I’ve spent more hours than I’d care to admit eating in front of the television, but recently I stepped through the screen and ate inside the TV! Well, sort of. While attending a dinner party hosted by Aerobanquets RMX at New York’s James Beard House, I got to have my virtual reality and eat it, too.
In 2018 artist Mattia Casalegno conceived the idea of augmented, multi-sensory dining experiences, and after successful installations in South Korea and China, he's brought the concept to New York City. Restaurateur Roni Mazumdar and noted chef Chintan Pandya of Adda Indian Canteen and Rahi (no stranger to our We Tried It column himself with his delicious homestyle Indian fare) partnered with Casalegno to present a wild experience for sight, sound, and taste.
Upon arrival at the historic James Beard House, I was led into the reception area, a distinguished room of dark wood and old cookbooks housed behind glass doors. There were four chairs in the room—the maximum number of guests per seating. As my dining companions and I sat, our host poured champagne and a waiter brought us each a small plate of appetizers containing five different bite-sized treats. Our host began to explain what was about to happen, and though I was excited, I felt myself start to get a bit nervous over this latest eating adventure of mine.
The host told us that, after heading upstairs, we’d be outfitted with our virtual reality headsets, but unlike other experiences merging VR and food, we wouldn’t be taking them off to eat. He then passed around a vessel that looked like a short insulated food jar with a sunken lid. “This is how you’ll be receiving the food,” he said. I hadn't thought about this part; I figured we'd be eating normally at a set table with plates and utensils. But nothing I was about to experience would be normal. This little pot would actually merge into the virtual world we were about to enter. “When you see it appear, reach out. Your virtual hands will be visible to you so you can take hold of the actual jar.” Whoa.
He went on to show us the way to hold the vessel, feeling for a button on one end and a spout on the other, which is where the morsel of food would be located. Because of the large headset, we wouldn’t be able to eat normally, nor would we be able to see the food in reality, so we were instructed to sit straight, bring the vessel up to our face under the goggles, and tilt our heads back to pop the morsel into our mouths and not interfere with the gear. “Should we be wearing bibs?” I half-joked aloud, as it's not out of character for me to drop food without my eyes covered. “You can also pick it up and put it in your mouth,” he said, “but don’t worry! You’ll be fine.” I was glad I wasn’t wearing white.
Next, we were told we’d be sitting in wheeled office chairs through our journey and that we should feel free to move around and reach out to “touch” what we see. “But move slowly. You won’t see walls, obstacles, or each other while the headgear is on. If you accidentally touch another diner, just apologize and excuse yourself.” Uh-oh, I thought. Not only was I going to need a bib; I was also going to need some padding. I had visions of leaving the dinner with crumbs down my dress, messy hair, and a black eye. “If you need anything at all, just say ‘I need assistance’ and someone will be there to help,” the host said.
This was getting weird.
That said, I was pretty excited about this crazy experience. I had no idea what we’d be “seeing.” Would we be at a dinner party? Flying through space? Eating with dinosaurs? We walked up the house’s narrow staircase to the fourth floor, where we passed through multiple curtains into a small, bare, white-walled room with a round table. There were just enough wheeled office chairs, computer monitors and headsets with long wires coming down from the ceiling for the four of us. The stark conference room set up reminded me of something out of a Quentin Tarantino movie. When we sat with our backs to the table, each facing a separate corner of the room, I giggled and said aloud, “Um, this looks like where we come to get murdered,” as I realized we just agreed to essentially be blindfolded, tethered to a chair, and fed things we can’t see by strangers. Although I was ready for this journey, I had a slight fear that anxiety, panic, or motion sickness might kick in. This was uncharted territory for me.
I got settled into my chair, and one of the techs in the room helped fit the gear to my head. A welcoming title card appeared in front of me, making me feel like I had the best seat in the house to a movie screening. “Put your hands in front of your face,” my tech instructed. I did and, whoa! There were my perfectly animated paws doing exactly the movements my real ones were doing. What a weird sensation.
The virtual reality journey started with a realistic scenario: Tables and chairs started to appear around me as music played, and I found myself in a restaurant's dining room, quite realistic but with an animated edge. No matter which way I looked—up, down, or behind me—the perspective was accurate and what I saw felt like my actual reality. I turned to my right and found I was seated at a table with an unknown avatar-companion chatting at me. He encouraged me to try the food and pushed the animated version of the vessel I was just introduced to towards me. With that, my first course was served. I leaned over and reached for the container. What I saw looked a little cartoon-y, but I touched something real and saw it come closer as I raised it to my face. Like seeing my own virtual hands a few minutes before, the merging of what I saw and what I could feel was truly bizarre. I managed to master getting the morsel into my mouth. And it was delicious. Ok, first one done, now I was ready for this for real.
How to Eat at an Aerobanquet
After the first restaurant scene, the worlds that surrounded me got more surreal—no surprise seeing as the artist was inspired by The Futurist Cookbook, a collection of over-the-top, fantastical dinners published in 1932. During some scenes, I felt as if I was in a Dali painting as giant pineapples fell to the ground and a xylophone housed inside some sort of meat floated around me. I reached out to touch the meaty musical instrument and though I felt nothing, my virtual hands pushed it through the air, and it let out a few notes at my "touch." As other instruments hovered around me I realized I could make bop them away as well. I felt whimsical as I slowly Fred Flinstone-ed the wheelie chair around my corner of the room, tapping food instruments above, below, and all around me. I could only imagine what my co-diners and I looked like from the tech’s perspective as we got more and more into it, laughing, rolling, and waving our arms at absolutely nothing. I felt like a child in a strange land, like Alice as she encountered the fantastic things she experienced in Wonderland.
Within each scene, we encountered another vessel holding our food, another delicious bite of unique yet familiar flavors. (Full disclosure, I did lose half a piece of something as I forgot my mouth was located in the center of my face. Luckily the tiny packages of food were as tidy as they were tasty.) Our narrator, Gail Simmons, guided us with descriptions of a feeling ("This is a mousse of roasted hopes, no-can-dos, and broken promises") or sense ("It tastes like the whistle that the wind makes blowing through a door lock on a cold autumn afternoon"), never telling us what we were actually eating. I found myself having difficulty making the connection between taste and words, unable to identify the flavors I was eating yet set free from the expectation that goes along with identifying food. Instead, I let the texture and flavor combinations take over my senses; that one bite of food became amplified with the absence of knowledge. It's a whole new way to enjoy something done multiple times every day.
When it was over, we gathered around the table, blinking ourselves back to reality and chuckling at the mask imprints on our cheeks. “Whoa, that was so cool,” we kept repeating, lost for other words to describe the weird trip we just took. Contrary to my nagging fears at the beginning, the whole thing was the opposite of panic-inducing. In fact, I felt free and floaty. Even during one scene in which I was surrounded by water that began to slowly rise—an unpleasant situation in reality—I felt peaceful and trusting. The most disappointing part was when it was over. The 40-minute experience went by in a flash. I could have sat there exploring those other worlds, picking up morsels of food for hours on end.
With this just being the beginning of what the marriage of food and VR could do, I'm excited to see where it can go next, both creatively and practically. “Imagine sharing a meal with your best friend in Dubai,” our host said, “or being unable to get home for the holidays but being able to join them for dinner.” This is a way for technology to bring us closer using one of my favorite ways to bond—over a meal.
The Aerobanquets RMX seven-course dining experience will be happening through January 26, 2020. Tickets are $125 per person and can be purchased here.