Silent dinner

Words: Ana Lumack   Review by Laura Jean Sargent

Silent dinner

Ana Lumack at Chateau La Salle


Burgundy is well-known for its gastronomy and French cuisine dominates; be it a casual Croque-Monsieur or expertly executed Escargots de Bourgogne, there’s not many restaurants in the region that buck the traditional trend. This was certainly one of the factors that made Ana Lumack’s Silent Dinner all the more poignant – to be in a place so rich in regional produce and unwavering in its dedication to culinary customs, yet being able to experience that place under a whole new guise.
And, what a guise it was. The setting for Lumack’s latest ‘spatial and experience’ experiment was Chateau de La Salle – a retreat space that uses the time-beaten 17th-century building as a striking backdrop to all manner of group getaways. It bares its own, fitting dichotomy in that it’s built in the Gothic style; gargoyles and pointed spires contrast with the typical-of-the-region polychrome roof.
The chateau’s front stone terrace was to play dining room for the night, with a long banqueting table set up across the length of it. Instead of a menu, napkin or cutlery, each place setting offered its guest one essential adornment – a set of ear defenders. We were given some simple instructions before we were allowed to take our seats: sit with strangers and don’t take your ear defenders off until you are told.


The experience began with a crunch: vegetable crisps and raw carrot sticks provided the rudimentary appetiser that, for all the simplicity in their preparation, packed a relatively complex punch on the aural element of the experience (or lack of it). These guys were employed for their noise and the ear defenders immediately immersed you in the strange yet captivating internal sounds of your own chewing.
Getting used to the sounds, which were punctuated with the soft popping of local-ale bottles, I found myself quieting them down with a grape or two, plucked from the overhanging vine that swooped decoratively over the entire table. Communication between diners came quickly in the form of elementary sign language and plenty of over-zealous mouthing, and it struck me that when I had been to Dans le Noir (where diners eat in the pitch-black dark) everyone spoke extremely loudly, as if to compensate for the loss of sight; whereas here, everyone spoke extremely quietly – perhaps to compensate for the loss of hearing.
Slurping soup was the next crescendo. If you can recall its unpleasant sound when experienced from the exterior, you can imagine the twinges it has the potential to create when experienced from within. It boiled down to a weigh up between the inward raucousness of the ‘slurp, swill and swallow’ method, and the ‘shoot-it-back and cartoon-gulp’ technique, neither of which I found particularly pleasant to listen to. Not least because both involved a percussion accompaniment thanks to the spoon: metal on teeth. I resolved this by picking up the bowl and drinking it directly – perhaps the most extreme of my behaviour changes over the course of the evening.
The alcoholic component began to take affect before dessert, with a round of Mimosas adding to the fray. This, combined with the growing confidence of diners to experiment under their own terms, led to unexpected bouts of rowdy laughter and even some impromptu massage sessions. How any of these were conjured and communicated in our veritable silence I do not know, but suffice to say that I was happily seated at the more introverted end of the banqueting table.
We were allowed to remove our ear defenders over dessert, which afforded a welcome opportunity to feed back to each other, and finish off the conversations that had been abandoned due to the limitations of gesticulation. Those around me all agreed that the Silent Dinner was a fascinating way to interact with something we do so often that we take it for granted (i.e. eating) but whilst the expression “eat with your eyes” rings true, eating without your ears perhaps provides the converse. Still, in the spirit of social experimentation and psychological enquiry, it was a fun and flavourful way to spend an evening.