15 March 2018
Food is a performance that we take part in every day. From the sourcing of ingredients, to the preparation of those ingredients in a kitchen, to serving a dish and the social interaction around the table, each aspect of the food-experience has a performative element.
In an effort to draw out the many performative aspects of food, E.A.T. came to the Firehouse Theatre in Richmond, VA, for Perform. Throughout the evening, guests were taken through a meal engaging each of the senses, so that we might better understand how our multi-sensory perception affects what we taste, and how the meal might be viewed through the lens of “edible theater.”
E.A.T.’s chef for the evening, Will Lacey, has worked with E.A.T. on many occasions, but this was the first time where his cooking skills were stretched to incorporate the multi-sensory potential of the dining experience.
As guests arrived to the Firehouse Theatre, they were sent up to the bar where they received a color-changing cocktail of gin, lemon juice, simple syrup, and butterfly pea shoot flower tea. The flowers used to steep the tea have a slightly “woody” aroma, and more importantly for our purposes, a distinct indigo hue when steeped in hot water.
The ph. balance of the flowers used to steep the tea is high, and when an acidic component is added to the liquid in which they’ve been steeped, the color of the liquid shifts from a deep blue-purple to a bright-ish magenta. (In this case, the acidic component added to the drink was lemon juice, but a solution of citric acid and water works just as well.) Guests were served the drink with the lemon juice separate, so that they could facilitate the color transformation themselves.
After this first bit of libationary theater, the guests were introduced to the concept for the evening, the curtains were pulled, and they were brought into the performance area where a table was set on stage.
The dinner started with an activity that emphasized the susceptibility of the sense of taste to change. Each guest was given a jellybean to eat. They were also asked to pinch their nose while they started chewing the jellybean. After a few seconds of chewing, releasing the nose changes and intensifies the taste of the jellybean. This is caused by the phenomenon of retronasal smell, one of the many nuances within our senses.
While this experiment was underway, Will Lacey was plating the first course of the night: Ceviche. To further perform and transform, light-blue stage lighting was set along with soft ocean sounds playing in the back. Will’s goal was to emphasize the oceanic origin of the Ceviche, thereby, bringing out more flavor in the dish. Not to mention, the cool freshness of the Ceviche was wonderfully accented by the ambience.
The second course were Tofu “BBQ” sliders. This time, the lighting was set to imitate the sun and rockabilly music was played. In an effort to fully immerse the guests in the scene, mason jars were filled with hickory smoke and opened at the time of serving. The wonderful aroma complimented the sliders very well.
For the third “performance” of the night Tunisian and Moroccan music complimented a spicy, zesty chermoula. Accompanying this was red light to accent the spicy heat of the course along with stage lights to mimic the physical heat of the dish’s country of origin. Guests’ attention was directed to the music and the effect it was having on their sense of taste.
Following the foray into North African cuisine, the lights were set to a low, dark purple. This was to emphasize the increased intensity of flavor in darkness. Will Lacey prepared plates of pork belly accompanied by blueberries and two different cauliflower purees, one of which had blue food coloring and the other was served as is. Surprisingly, the guests reported tasting blueberry in the blue colored puree. Although, there really was no difference in ingredients. This phenomenon along with the effect of lighting perfectly exemplifies how taste can be affected by the taster’s environment, and by the taste-expectations surrounding our dining experience.
The next segment of the evening was an exercise led by The Firehouse Theatre’s Executive Director, Joel Bassin. It was a variation on the game of telephone. Joel started the circle with a phrase and each person repeated it out loud. The purpose was to observe how inflection, volume, accent, etc. change from person to person. This exercise emphasized a culinary idea – that the many lenses/variables of environment, chef’s personal taste, technique, etc. will always have an effect on the food.
Will Lacey used this time to prepare a strip steak with mole sauce. Naturally, mole has a combination of bitter and sweet flavors. The course was partnered with two similarly contrasting music styles. For the first half crashing, difficult music was played. This then melted into sweet, pleasant tones to highlight the contrast between flavors. This culinary experiment – the “bittersweet symphony” – is sometimes called “sonic seasoning,” and has been shown to change the ways in which we perceive taste.
Lastly, a cheesecake was served with four sauces, which were different colors: red, gree, white, and black. Guests were tasked with trying to guess which flavor – sweet, sour, salty, or bitter – each sauce was based on its color alone. Every guest got them all right, indicating that we associate certain colors with certain tastes.
The performative aspects of food preparation were successfully highlighted throughout the night. The guests were able to have the eye-opening experience of their perception being directly affected by environmental changes. Will Lacey gave us another performance to remember. The Firehouse Theatre did a wonderful job of hosting and supporting the event. We can’t wait for another opportunity to work with these great supporters and collaborators!