Disclaimer: This post contains spoilers of the dining in the dark experience with Gizani.
Thanks to EatOut Kenya, I had the opportunity to experience dining in the dark with Gizani at Sevens Restaurant at the Village Market. Gizani is Swahili for “in the dark” and is a new experiential concept in Nairobi inspired by “Dans le Noir” in Paris. The Parisian staff came to Nairobi to train the visually impaired staff here and help build the overall experience.
There are many ‘firsts’ in play when experiencing Gizani. For example, millions of people have dined in the dark around the world, but this is the first time the experience has been brought to Nairobi. For a lot of the Nairobi visually impaired staff, this is the first time they’ve held a job, the first time they have been in a restaurant (let alone serving people at a restaurant) and the first time they have had the chance to lead, and not be led, through an experience.
This was my first time dining in the dark and I was a mix of emotions: excited, nervous, curious. I understand that eating is a combination of three main senses, the sense of sight, smell, and taste. Taking away one of those senses will alter the overall experience.
My boyfriend Adel and I were two of about 12 people who came to dine in the dark. The night began with a drink and the opportunity to mingle with the other Gizani goers. Everyone was asked to check their bags and phones with the host to make sure there are no obstacles or light in the dark room.
After everyone had arrived, we were led to the entry of the dining room and introduced to Jenny and Ignatius, two visually impaired waiters who would be leading us through our dining experience. We were also told to be mindful of sound levels in the dining room; when one sense is diminished, your other senses become heightened. We formed two lines and put our left hands on the shoulder of the person in front of us. Before entering the room Jenny who was leading my line, introduced herself to each of us and made a note of the names of the first and last person in line. “Ready?” she called as she made her way back to the front of the line. “If anyone lets go or loses the line, let me know!” and with that, we began our slow walk into the room.
The dining room is dark. You’re probably thinking “duh, Soni, you’re dining in the dark” but I mean that the room is so dark that your eyes never adjust to the darkness. I initially felt a little uneasy confronted with such darkness, it would take a while to adjust to. We were instructed to feel for the chair in front of us and take a seat. Jenny helps us understand our surrounding by explaining where everything was strategically placed on the table. We were told to feel for the square plate in front of us, two forks to the left of the plate, a spoon and knife in a napkin to the right, and a second dessert spoon above the plate. To the right of the dessert spoon is our glass for water, directly in front of the dessert spoon are two jugs of water. With this simple introduction, we were ready to begin our meal.
It took some time for me to feel comfortable in the darkness. I was unusually aware of where my hands were placed, careful not to accidentally touch Natalie, the woman sitting next to me, or accidentally knock over a glass on the table. I also noticed myself creating a mental image of the room around me based on the sounds I heard. There were two women sitting across from me with the other eight people parallel and perpendicular to me, as if we were sitting on a long conference table. I heard a few voices about a meter behind me, they were probably more waitstaff.
The meal began with an amuse-bouche (a single-bite appetizer) . Jenny lightly tapped on my left shoulder, letting me know she was there and that the meal was being placed in front of me on a spoon. She instructed me to pick up the spoon and eat the amuse-bouche with the spoon it was served on. I felt for the dish in front of me, it felt crusted, round, and had a sponge-like softness to it. I put it into my mouth. It was creamy, sweet, and had a tanginess of lemon. Whatever it was, it was delicious and cleansed my palette for the rest of the meal. As everyone at the table tried their amuse-bouche, there was a chorus of ingredients being rattled off “ooo, I taste cream” “no, it’s cream cheese” “I think there’s some lemon in there!”. The room was filled with energy and bursts of giggles as someone would accidentally brush the person beside them or exclaim “I really can’t see anything!”. As we finished our amuse-bouche, the plates were cleared with another light tap on the shoulder.
Next we had the appetizer served to us in a round bowl. I picked up the bowl and smelled pesto. I excitedly dipped my spoon in and tasted bites of halloumi cheese, strawberries, sliced almonds, and mango. Others thought they tasted chicken, oranges, and pine nuts. This appetizer dish was the best dish of the night for me, it had a great balance of sweet and salty and different textures to the dish.
As the third course was being served, I began to feel more at ease in the dark. It was enjoyable to be quiet and unseen, experiencing the dark together but also very much alone. Unfortunately, the group Adel and I were with were quite loud and (in my opinion) a little obnoxious. Some of the women were speaking loudly and I really wished that we would all use hushed voices as Jenny and Ignatius had suggested. The main dish was served on a round plate with a bowl in the center of it. I used my hands to pick up what tasted like tempura asparagus and eel. The eel was a burst of flavour, very salty but sweet from the tempura coating and fry. The bowl in the middle was a lukewarm mix of what seemed to be shrimp, a tomato based sauce, and mushrooms. Unfortunately, I didn’t really like this dish. I was hoping for a heartier main course that would be filling. Plus, none of the dish was hot, it wasn’t even warm which was disappointing.
As the main course was being cleared, we were notified that Winnie would be coming around giving each of us a neck/back massage (!!!). Bursts of cheers echoed through the room. While Winnie went around the table, Ignatius announced that Gizani had a special gift for all of us courtesy of the birthday happening that night. He let me know when the gift was in front of me, I reached my hand out and felt a short glass… A shot glass. I lifted the glass to smell the liquor and immediately knew it was tequila. I hate tequila. Adel passed me his glass too because it was Ramadan and he wasn’t drinking. To my left, I heard Winnie let Adel know that his massage was about to begin and quickly threw back the two shots. I grimaced, waiting for the acidic, metallic taste of tequila to hit my palette. Instead, I got floral notes. I tasted orange and citrus as the tequila warmed my body. Although no one could see it, I’m sure my face was priceless. I excitedly told Adel that I had actually enjoyed the tequila. Without the sense of sight and preconceived notions of what tequila tastes like, I really enjoyed the flavour profile. Just as the tequila was making me feel good, Winnie began her epic massage. The massage lasted a good 10 minutes of an unreal neck, shoulder, and upper back massage. Maybe it was the tequila, or the calming dark, or Winnie is a great masseuse, whatever it was, the experience was phenomenal.
Finally, the dessert came around. I dipped my spoon into the soft dessert and was struck by a creamy flavour and a crunchiness, like roasted Rice Crispies were coating the creamy dessert. Unfortunately, on my second bite I got an overpowering taste of salt which made me put down my spoon. I couldn’t finish the dessert. As we sat comfortably in the dark, enjoying our conversation, I heard what sounded like another group of individuals being led to a second table in the dark restaurant. “Excuse me” Jenny said, “may we have your attention” as the room quieted down a soft voice started to sing Malaika. The single voice was joined by a few other voices in harmonization, then, we were suddenly surrounded by the beautiful sounds of about seven different voices singing in harmony. I sat back in my seat with a giant smile on my face and misty eyes, it was beautiful. The entire experience had led me to appreciate experiencing the world through unseeing eyes. The care, passion, dedication, and talent of the Gizani team warmed my heart and made me feel fortunate to be a part of something so special.
When the singing was over, so was our experience. We were again led out of the room by Jenny and Ignatius and into the light of the Seven’s dining room to an applauding Seven’s staff. After about two hours of sitting in the dark, my eyes took a few minutes to adjust to the light. Looking around, we all had big smiles on our faces and the mood of the room was celebratory. The chef brought out the four dishes we had tasted and the ingredients they were comprised of:
Mint greek yogurt, cornflakes, pickled beetroot.
Toasted ugali with strawberries, balsamic syrup, crispy ginger, black pepper caramelized goats cheese, toasted almonds, and grilled zucchini.
Chicken heart stroganoff, anchovy melba toast, tempura asparagus, cauliflower and garlic puree.
Avocado mascarpone cheesecake and puffed wild rice on a date biscuit base with a warm toffee sauce.
Speaking to the director of the Gizani program, he told me that a lot of chefs enjoy the opportunity to cook for people dining in the dark. It allows them to be creative with flavours and plating and not have to worry about the visual element of the dish or people seeing ingredients they don’t usually eat and not enjoying the dish due to preconceived notions of it.
The Gizani experience will be moving to different restaurants in the near future. I strongly suggest you try the Gizani experience, it is well worth it and will leave you with a sincere appreciation for your opportunity.
I’ll leave you with this great NPR article on Gizani that piqued my interest in the event. If you’ve been to Gizani, or are interested in the event, please share your experience, questions, or comments in the comment section below.