A large robed man squeezed his way into the corner of a tiny, low-ceilinged room where 10 of us sat on tatami mats, squeezed around two small tables pushed together to form one. His robust stature combined with the fact that we were sitting on mats made for a strange scene. I was hyper-alert, as you would be walking down a shady street in an unfamiliar neighborhood at night, put on edge by the foreign surroundings. I kept trying to predict what was about to happen, even though this was the environment I was most comfortable in. A restaurant. Strangely, I had to keep reminding myself that in fact I was in a restaurant and we were in fact about to have dinner, because there were very few indications, at least not from the cues that I was used to. The conversation stopped and everyone focused on the silent man.
He began to sing. No, no that's not right. He began to belt out a song with arms flailing, brow furrowed, lips quivering, and eyes focusing on invisible things in the tiny room. Of course, it was in Japanese, and I had no idea what he was saying, but somehow it didn't matter. The fervent emotions were powerful, and they simultaneously transported me farther into a world I didn't understand and set me at ease, by reassuring me that this was real but wildly different.
We had been in the miniature room for 10 minutes but it felt like an hour, and already the experience was unlike anything I had ever had while dining. I eagerly awaited the next oddity, and wondered how I would process this in the end.
The lights in the room dimmed to a faint glow to coincide with a course and it hit me over the head in the darkness: this is an avenue I need to explore at Alinea.
It is honestly quite rare for me to be a diner. While most people, perhaps like you, are meeting friends, dates, and colleagues for dinner and drinks at your favorite restaurant, I, of course, am most often working. One of the great ironies of being a chef is you rarely have time to eat, let alone dine. So whenever I am away from Alinea traveling, I have no choice but to become (mostly) normal and eat out. The very act can be inspiring, but eating out in a place where unfamiliarity is normal is especially exciting.