As Chef Jozef Youssef lifted his blowtorch to personally sear the tender strips of beef, five to a plate, the air filled with a rousing melody. Not your average musical entertainment at a restaurant, no, no; much less, muzak. This was something visceral—music with a capital M.
The premise of the by-invitation-only dinner was intriguing: that sounds can influence and enhance the taste of food. The premises were interesting too: a sprawling restaurant, all flamboyant curves and soaring ceilings, perched on stilts above the water, deep inside the Maldivian archipelago. Club Med, at whose newest Maldivian resort—Club Med Finolhu Villas—this experiment was being conducted, has always been a bit of an innovator. It pioneered the all-inclusive resort concept in the 1950s. Club Med’s ‘villages’, as they were called, were noted for their casual and friendly ambience. Several reinventions later, the chain seems to have found its feet in a brave, new and demanding world and is swiftly going upscale and designer. And it’s still all-inclusive (the booze too). What’s not to like.
The dinner theatre had an impressive cast. Chef Youssef is a pioneer in what he calls gastrophysics. He runs Kitchen Theory, a ‘gastronomy experience design lab’ in London, which is home to the Gastrophysics Chef’s Table, a 10-course multisensory dining experience offered to the public on the last weekend of every month (private bookings are welcome at any time). The Chef’s Table explores some of the same themes we were pondering over in the Maldives. To borrow from the Kitchen Theory website: How do we perceive flavour through our senses? How do colour, aroma, texture and even sound affect how you experience flavour? And do we all experience flavour in the same way? Lest you dismiss our gastrophysicist as fanciful, know that he is conducting research on the subject in association with Oxford University Press and has several peer-reviewed papers under his apron. He is also the author of, hold your foam, Molecular Gastronomy at Home. Complementing him was the Singaporean composer Tze Toh, founder of the TO Ensemble, who counts among his inspirations the Japanese composer Ryuichi Sakamoto (remember the magical soundtrack of The Sheltering Sky?). Chef Youssef could not have hoped for a better collaborator, and the music added a rich, resonant layer to the meal. Toh had created a score specially for the evening, to go with each of the four courses, which themselves corresponded to the four elements.
The Maldives, at the edge of nothing, does put you in an elemental state of mind. An event like this had probably never been seen, or heard, here before. I wonder what the black-tipped reef sharks, swimming without pause below the restaurant and visible through the glass floor, made of it.
Dinner theatre today is at the cutting edge of innovation. Apparently, it’s not enough for a chef, at least if male, to be an ace in the kitchen. Requirements include a shredded physique and a baritone to match. Needless say, Chef Youssef was all of these. And he was a natural storyteller, diving deep into Maldivian myths for gustatory inspiration. The four-course meal was divided into eight chapters. Throughout the meal, a dynamic projection moved across the tables and the ceiling, but no one paid much attention to it. We were all entranced by the edible art on our plates. I can still remember every dish clearly.
The sensory multiverse kicked off with ‘Water’. Chapter 1 (‘The Mythical Seafarer’) was a seaweed salad with dried bonito, cured in the local style, and sesame and feta. However, this was a reimagining of the classic combination, and the feta was a purée.
At this point, Toh was joined by Carnatic violinist Lazar T. Sebastine. Originally from Kochi, but settled in Singapore for the last 20 years, Sebastine is also a member of the TO Ensemble. Had we not heard it, we would never have realised what a robust layer the Indian violin could add to the evening’s aural sensations. The music got pretty lively, since the next course was ‘Fire’. That’s where the flamed ink marinated beef strips with five sauces (or ‘Legend of Fire’) came in. The chef-narrator delineated the Maldives’ creation myth. The next chapter was ‘Kingdom of Gold’, inspired by the same legend. How were they going to pull this off, I wondered, when the answer arrived in the shape of a gold leaf-encrusted lobster, served on a bed of squid ink sago and coconut picada. The next course, ‘Wind’, flew in on the wings of a light rose & watermelon granita (with rose air and perfume). ‘Gift to the Gods’ (Chapter 6) was a refreshing orange blossom panna cotta with edible flowers and pistachio crumble. The flavours were delicate and, well, floral. Quite adventurously, one bitter blossom had also been slipped in. Then it was time for ‘Earth’, and Chef Youssef chose to celebrate the humble coconut, which, like the tuna the meal began with, is central to Maldivian life. The penultimate chapter was ‘Mother’, a coconut martini which reminded me, troublingly, of feni but I was quite transfixed by the surgical precision with which over 50 martinis were assembled in a matter of minutes. Chef Youssef personally brought mine over. The last chapter, ‘Earth’, offered ‘Coconut in textures’. What looked like a humble slice of coconut turned out to be a clever bit of gastrophysics involving white and brown chocolate. I’m not huge on molecular but I love a little subterfuge. Even before the applause began, Chef Youssef was bowing in well-deserved anticipation.
All through, the music had kept time with the meal, rising to a fiery crescendo one moment, as still as a mountain lake the other. When I asked Toh if he found people eating while he played unsettling or disrespectful, he didn’t seem to think so. In fact, he seemed to have greatly enjoyed the challenges that the collaboration threw up.
The good news is, it’s not all just for pampered influencers. For the next six months, three nights a week, paying customers (or Gentils Membres as Club Med likes to call them) will be able to sample many of these dishes at the resort—till the next jaw-dropping Fusions event comes along. Club Med plans ‘Fusions’ every few months, across its resorts, fusing different senses to change how one feels and experiences.
Which brings us to the question that we posed at the beginning of the meal: does food taste better when all the senses are consciously targeted? The answer is, unsurprisingly, an unequivocal yes. It’s a conclusion that should have been intuitive, in fact, but I don’t think I realised it until that night. Not having Toh or Sebastine to do my bidding back home, though, I’ll just have to fall back on my trusty music player at dinner time.