right to eat their food however the hell they choose, the next course took individuality to another level. Edible Dice was a take on the game of craps. Diners were handed two edible, six-sided dice made of pâte de fruit and were asked to toss them across a wildly moving, homemade conveyor belt, which emptied onto a plate below. Our waiter hurriedly attempted to explain how each side of the die was marked with a symbol, and each symbol corresponded to a different topping. I rolled—and then devoured—a spicy nut topping and a citrus-meringue topping, each of which were placed on my dice for my dining pleasure. With 36 combinations between the dice, Edible Dice's emphasis on personalization speaks volumes about injecting individuality into a pre-set meal.
The last game on the menu was Bite Theater, a mind-melting spin on the typical arcade crane game. This game involved a group of four diners being whisked away to a mysterious annex. There, we were placed in front of four bowls of semolina gnocchi and three ramekins of dipping sauces, all connected by electrical wires. If that wasn't enough to give us some serious reservations, our forks were also connected to the same tangle of cables.
The forks acted as game controllers. A display, projected on the wall, mirrored each fork's movement as an image of a human hand picking up anthropomorphic objects, including poop and cartoon monsters, appeared on the screen. Bite Theater made the act of dipping gnocchi into romesco sauce an act akin to playing with the hand of a virtual diety. Unfortunately, the motion-tracking component of the game was totally fucked by the time I had a chance to try it out, and my group spent the majority of the time futilely prodding the three ramekins. The game was flawed but brilliant. Just like the rest of the night.
Chef Theo Friedman explained that integrating the food with the games was an important goal for the creators. "It became clear very quickly that the only way it was going to work was to have the games and food act as one experience, rather than 'you play some games and you eat some food,'" he told me. Friedman grew up in a family of artists, and he credits their influence on Meal of Fortune. "My parents encouraged me to be inquisitive, to be adventurous, and to be creative. I think these things all translate well to food."
Similarly, An said that growing up as the child of Korean immigrants who became real estate agents after an unsuccessful stint running a pizza joint and a pay-by-the-pound Cajun seafood restaurant greatly shaped his impression of the restaurant industry. His parents' self-imposed lack of creativity and cautious approach to giving American diners what they thought they wanted stayed with him. An said, "Meal of Fortune was my rebelling against the traditional experience of eating out at a restaurant. It was, in many ways, an outburst of all this creative energy I had stored up in me. I feel relieved now ... I feel like I've avenged my parents in a way."
In the end, the night was a resounding success for innovative, interactive dining. As An put it, "The bumps that we experienced ended up being OK, because Meal of Fortune is all about taking away the formalities that we all feel the need to live up to when we go out to a fine-dining restaurant or are eating good food. It can be powerful when you throw away those formalities and just focus on interacting with the food."
Meal of Fortune and the team that put it together may not hold all the answers to overbearing and unimaginative tasting menus, but that doesn't mean that there aren't lessons to be learned.