Sensorium: A Feast For The Senses And Memories

Can you think of a favorite meal you really enjoyed? What if you could remember these special meals — the food and how it tastes? Chef Bryon Brown has created a theatrical dinner project in Washington, D.C. that uses memory science to help diners remember what they eat.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

We introduced you yesterday morning to Chef Bryon Brown. Earlier this spring, he created a theatrical dinner project here in Washington, D.C. that uses the science of memory to help diners do something that's actually hard to do, and that's remember what they eat.

NPR food reporter April Fulton was there for opening night.

APRIL FULTON: The project is called Sensorium. It takes place in a geodesic dome. Thirty-two dinner guests are gathering around a glowing turquoise bar. They're drinking some spicy sangria.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FULTON: They don't know it yet, but everything about tonight is designed to make them remember the 12-course dinner they're about to eat: music, actors, lights and food. Chef Bryon Brown is the mastermind.

Mr. BRYON BROWN (Chef; Creator, Sensorium): This is going to be epic.

FULTON: And Ed Cooke, Byron Brown's consultant, is our memory dinner critic.

Mr. ED COOKE (Cofounder, Memrize.com): Yeah, I'll try and be profound.

FULTON: After two glasses of sangria, Ed Cooke's feeling pretty positive.

Mr. COOKE: I can already tell this is going to be one of the best evenings of my life.

(Soundbite of music)

FULTON: The diners take their seats, and the show begins.

Mr. DAVID LONDON (Master of Ceremonies, Sensorium): Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Sensorium.

FULTON: The master of ceremonies is wearing a top hot and a fake mustache. Memory expert Ed Cooke is sitting stage left. Cooke is here to see if Chef Brown and the actors have taken his advice on how to make the food memorable. He says the 12 courses have to be vivid, distinct from one another, and tied together with a storyline.

In the kitchen, Chef Brown's getting a little nervous about the show.

Mr. BROWN: The challenge is: How do we incorporate some of these memory techniques and still have the artistry intact?

FULTON: But for now, he's got to focus on the food.

Whoa, a blow torch. Brown's creating frozen clouds of soda water and liquid nitrogen. He's using the blow torch to unstick them from their molds. I'm going back to the dining room.

(Soundbite of music)

FULTON: The second course has begun. In front of each diner is a black, fabric-covered box. On top of the box, a white spoon - one of those Asian soup spoons - containing tiny crystals. Ed Cooke's eyes light up.

Mr. COOKE: Yes, I'm pretty fascinated by this. It's almost a sediment of miniature gemstones.

Mr. LONDON: Step one: pick up the spoon. Step two: pick up the cup.

FULTON: Master of Ceremonies David London gives the instructions.

Mr. LONDON: Step three, empty the contents of the cup into the contents of the spoon.

FULTON: The mystery foods he's asking them to mix together turn out to be Pop Rocks candy and a solid form of the cocktail called a Kir Royale.

Mr. LONDON: Step seven...

FULTON: Diners put the mixture in their mouths. The Pop Rocks fire, and the actors gyrate wildly around the room.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. COOKE: The dancers are kind of imitating what's happening in my mouth.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FULTON: The performance is really vivid. Cooke thinks this course will be remembered. The dance ends, and actors swoop toward the tables and lift off the black boxes with a flourish, releasing a dry ice fog.

Mr. LONDON: Cloud nine salmon salad.

Mr. COOKE: I've just had some blood-red salmon revealed on a plate of ice before me.

(Soundbite of music)

FULTON: Cooke's verdict: vivid, surprising, distinct from the last course - all good from a memory perspective. But then comes a parade of pasta, pork-belly and sunchoke soup, and the courses start to blur and the service slows down.

Mr. COOKE: It almost feels, at the moment, a bit like a play, where there are 10-minute gaps between scenes. Who knows what's going to come out of this memory-wise.

(Soundbite of cymbal crash)

Mr. BROWN: Let me get a slotted spoon, slotted spoon right now.

Unidentified Woman #1: Here it is, slotted spoon, got it.

FULTON: Chef Bryon Brown's typical cool is failing him. He takes the mini-chocolate polenta souffles out of the oven.

Mr. BROWN: They're burnt. (bleep)

FULTON: Brown orders the assistant chef to start making new desserts right now.

Mr. BROWN: Go. Go. Go. Go.

(Soundbite of music)

FULTON: Back in the dining room...

Mr. COOKE: An incredibly cool...

FULTON: ...things are starting to pick up again with the fish course.

Mr. COOKE: So we had puppeteers kind of narrate the lives of two different kinds of fish: an amusing pink fish, and then a kind of one of those horrifying creatures from the deep.

FULTON: Ed Cooke thinks this one will be remembered.

Mr. COOKE: It was really quite striking what it was like to taste the fish while contemplating the horror of the deep sea.

FULTON: The substitute dessert, a chocolate souffle sprinkled with salt, is served.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Woman: (Singing) It's so sweet, what you've got. It's so sweet.

FULTON: And then Chef Bryon Brown finally comes out of the kitchen. He's sweaty, exhausted, triumphant. He takes a bow.

(Soundbite of applause, cheering)

FULTON: Ed Cooke hugs Chef Bryon Brown.

Mr. COOKE: Top job. Top job.

Mr. BROWN: You like that?

Mr. COOKE: Yeah. This is like truly close to being totally spectacular.

FULTON: But nothing's perfect. Ed Cooke still thinks there needs to be a storyline. Then the diners drift outside, trying to remember all the things they ate tonight.

Unidentified Woman #2: So, we started with sangria. We had...

Unidentified Man #1: Then we sat down. We had zucchini.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COOKE: A what?

Unidentified Woman #3: This is where we start to get the order confused, whether it was the fish or the...

Unidentified Man #2: The taste of Pop Rocks stayed with me all evening long.

FULTON: Chef Brown is pretty happy with the show, but he can't say right now whether the memory science part worked.

Mr. BROWN: You know what? You have to ask me that question next week. Because I can't remember anything else but how tired I am right now.

(Soundbite of music)

FULTON: By the time it was all over, Bryon Brown had put on almost 50 dinner shows - and they were sold out most nights. He says he didn't make money, but he didn't lose any, either. He's already planning his next Sensorium, which he hopes will open in Miami this fall.

April Fulton, NPR News, Washington.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: It sounds fantastic. If you'd like to see a video of Sensorium, visit our website: npr.org.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION, from NPR News.

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