Kari Walker, chef and co-owner of the Reedsburg restaurant Beastro & Barley, was enrolled in the Culinary Arts program at Madison College when she got her first taste of Dining in the Dark a few years ago. It started with a visit from Council Executive Director Denise Jess.
“I got to hear Denise talk about making restaurants more inclusive,” Kari says. “Making pathways so that people can safely navigate, for example.”
The next day, the Culinary Arts program hosted a Dining in the Dark event, at which Kari was a server. “I was just so moved,” Kari says. “It was a powerful experience for the servers and the participants.”
Dining in the Dark is a unique culinary experience where patrons enjoy their meal while blindfolded. The idea is to provide diners who are not visually impaired insights into how people living with vision loss experience their world, especially the experience of using other senses to appreciate a meal. The other idea is to raise money for the Council, which receives after-expenses proceeds as a donation.
The Council has been collaborating with restaurants to host Dining in the Dark events since 2013, bringing them back in 2022 after a two-year break. There were two Dining in the Dark events in June. The first, at Beastro & Barley was June 14. The second Dining in the Dark event took place June 30 at Four Winds Farm in Fitchburg. Both events sold out well in advance.
Dining in the Dark meals usually consist of three or four courses including dessert. Guests remain blindfolded through most of the event and are not told in advance what’s on the menu; courses are described only after the first few bites. Each course incorporates a variety of smells and textures to provide a full sensory experience.
After dinner, Council staff members lead a discussion about enjoying food using senses other than sight and answer questions about cooking and eating with vision loss.
Kari points out that patrons aren’t the only ones who gain new insights through Dining in the Dark. There are revelations for restaurant staff as well. Servers attain a stronger understanding of the accessibility needs of their patrons, discovering the importance of such things as introducing themselves before approaching a diner and describing the arrangement of food using methods like referring to the hands of a clock. “We take things a little slower, and we’re more thoughtful and careful in our movements,” she says.
Four Winds Chef Mark Wroczynski has been organizing Dining in the Dark events since 2016. Over time, he has observed some changes in guest behavior. “Guests seem more adventurous, curious and willing to participate,” he says. “With no visual cues to let them know portion sizes, guests tend to eat all that is put in front of them. It’s a chef’s dream come true!”
Like Kari, Mark values the opportunity to better understand some of the challenges of dining with vision loss. “Many attendees have little awareness of what those with visual impairments have to deal with at dining establishments,” he says. “It is inspiring to witness that moment the light bulb goes off and their facial expressions change with acknowledgement.”
Rachel Pavone, the Council’s newest Vision Rehabilitation Therapist, attended the event at Four Winds Farm. Rachel, who is blind, noted that some guests seemed nervous while others were excited. “Everyone enjoyed the experience immensely,” Rachel added. “And the food was amazing!”
At Beastro & Barley, customers with vision loss visit several times a week. Making the space accessible “is good for the community, and it’s close to our heart,” Kari says.
“And with the increasing number of people who are aging and experience vision loss, just knowing how to be more thoughtful in how we serve our guests is helpful,” Kari adds. “We can use those skills across the entire customer base. It doesn’t just have to be a person who is visually impaired.”
If you are interested in attending a future Dining in the Dark event or know of a restaurant that might host one, contact Lori at LWerbeckes@WCBlind.org or 608-237-8114.