An Italian artist is using VR headsets to "reframe" the dining experience.

By Mike Pomranz
December 13, 2019

Most dining involves at least some level of "theater"—no, you weren't just whisked away to Italy, you just stepped into the Olive Garden! Whether it's the music in the background or the weight of the silverware, science has repeatedly found that the experience surrounding what we eat affects how our food tastes. And now, a virtual reality dining experience at the James Beard House in New York takes that idea to new extremes.

With tickets available through January 31, Aerobanquets RMX is billed as "a virtual and augmented reality art and dining experience in seven bites"—the brainchild of Italian artist Mattia Casalegno, with food courtesy of Chintan Pandya and Roni Mazumdar, the duo behind the highly-lauded Indian restaurants Rahi and Adda (the latter a Food & Wine Best New Restaurant). The hour-long, "mind-altering" mix of VR headsets and a corresponding single-bite tasting menu—narrated by Gail Simmons—debuted in the U.S. last month after successful runs in China and South Korea. And for $125 per person, you can try it for yourself.

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"We live our lives more and more detached from the physicality of reality—through our phones, we are detaching ourselves from the reality of life… I wanted to work to bring us back to the realness, and eating is one of the most real things you can work with," Casalegno told Washington Post food writer Emily Heil. "Anytime we go to a restaurant, we have some ideas of how we should eat and what the things we are eating will taste like, whether it's meat, fish or vegetables… In our brains, we are already experiencing the taste. I wanted to use virtual reality to reframe the experience—in our brains, we are blanked out and we can start from scratch in a way."

Heil donned a VR headset herself and described the experience as "a Dali-esque landscape, where [diners] encounter food in ways that feel stranger than Alice in Wonderland stumbling across a tea party." The room is dark, the chairs spin, and the vision-covering VR headset means you only see what the artist wants you to see—whether it's your own robot-like hands, dancing forks, or simply an empty abyss.

Mitchell Davis, chief strategy officer for the James Beard Foundation, told the Post that the VR experience is in line with how plenty of other restaurants operate—though instead of Olive Garden, he referenced the world-renowned Spanish eatery El Bulli. "At El Bulli, the technology happens in the kitchen, where hundreds of people worked really hard with science and equipment to change your perceptions of food and how you ate," he explained. "Here, the food is regular food, but all the technology is happening as you get it."

If you're in New York, reservations are available in the afternoon and evening, Thursday to Sunday. Pre-booking is a must and as of this writing, some of the one-hour slots are already sold out. Find more information here.

Update Dec. 13, 2019: A previous version of this article stated that tickets were only available through December 29, 2019. Food & Wine has since been informed event is extended through January 2020.

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