Dining in Total Darkness Might Save Your Relationship

At a dinner held in pitch darkness in the basement of a San Francisco clothing store, couples were encouraged to discuss their relationships with one another and their dining partners. Thus blinded, all I could do was focus on the mystery dishes that...

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Aug 31 2015, 6:09pm

Half of a stringy, slimy, seaweed-y je ne sais quoi plops on the ground. A quarter of the concoction finds its way into my mouth. What's left ends up on my blouse.

My boyfriend Raphael is attempting to feed me at a couple's dinner held in pitch darkness. Had there been light, the spill would have been unromantic. But the room is totally black, in a basement of a San Francisco clothing store that otherwise sells alpaca garments. No one can see me, and I am unable to see the five other couples around me, feeding each other the same mystery dish.

The oil masks the fried dish, and I figure it could just as easily be sheep brains as falafel.

Rosh Rocheleau, the creator of "A Momentary Blind Cafe: A Relationship-Deepening Dinner in the Dark Experience for Couples," gives us instructions throughout the night, teetering in tone between inspirational and sarcastic directives. "Don't worry, I'll let you know when to put your clothes back on," Rocheleau deadpans, before saying, "You know when you fall in love you're kind of in for it, but you accept it." By "in for it" I'm guessing he means all the problems and issues that go with being a relationship. Later, he reveals that the new greasy polka dot-shaped stain on my shirt is in fact a melange of pineapple aioli, red cabbage, and rice paper.

To get to the dinner, we inch down a flight of stairs in groups of four with hands on one another's shoulders. Rocheleau then seats us at what he calls a "love nest," which has its own mason jar of wine, two pillows, and a basket full of secret snacks. The space is set up to elicit a feeling of a functional, comfortable home with a stocked fridge, explains Dr. Michelle Wang, PhD, who conducts couple's therapy sessions and is co-director of the dinner.

It's difficult to tell just how far or close the next couple is to us. Without light, my sense of distance and space are impaired, but my appetite and sense of smell are heightened. I'm practically drooling as I inspect the first course of dinner: a tempura-scented fritter. The oil masks the fried dish, and I figure it could just as easily be sheep brains as falafel.

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Photo by the author.

"Eat your pinecones!" says Rocheleau, who later reveals that the pinecone is a deep-fried mac and cheese ball crusted with truffles, aged parmesan, and herbed panko, crafted by local chef Jamie Harrington. Instead of eating my meal in many measured bites, I devour the delicious cheese nugget in three—taking full advantage of the fact that no one is watching.

The purpose of the couple's dinner date in the dark is to force partners to break tired habits and find new ways to connect and rely on each other, says Rocheleau: "When we no longer have our sight, we realize we have to use our other senses. It interrupts our usual ways of checking out or not paying attention and all the other pre-judgements we have. We are on autopilot a lot. When we get into the dark we suddenly don't know how to communicate because we don't have the visual communication of body language. We have to listen more."

My boyfriend and I are struggling to adjust to a new city and finding a balance between independent lives. After being together for almost a year and half, we mostly bond at the couple's dinner over the vulnerability of being in a room with 15 other strangers. In a sense, the couple's dinner in the dark is like attending a double date with five other couples.

Participants are encouraged to stay for a full two hours without light—that is, unless they experience an anxiety attack, which Rocheleau says has happened before: 'If you start to lose your shit, take a deep breath and hold each others hand. It's not haunted.'

Stripped of my ability to see, I shift out of autopilot mode and focus on Raphael's voice, listening to his every lilt and inflection. But without much privacy, we are unable to touch on any substantial relationship topics, and mostly spend our evening joking around, guessing what the food is, and plotting our next weekend getaway.

This is the longest amount of time I've ever spent in a pitch black room awake, and Rocheleau is adamant about forbidding any kind of distractions that keep us from connecting with our partners. Purses, cell phones, and watches are left at the entryway. Guests are limited to three cocktails to prevent any sort of drunken debauchery. (Not a terrible idea, considering how much more difficult it is to manage my buzz without having any object to focus on.) Participants are encouraged to stay for a full two hours without light—that is, unless they experience an anxiety attack, which Rocheleau says has happened before: "If you start to lose your shit, take a deep breath and hold each others hand. It's not haunted."

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A dish of rice paper, cabbage, and pineapple. Photo by Michelle Wang.

When we aren't eating, Dr. Wang poses questions related to food, psychology, and relationships: "What do you think the food looks like? As if you were a child, try to figure out what it is!" Raphael guesses first: "It's an accra, no?" (Accra, an African appetizer, is a fried ball of seafood or beef.) My best guess is that the mystery dish is falafel.

As the night rolls on, Dr. Wang leads us in a more serious conversation: "What questions about relationships do you have for other couples?" At first, the room is silent. Most of the couples are in their mid- to late thirties and are working professionals without kids. But there is one older couple in their late sixties, and the conversation immediately shifts towards them for answers. "What's changed throughout the 40 years you've been together?" a younger couple asks the older couple. "We've changed on the individual level. We are finding ourselves in new situations at different phases of our lives but some things stay the same," replies the husband, "There's comfort knowing you've gone through struggles in the past. If you keep an open mind, you still get surprises sometimes. It reminds me that we will continue to evolve."

The couple's dinner in the dark evolved out of the Blind Cafe, where blind waiters serve meals in the dark to customers. Rocheleau came across a blind cafe in Iceland and decided to import the idea to the United States. Since opening the non-profit in 2010, he's served 11,000 customers across the country. Initially his goal was to increase awareness about the blind community and draw attention to social issues related to blindness and disability, but recently he expanded the program in a new direction. Tonight's dinner is a pilot program, inspired by a woman who said that the time she spent in the dark with her husband at a Blind Cafe saved her marriage. "She felt vulnerable, opened up, and turned to her partner energetically because dining in the dark can be pretty scary," recalls Rocheleau.

'Do you want good food and wine? Do you want a really cool dining in the dark experience? That's more approachable. This isn't really for couples who are in crisis mode, or on the brink of destruction.'

Rocheleau and Dr. Wang's goal for the night is to promote emotional growth. In the future he hopes to also use the dark to hold discussions on sex, gender, and race, and to conduct sex therapy and host concerts. But the couple's dinner is perfumed with privilege. The blind community is an incredibly disenfranchised group, constantly trying to overcome a lack of infrastructure and societal support. For example, in San Francisco, braille maps in public places are an essential tool for moving freely and independently, but hardly exist. While the Blind Cafe normally employs members of the blind community, tonight there are no blind representatives to share their perspective. Event attendees pay to tap into their struggle for a brief 120 minutes, while snacking on gourmet hors d'oeuvres and sipping alcoholic drinks for a cool $150.

Rocheleau warns us that the first 15 minutes are the scariest. One of my main concerns is not being able to take proper notes in the dark, and I worry my recorder would fail me. (Rocheleau insisted earlier that I wrap it in a thick layer of fabric before putting it into my coat pocket to mask the small red light.) Had I not taken three pre-interviews prior to the event, I might have reconsidered being reeled into a dark room with strangers promising expensive wine and cheese.

The prospect of having to address my relationship problems is more intimidating than reporting, but the dinner event doesn't go into that. It does, however, deliver the best tomato pesto dumpling with walnut basil pesto that I've ever tasted.

Dr. Wang asks that I refrain from labeling the event "couple's therapy" because of the negative stigma associated with the term. "It's therapeutic experiential exercises," says Dr. Wang. "Do you want good food and wine? Do you want a really cool dining in the dark experience? That's more approachable. This isn't really for couples who are in crisis mode, or on the brink of destruction. It's for couples who have mild issues, or don't have issues. They just want to strengthen and deepen their relationship." Before the night began, couples also got this message in a waiver that read in bold, underlined letters: "This event is not psychotherapy." For the couple that did need real therapy, dark chocolate figs and acknowledging the hardships of being in a relationship with other couples is at least a start. After the event, Dr. Wang handed out her card to a couple seeking more one-on-one counseling.

After sitting in the dark for nearly two hours, Rocheleau lights two candles. I catch a glimpse of the second cabbage egg roll that Raphael didn't eat. It looks like an orange Twinkie. Before this night, my experience of trying to function in the dark amounted to no more than a few minutes spent in a handful of power outages—those few moments of panic before I found a candle, or nowadays, a smartphone. With minimal light now, I'm distracted by the expressions of those around me and the room's decorations —which are trivial, but somehow feel personally significant. "How does it feel to go back to light?" asks Rocheleau.

"I want to go back to eating and speaking in the dark," I respond. Just for a few more minutes.