For some, going out to dinner is an event in itself. But for those who want to engage their senses more fully, a veritable cornucopia of experiences await where food is just one part of an evening that could also include music, dance, or even an entire play. From a monochromatic meal to an edible exploration of historical events, here are some of the most exciting immersive dining events and what goes into making them happen.
Spring Street Social Society’s Secret Supper: The Musical was a fully staged theatrical show where the food shifted with the story. As each new scene began, one course was taken away and a new one was served. Gingerline’s Chambers of Flavour offers a similarly dramatic but more exploratory experience, walking (and sometimes wheeling) guests through a secret “interdimensional exploration” where each ornately crafted room represents a different dimension with new characters, design, and, of course, food.
Dinner theater may be a close cousin of some of these events, but today’s immersive meals are more event than show. “It basically ended up being a situation where we put on a wedding,” Reynolds says of his work with Los Angeles Eats Itself, an LA-based pop-up dinner series. Adds Lucinda Chambers, Gingerline’s head of communications and new business, “Rather than a traditional theatre, our experiences combine theatrical performances with food, fantastical sets, and original stories to create out-of-this-world events. People want that sense of freedom and play we enjoy so often as children, but with fabulous grown-up things like food and booze.”
“I’m really inspired by dinner theater, cabaret, lounge acts — that kind of old-school camp — and so I love to be able to pay homage to that,” says Jen Monroe, who helms the multimedia food project called Bad Taste. “I think it’s a really direct way to make a meal feel more transportive and bizarre, and I also think it’s useful to have a few five-minute performances breaking up ten courses of food.”
In directing Spring Street Social Society’s Secret Supper as well as Clown Bar, a show with Pipeline Theater Company that involved cocktails and small bites, Andrew Neisler recalls “being surprised how quickly traditional theatre behavior is tossed aside once food and drink are involved. The audience allows themselves, for better or for worse, to relate to the performance differently.”
Plunging into the past
One of the best ways to remember something that happened in the past is by thinking back to what you were eating at the time, so it’s only natural that some have shaped meals around history. Los Angeles Eats Itself enlists chefs and visual artists to create experiential meals based around notable (and notorious) characters or moments in the city’s history. The team has paid homage to everyone from famed Hollywood madam Heidi Fleiss to Richard “The Night Stalker” Ramirez.
Rather than literal historical reenactments, LA Eats Itself produces experiences that evoke historical moments. Their Fleiss Feast offered aphrodisiac bites in a dreamlike version of the Beverly Hills Hotel pool; at their Night Stalker Supper, guests ate tacos at a star-shaped table design created by artist Juan Capistrán and listened to 1980s black metal — a nod to Ramirez’s (and Capistrán’s) affinity for the genre, as well as the media panic surrounding it at the time.
“We’re not trying to be historically accurate in the slightest; it’s a matter of trying to tell a story and to tell it through our lens, just like any kind of director or movie,” says artist Christopher Reynolds, who designed the Heidi Fleiss dinner and whose work revolves around “the politics of food.”
However, there are responsibilities that come with making art based on something that actually happened. “Be sensitive [about] the material you’re using — the context, the history,” says Capistrán. “Go in with the most sincere and honest way of approaching what you want to do with it.”
Foraging for the future
While events like LA Eats Itself take a look back, others prefer to speculate about the future. Bad Taste produced an event in 2017 entitled The Next Menu. Presented in collaboration with arts group The Bellwether and author Alexandra Kleeman, who “served” short fiction between courses, the meal was “an attempt to imagine how we might approach seafood in 30 years” after climate change has completely altered the ocean as we know it.
To illustrate this, Monroe’s menu focused on salt and more adaptable ocean-dwelling organisms. Cocktails were poured over algae ice cubes, butter was infused with shellfish, and there was even jellyfish sorbet.
“I really appreciated that there was a clear ideological rationale that I had to stay close to when picking ingredients and figuring out what the dishes should feel like,” Monroe explains. “I also felt less guilty devoting time and resources to it, because it had a clearer purpose and a message worth sharing.”
Food always wins
Of course, immersive dining needn’t have a formal narrative. Bad Taste initially gained traction for her monochromatic dinners, at which the food, set, and outfits were all a single shade, and both the menu and the live entertainment sought to capture the “feel” of that color.
While it can be easy to get caught up in the other components of an immersive meal, “food is always going to win,” says Neisler. “If you put a delicious dish down in front of an audience member, you’re going to have a hard time getting them to pay much attention to anything else.”
Many immersive dining projects are done in collaboration with acclaimed chefs. Gingerline maintains their own in-house culinary team, deemed their “Institute of Flavourology.” Sometimes these chefs stay behind the scenes, letting their menus do the talking, but chef Jae Jung used her own life story to fuel both the meal and the tale told alongside it as part of StoryCourse NYC’s How Do You Hug A Tiger?
“Food is a good vehicle to talk about different cultures,” says Capistrán. “For that 20 to 40 minutes you’re eating, you get to experience this whole other world, from the ingredients to the texture, even the architecture of the space you’re sitting in.”
Finding (and feeding) the right audience
Working outside of a formal kitchen or restaurant isn’t always easy. “There is a cavernous difference between the facilities and logistical possibilities available in an immersive dining experience when compared to an experiential fine dining restaurant,” says Chambers. She went on to explain that the spaces where Gingerline holds their events sometimes don’t even have walls until their design team works its magic.
“Food is nothing if not a network of variables, many of which you don’t always have control over,” Monroe says. “Something that worked when you tested it five times at home might not be working an hour before guests arrive.” Some groups are able to fully test their experiences prior to the actual event, but others have to improvise: Neisler says the dress rehearsal for Secret Supper involved running the show for friends but serving them slice after slice of pizza rather than the elaborate, six-course meal that the eventual guests would eat.
For those looking to try their hand at immersive dining? “Do your research,” says Reynolds. “[Find] out who your audience is [and] what you want to say. Those are the two really important things.”
“You’re going to get different audience members engaging differently with the show every night, [so] try to anticipate different responses,” Neisler says. “I’ve also found that audience members tend to be in such a better mood when they’re being fed. Maybe that one’s obvious.”
To become completely immersed in parties from other eras, head here.
To sip mesmerizing cocktails that accompany immersive experiences, click here.
To peruse interactive culinary innovations overseas, go here.
To read about AR and VR innovations enhancing immersions, try here.