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In the dark about dining

Eating unidentified food in pitch darkness with the very real possibility of knocking over your wine glass at any moment may not be everyone’s idea of a good time. But negotiations are underway for the Siem Reap launch of a dining concept that has taken the world by storm: dining in the dark.

Having already co-founded Dine in the Dark Bangkok and Phnom Penh, social entrepreneur and restaurateur Julien Wallet-Houget and his partners are now looking to open a third branch at 1961 Coworking and Art Space.

James, one of the ‘'guides’ at Dine in the Dark Phnom Penh.
James, one of the ‘'guides’ at Dine in the Dark Phnom Penh. PHOTO SUPPLIED

“The idea of dining in the dark is not new,” says Wallet-Houget. “The concept originated in Switzerland in 1999 where a visually impaired vicar, Joerg Spielmann, hosted dinner at his home to get his friends to experience how it is to be visually impaired.

He then opened a first restaurant in Zürich, and then Basel, both venues employing visually impaired service staff.”

Taken with this idea, Wallet-Houget and his team decided to take the concept to a whole new level by presenting it in a more sophisticated setting.

“My focus was to present the dark dining experience in a more luxurious and comfortable setting, yet to price it so to still make it accessible to a wide range of customers,” he says.

Indeed, the Phnom Penh branch which opened last September has become so successful it is now rated number four on Tripadvisor.

Diners are instructed to leave their phones at the door (no cheating allowed) and are given a choice of three ‘surprise’ menus: Khmer, international and vegetarian, before being led to their table.

With the menu changing every six to eight weeks, customers might find themselves chowing down on coconut chicken curry with crispy potato chips, served with rice and snapper and rocket salad, or homemade vegetarian ravioli with pesto basil, flathead mushrooms and sugar snap peas – but they won’t see any of the fare until after they’ve eaten it.

A waiter guiding one of the customers at Dine in the Dark, Phnom Penh.
A waiter guiding one of the customers at Dine in the Dark, Phnom Penh. PHOTO SUPPLIED

“It is only at the end of the dinner that we show guests the photos of the dishes they had,” says Wallet-Houget. “By letting guests dine in the dark, we heighten all non-visual senses in an elegant and playful fashion.

“We also pay extra attention to local ingredients especially for the Khmer menu, using the opportunity to allow foreigners to discover or rediscover Cambodian cuisine.”

An outlet in Siem Reap, he says, was the logical next step, although negotiations are still in process. If all goes well though, Dine in the Dark Siem Reap will open around early October.

“We wanted to expand our venture in Cambodia,” says Wallet-Houget. “The experience in Phnom Penh has corroborated our initial assumptions: the tourist and expatriate market is ripe for such a concept, and although it takes somewhat more time, Cambodians are becoming increasingly curious about the concept and are starting to try our restaurant as well.

“The tourism industry is growing in Siem Reap at an increasing speed, and we predict that the number of foreigners interested in both a unique culinary experience and a business with a social purpose will grow alongside.”

He adds that having established contact with Krousar Thmey, which runs schools for the deaf and blind, it was apparent there was a need for more employment opportunities for the visually impaired. Dine in the Dark is exclusively staffed by blind waiters, or ‘guides’.

“At present six guides are working with us in Phnom Penh. We hope that our new venture in Siem Reap will create employment for an additional six visually impaired persons, this time all from Siem Reap,” he says.

1961 seemed the perfect venue, he says, and its owners Kurt Xu and Loven Ramos were extremely enthusiastic about the concept.

“Dine in the Dark​ is a modern and sophisticated concept that fits very well with their space,” Wallet-Houget says. “As they play a leading role in the Siem Reap community in developing new avant-garde concepts and events, we feel that there are synergies between our concepts and respective teams.”



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