The Rise of Immersive Dining
Symposiasts: How do we understand the aesthetics of dining?
What’s the place of theatre and illusion in the experience of dining?
Join the conversation about this aspect of our theme and Neils presentation using the comments fields below. Neil will be available for a live Q&A 11.30am Saturday 18th July via Zoom. Zoom links and schedule will be posted and shared and made really obvious between now and then.
Whilst the aestheticisation of the dining experience is arguably not a recent phenomenon, it has in recent times been subjected to intensive scrutiny, critique and participation from industry, media and consumers.
The techno-emotive legacy of pioneer chefs such as Ferran Adrià, Grant Achatz and Heston Blumenthal is highly discernable in contemporary Chefs creating multi-sensory dining experiences; ones that are a vortex of cultural markers, culinary art and scientific collaboration and incorporation that, at their centre, are rich in aesthetic detail and intensity.
Within this trend we are seeing an extensional genre within the sphere of multi-sensory dining. One where the sensory relationship between the diner, the food and the environment is focused and controlled to a such a degree that they are immersive, even theatrical, in their nature. Experiences, some of which not hold multiple Michelin stars, where diners are willing to spend as much as $2,000USD each to participate.
However, with such immersion and focus, arguably comes isolation, sensorially if not physically. Commensality, the act of eating and drinking at the same table is a fundamental social activity. If the immersive experience is so individually focused to the extent that the dinner is sensorially isolated, have we not detached ourselves from one of the principle tenets of why we dine in the first place?
This paper aims to map the rise of the immersive dining trend, its place in the genre of multi-sensory dining, Gastrophysics and techno-emotive cuisine and its contribution to the aestheticisation of culinary arts; to answer the question, is this or is this not dining or merely theater with food.
Born and educated in Scotland Neil Gow holds a Masters Degree in Gastronomic Tourism from Le Cordon Bleu and Southern Cross University where he authored a thesis entitled “Leveraging Gastronomic Science & Culinary Trends to Embetter Society’s Ability to Eat Well Now and in the Future”. He is currently undertaking research at Macquarie University in New South Wales into the culinary creative processes employed by contemporary chefs in Australia as well as internationally He additionally holds a Diplôme Universitaire du Goût, de la Gastronomie et des Arts de la Table from the Université de Reims Champagne-Ardenne and is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. Neil works with a number of internationally recognised culinary and gastronomic organisations and lectures on a range of subjects including Modernist Cuisine, Gastrophysics as well as the Art and Science of Multi-sensory dining.
I think it's important to distinguish between avante garde cuisine and immersive dining. I would say that immersive dining is more like serving the "ultimate" meat pie with a football game running on the screen and the noise of cheering/jeering football fans and not necessarily modernist cuisine with a dish like meat pie ice cream.
This has always bothered me with the 'immersive' theatre experience -where food & music is carefully curated to match the dramatic piece. Heightened emotion/anxiety -the deliberate emotional manipulations of the dramatic arc by the author are not (scientifically) conducive to maximum enjoyment of crafted food experiences. I wonder if the hyperesthesia doesn't just end up as muddy and beige overall?
Very interesting! This fits so well the hyperesthesia of late capitalism Howes describes. I can't recall who said this, but this scholar said with the many sensations around humans, humans may have developed sensory combinations to filter these/to understand the world. With some of these being hypersensory experiences (so much to take in), which of the meal's stimuli will be most perceived?which will be left out? In connection with this I'm wondering if these meals are satiating at all? Or do people even end up eating all their food? Some studies have shown how distractions during meals may affect intake. I fear this might not be just isolating from others but also isolating from the self (i.e., viscerality of the meal).
Post corrected for the date of Neils zoom session, and all the zoom chats - that's our Symposium Super Saturday 18th July.
The most pleasurable dining experiences I have had and provided were when the guests were so completely at ease that the details of the meal were acknowledged and stimulated ideas and friendships without obvious props to stimulate external sensations. The key word is obvious The stages and sensory stagecraft were there but not in your face like a circus.
Maybe it was something I had for dinner last night......
but here are further thoughts on the subject of Neil's paper. I think one of the promotional images shown sums up " immersive dining" : the image of a person, on high, inserting an over sized, phallic spoon, dripping with food, into the mouth of a woman in supplicant pose.
My wish would be that the technological and testosterone driven power and resources involved in this type of new wave dining were better used in making it possible for everyone to have, for example, tree ripened, sun warmed fruit on their table. Even if, the sensual perfume, flavour, mouth feel and juices running down the chin, like Elio & the peach in 'Call me by your Name', resulted in our streets and parks being littered with people losing their inhibitions. Certainly not as obscene as a power and money built phallic symbol that now dominates a 'new' precinct named to honour an indigenous woman and certainly better than the obscenity of a man in a cafe with a gun.
( All I can say is I blame that image, it bothered me all night.)
Thanks Neil. Food as performance art is interesting. And I like Paul van Reyk's idea of a futurist dinner in the style of Marinetti. It would have to be automated, very fast, and have lots of arrows :)
There is a long distance between Bennelong Restaurant in the 1990's, when Gay Bilson introduced the diner to a bare table, "the theatrical starting point of the unfolding revelations of dining and its service", only to find that "most diners were not ready for revolution.", and the theatre presented by immersive dining in Neil's paper. It does raise questions - Are these 'high-end' diners the same / similar demographic / market segment to those i the 1990's ? Will these dining experiences be written about at some future date as the Trimalchio dinners of the 2020's ?
Though I must admit I am more and more inclined to simple pleasures of fresh, simply served and to quote Bilson again: "The more I consider the idea of restaurants the more I believe they need to be intimate spaces rather than places to be seen to be seen in."
I have a plan - post COVID - to host a Futurist dinner with some friends. I think what Marinetti and co were proposing was something more startling in many ways than these immersive experiences. It was often about sharp disjuncture and not deepening of the familiar. And I suspect it will be waaaay cheaper and more fun, too. 😁
Hi Neil. This was a really interesting presentation. Your example of the Noma residency in Mexico bringing the restaurant to nature in the final part about what will come next, brings to mind the ecotourism. Do you see a blossoming relationship between ecotourism and dining in the way that tourism and dining came together with the Michelin Guide?
The funny thing is that the spectrum of immersive experience is all in the narrative. You guys know this to your atoms, but the trick for me is finding a way for everyone to find a meaningful narrative in food. I could never afford these wonders (for example), and neither can most people. It's much like my theatre background. I could always afford to 'create', but never to experience the 'best' (except as cast member).
Thanks Neil. I can't imagine the sensory overload of some of the restaurants, though it must be an amazing experience. I was reminded of the impact of the surroundings when we returned to a restaurant for the first time after lockdown and how our enjoyment was intensified by every aspect of the evening. Thanks again.
Neil, I'm very much interested in the history of restaurant dining, where we've been and where we're going. When I looked at Adria, Blumenthal et al a few years ago what struck me as interesting then was the disconnect between what the chef/restaurateur thought they were doing and what the diners themselves thought of their experiences. Since most diners were self-confessed 'foodies' they were disposed to want to enjoy their expensive meal but in many cases came away disappointed and/or confused, some even felt they were being made to look foolish. So what do diners think of these immersive experiences?
And what about hospitality? Part of the conversation about the future of restaurants post Covid has featured the sudden realisation by many chefs that they are in the hospitality business, that they need to focus on feeding people good food rather than on personal prestige (think Michelin stars) and attracting overseas tourists. Which begs the question, is there a future for this sort of immersive experience?
Thank you Neil for an informative and thought engaging presentation. The generation of food and contrived fantasy experiences, has arguably a long thread in the modern era. There are obvious links between our paper ('Cafe Ware Seduction') and yours (inclusive of technology), though target diners are from different streams of the personal income spectrum. The dynamism of shared environmental experiences and food, embrace ideas of status through accessibility, and class bonding through that status – food and setting as a social level identifier being the general modus operandi for public eating. Enjoyed the presentation greatly.