The restaurant-experience, or the show in and around the plate

Eating in a restaurant is a series of more or less happy experiences that lead to a succession of more or less successful meals. I tend to think that the maximum point of satisfaction is reached when you make the promise – barely out of the table, hand on heart – to return to the scene as soon as possible. Several factors then come into play. Sometimes, just a few things are enough to have a good time: the warmth of a welcome, the comfort of a bench, the length of a glass of wine, the memory of this little mound of butter which was lasciviously spread on a piece of bread. Sometimes it’s the alchemy of a sub-text, something that we feel more than we perceive: the fluidity of a service, the envelope of a decor, the touch of a chef who rolls delicately over the palate as the dishes arrive. In this sense, the restaurant can be seen as a living spectacle that tells a different story at each service. As in the theatre, people come here to consume an ephemeral work in several acts: starter, main course, dessert. Its staging varies according to the decor (the room, the dressing of the plates) and the performance of the actors (the cooks, waiters and bartenders). Taken end to end, it is the sum of all these micro-events which, in my opinion, makes it possible to build memories and give rise to feelings.

In these addresses with experiences, the eater goes to a hybrid place, where the act of eating becomes interactive – and mixes with festive pleasure.

Pushed to its climax, the notion of staging contributes to transforming the very nature of the restaurant. At Alinea in Chicago, for example, chef Grant Achatz sets up a whole arsenal of culinary tricks that allow him, I quote, to “resonate” with the senses of his guests. Among the best known: an edible balloon which, once broken on the plate, lets out a world of fragrant vapours. At Ultraviolet by Paul Pairet, in Shanghai, customers’ eyesight and hearing are put to the test during an immersive meal in which wall projections, sound effects and visual illusions mingle. Closer to home, in Paris, Ephemera has just opened, a concept restaurant inspired by the seabed. People come here to taste seafood in the middle of huge giant screens that broadcast whale songs and dolphin models. In these experimental addresses, the eater no longer just goes to a “establishment where meals are served for payment”as the Larousse defines it, but indeed in a hybrid place, where the act of eating becomes interactive – and mixes with festive pleasure.

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