- Jan. 6, 2020, 2:04 p.m. ET
One rainy afternoon, I floated over a galaxy of egg yolks and spiky gumball tree seeds, and plucked a fork-shaped constellation from the asteroids.
In this constructed world, my hands looked red as I reached out to grasp at a small ball: a piece of real food, rendered in the digital cosmos. As I chewed, the image brightened into a new world.
This is one of the first “scenes” of Aerobanquets RMX, a culinary experience that incorporates virtual reality. The installation, which runs at the James Beard Foundation’s West Village townhouse through Jan. 26, marks the first time the technology has entered the house, according to Mitchell Davis, the organization’s chief strategy officer.
“We invest in museums for art and orchestras and music, but food we think of as nutrition or biological,” Mr. Davis said. “This experience is arting-up food a little bit.”
Aerobanquets RMX is a collaboration between the artist Mattia Casalegno and the team behind the restaurants Rahi, Adda and soon-to-open Dhamaka — the chef-partner Chintan Pandya, the restaurateur Roni Mazumdar and Rahi’s chef de cuisine, Soham Deshpande — who together designed the menu. The performance debuted in 2018 at an arts center in Shanghai.
“We’re putting people in an unfamiliar territory,” Mr. Mazumdar said. “That’s the biggest factor here, how the entire experience is immersive.”
Virtual reality has already made an imprint in art, gaming and even real estate, but it has only recently come to food. Some efforts use the technology to simulate real food: Project Nourished served scents, visuals and agar-agar to make diners think they were munching on real sushi. Restaurants have dabbled, too: Tree by Naked, in Tokyo, has paired virtual reality with a tasting menu to help viewers experience Japan’s seasons.
“The impact of tech is almost inevitable, and food is the last frontier,” Mr. Mazumdar said. “It truly is the beginning of this new era.”
A wayward love child of dining in the dark and molecular gastronomy, Aerobanquets RMX hardly counts as a meal: It’s more theater than restaurant. For $125, guests get seven bite-size courses.
There’s something organic and serene about many of the images, which Mr. Casalegno has created with remarkable beauty and precision. Renderings of food fall from above or bloom on the periphery, doubling as instruments, as architecture, as meteors. Skies lighten or darken, a seasonal theme loosely linked to the myth of Persephone.
“My artistic goal is bring the audience to a place where they can appreciate taste in a more surreal way, in a more stronger way,” Mr. Casalegno said.
Still, the technology just isn’t quite ready to scale up to a restaurant. Only four people, their eyes covered by Oculus headsets, can experience Aerobanquets RMX at a time, and each needs to have a personal waiter to deliver vessels of food. (Waiters stealthily dodge outstretched arms, tiptoeing across the creaky floorboards, to serve the participants.)
The headset makes the eating, at best, indelicate. (“This is the rotary phone version,” Mr. Mazumdar admitted, laughing.) While wearing earmufflike headphones by HTC Vive, participants press a vessel to their lips and tilt their heads back to let the food roll into their open mouths.
With my throat exposed and my hands groping blindly in the air in front of me, I felt vulnerable, like a baby bird, cloaked in hundreds of dollars’ worth of gear.
Mr. Casalegno, who was born in Naples, Italy, drew inspiration from “The Futurist Cookbook,” published in 1932, which also used abstraction to explore the aesthetic ramifications of technology and mass media.
The Futurist artists who created the cookbook condemned pasta: too sluggish. They decried forks: too inefficient. Like the virtual-reality evangelists, they played with ideas of eating and consumption, treating food as another frontier in which humanity could be modernized and perfected.
Aerobanquets RMX is different. While the Futurists used their cookbook to try to understand food as part of a growing technocracy, Mr. Casalegno uses tools of the technocracy to try to understand food.
“How can you give color to a flavor?” Mr. Casalegno said. “What shape is taste? The entire idea is to learn a new way of eating.”
To design the virtual image of a bite, he input flavors from the bites into software he built using ideas in “The Flavor Thesaurus,” the British author Niki Segnit’s 2010 book documenting how flavors combine. (Last year, Ms. Segnit released a sequel of sorts, “Lateral Cooking.”)
The virtual images change with the courses: Some looked like gemstones, while others resembled tiny mausoleums, topped by feathers. (A crunch on top felt a little like biting into a wing.)
Still, despite the frills, the food at Aerobanquets RMX is complex and spiced. If participants took off their headsets, they would see tiny, exquisitely plated “courses,” influenced by Mr. Pandya’s innovative approach to Indian cuisine.
“The biggest challenge I had was how to get everything in that half-inch by-half-inch bite,” Mr. Pandya said.
Instead of serving a full plate as he does at Rahi and Adda, he had to pack his complex and varied flavors in a dish the size of a gumball. “The only option left was to create the layers,” he said. “It’s like building a skyscraper.”
As musical instruments made from meat fell from the sky, I chewed a meaty, barbecue-ish bite. With rib-cage xylophones kerplunking around me, I felt acutely that I was eating something that had once been alive, something someone had killed. (In fact, in a sort of culinary pun, the “meat” was a plant-based, vegetarian simulation from Impossible Foods.)
“While you eat it, think of the first time you ever bit your lip,” Gail Simmons of Top Chef suggested in my headphones.
And, as the unsettling narration demanded, I felt eerie in my own body. Another chunk of blood and meat, banging on the ground.
This, though, is the key of the experience. The scenes force awareness: I’ve never thought more about my teeth, the way saliva pools down inside my cheeks, the way spice burns the corners of my lips. The physical act of eating makes participants complicit: It’s what lets them level up, as in a video game.
And, for a moment, the imaginary worlds felt dreamily real. When a virtual sea rose above me and enormous, Renaissance-era statues stared down, I fought the urge to crane my neck up above the rising water.
But after I left the James Beard House, I bought a dollar slice, greasy and thick. I was still hungry, after all.
Aerobanquets RMX $125, James Beard House, 167 West 12th Street (Seventh Avenue), 212-627-2308, jamesbeard.org.
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