At the Theater District’s subterranean Diamond Horseshoe, multiple bubbling fish tanks float above the bar. There’s also a selection of exotic taxidermy—a slinking leopard, a diamond-crown-wearing toucan—that could make Seigfried and Roy proud. These details, seemingly appropriate for a venue that’s also home to the dreamy Queen of the Night dinner theater performance, hinted that the U.S. debut of “In the Mouth” on the first night of Food Loves Tech would be an unusual experience.
The evening’s details remained elusive until dinnertime although the organizers had solicited us guests a few days before. They sent a survey with questions like “What is the food you love the most?” “What is the food you hate the most?” and “What is your earliest food memory?” They also send a video (see below) of previous In the Mouth experiences, but the concept was still difficult to grasp.
Armed with the attendee feedback, Nico Fonseca and Jean-Michel Leblond, concocted a menu of three courses, with 62 distinct dishes and more than 120 guest-inspired ingredients. “The main course is made out of each of every person’s favorites and despised foods. And most of the time people end up tasting things they really hate and end up enjoying them as well,” explained Fonseca. Which is the nice thing about food preferences: One person’s most hated food (clams?) is also likely to be another person’s favorite. “The menu is 100 percent based on the attendees…. I’ll only know as soon as I get back the answers and build my database. It’s a food roller derby. Usually I welcome people by telling them we’re all there for their collective pleasure and sometimes their discomfort. It’s quite fun and quite different.”
Fonseca got the idea for In the Mouth several years ago when his sense of taste abruptly shifted after he had a small growth removed from his brain. With the help of his chef-partner, the team wanted to give others the experience of being completely overwhelmed by combinations and co-minglings of scents, flavors and textures. “We know that food ties us to the past through food memories. But meals are also about making new memories and creating new stories.”
The night of the event, the team erected illuminated metal bar scaffoldings that they used to hang Mason jars containing mysterious substances. The jars were cryptically labeled with words meant to evoke flavors or memories, perhaps drawn from surveys. One, the color of Pepto-Bismol, was labeled “BIRTH” and smelled sweet and medicinal. Another, filled with lavender blossoms, was labeled “LIGHTNING.” Curious attendees unscrewed the jars from the dangling jar tops and inhaled.
Waitresses in milkmaid garb and bright lipstick paced the floor, pulling and pushing and sewing patterns into the tablecloth stretched across the 10-yardlong table. We guests laughed, we stared, we hovered, we sniffed food jars, we told food stories, we heard food stories. And just as our suspense and hunger reached a fevered pitch, elusive nostalgic scents wafting from the kitchen, the chefs emerged from the kitchen pushing massive carts loaded with dish upon dish.
Once they had reached the table, they began to disgorge their steaming fare, erecting piles of duck, clams, salmon, octopus, turnips, all manner of salad greens and dozens of other ingredients. We watched in awe as they constructed the meal before our eyes, finishing the entire table with oils and vinegars and sauces. The waitresses patrolled the perimeter threatening to whack any premature tasters with stiff wooden spoons.
And then we were allowed to eat, diving into the piles barehanded, randomly at first. But then becoming more opportunistic and strategic. Is that a sea scallop? The dressing on that salad is a different color than the dressing on the salad right in front of me. Is that the last pile of duck?
When the table was near picked clean, as a group we all lifted and folded the soiled table cloth. I was sated and entertained. And as I went to the bar to refresh my drink, there was a rumor that there were three more courses, which turned out to be true. Mounds of spaghetti and meatballs, an entire braised leg of lamb, a tarte alsacienne drizzled with chocolate.
Although I’m still not sure what In the Mouth ultimately is, I do know that it’s as pleasurable as it is abstract. It’s as much interactive theater as it is a large dinner party, and guests engage with the meal in playful and stimulating ways. As La Presse reported of the New York happening, “Asparagus alongside philo dough sheets, fishing districts rub salad leaves, octopuses are sitting on huge rib eye steaks—the brand is like a merry mess, while the cooks project sauce like Jackson Pollock.” Sign me up for the next one.