November 1, 2006
Staging a Meal
A Danish chef and a production designer combine their skills to tell a story over dinner.
Seated at one of 28 elementary plywood tables in front of a goldfish bowl, a visitor is surrounded by two screen walls with projections of children blowing dandelions and a ukulele rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” For the first course, called Fish in the Water, a waitperson pours a broth so clear it appears to be H2O into a bowl containing lemon cream, peas, and bits of bread—a traditional fish dinner playfully deconstructed. Two more courses are followed by ten silent seconds of darkness, and then the service resumes with the staff donning headlamps, creating a kind of ballet in the dark. As the lights gradually grow bright white—a metaphorical sunrise—“You Get What You Give” blares, dessert carts clang onto the floor, images of jumping children play, and several waiters appear simultaneously. It’s a scene of happy chaos.
We expect a lot when dining out. Beyond nutrition we want a meal that offers stimulating flavor combinations, a sense of discovery. But to be transported to another time and place? That’s what chef Mette Sia Martinussen and production designer Nikolaj Danielsen aim to achieve at Madeleine’s Food Theater, which opened in Copenhagen this summer with a performance of On Children’s Legs. Each of the five “plays” on the menu for the first year evokes common geographies and experiences, and Martinussen’s celebrated cooking is just one tool in a repertoire that includes stage props, lighting, music, and film.
Madeleine’s (yes, it’s a reference to Proust’s sweet) is the third and most conceptual collaboration between the designer and chef, who last piloted Mette’s Summer Bus restaurant to 18 pastoral locations throughout Denmark, offering tented silver-service meals made from local ingredients. They are best known for 1.th (“first floor on the right”), the intimate restaurant in a converted apartment meant to emulate a private dinner party. Danielsen sees Madeleine’s as an evolution of the two and says they always called 1.th—where a hostess greets each diner like an invited guest—“Mette’s little food theater.” To further explore what that phrase might mean they brought together (over dinner, of course) a group that included an anthropologist, a psychotherapist, a musician, and a sculptor to discuss the complex act of serving someone food. “It involves the senses but also memory—the luggage of our history, our culture, and our sex,” Danielsen says. “Everything that we carry around with us we bring to the table.” By playing with the hierarchy of the senses, the partners concluded, they could get people to taste things anew.
With the first play they wanted to make people feel, the way children do, that they were capable of anything—even flying. Other stories are more abstract, including this month’s The 7th Sense, a synesthetic exploration of how we associate sound and light with taste and texture. Next the duo will take the three most successful plays abroad for six months before returning to Copenhagen. But don’t assume such big ambition guarantees an equal measure of confidence. “We had our premiere on June tenth with enormous nerves because we didn’t know how people would react—if it would just be another restaurant experience with too much visual input and noise,” Danielsen says. “So the fact that people are moved by our story—that they can relate to it—is fantastic.”