We put on our eyeshades and the room went dark. A hush descended as the first dish was served. “Plate is in front of you, spoon is on your left,” a waitress told me helpfully. I searched for the cutlery. It didn’t work out too well. The dish was a delicious, chilled butternut squash soup with parmesan foam, but I was eating it with a fork.
The next course went slightly better. It was braised Wagyu Short Rib wrapped in Cappelletti Pasta. I found a knife and fork and cut into the pasta. The combination was delicious. The problem was the dish came in an Asian-style broth with fired shallots and I couldn’t find a spoon to try the broth.
By now my fellow diners – there were 140 of us in attendance – were talking excitedly, discussing the flavors and ingredients but also problems with how to locate portions of pasta. Were we missing food? Was it falling off our fork? I was struck with a new and profound sensitivity for what the visually impaired must have to cope with every day.
Which was the whole point.
It was Thursday evening, October 13, at Bourbon Bayou Kitchen, Ashburn and I was attending Dining in the Dark, a fundraising dinner for Lovettsville-based Loudoun Therapeutic Riding, the extraordinary equine therapy non-profit founded in 1974 that helps people overcome and cope with a wide range of disabilities from visual and hearing impairment to post-traumatic stress disorder, autism, multiple sclerosis and more. The dinner, organized by the Loudoun Therapeutic Riding Foundation and hosted by Bourbon Bayou Kitchen was to raise money to continue this good work. The evening also showcased the importance of tourism and hospitality businesses creating a sensitivity and awareness among staff to be able to assist people of all abilities.
“The purpose of the eyeshades is to create an environment of ‘Experiential Empathy’,” explained Paul Shane, CEO and Chief Development Officer of LTRF as he kicked off the evening. “For a short period of time, you will have a small window into what life is like with a disability and what our students experience every day of their lives.”
While the eyeshades were voluntary, most diners wore them while eating each course making everyone rely on the gamut of taste, texture and smell to experience the meal.
Our table of six soon found a common sensation: dining in the dark does not only affect eyesight – it impairs hearing. Without seeing people speak, watching their mouths move, it becomes harder to hear. We found ourselves shouting at each other, as did diners at other tables.
Fortunately, the room hushed for the invited celebrity guests, among them blind Houston-based 2012 MasterChef winner Christine Ha, blind pianist and American Idol finalist Scott Macintyre, American Youtuber Tommy Edison and Miss Virginia Victoria Chuah, a native of Loudoun.
For Bourbon Bayou Kitchen co-owner Art Safarian (his business partner is a board member of LTRF), the evening was as beneficial to his staff as it was to the guests.
“The minute people started coming in our staff adapted very well. There were some diners that wanted to move around in their blindfolds and our team guided them through the room. We may not make any physical changes to the restaurant, but I do believe our staff are more aware now of people with disabilities and more experienced in helping them.”
Indeed, he is looking forward to hosting other similar events in the future. “We will have an annual fundraising event. We are looking to get involved with the community more and to give back.”