Turning the tables



Summary:

I suppose most people wouldn't see waitressing as anything to get excited about but having been blind since I was 14, I had put rushing around a restaurant with plates of hot food in the same unobtainable job bracket as brain surgery and cabbie! However, because Dans le Noir serves its food in the total darkness, blindness is an advantage, which makes a refreshing change.

Comment:

Claire is a waitress at Dans le Noir in London - the theme restaurant where customers eat in the dark and the waiting staff are blind. She tells us her experiences in a job she thought she'd never have.

I suppose most people wouldn't see waitressing as anything to get excited about but having been blind since I was 14, I had put rushing around a restaurant with plates of hot food in the same unobtainable job bracket as brain surgery and cabbie! However, because Dans le Noir serves its food in the total darkness, blindness is an advantage, which makes a refreshing change.

The drive behind this idea seems to have got a bit blurred though. Sometimes it's pitched on the sheer novelty factor of how different food tastes when you can't see what you're eating. At other times, the restaurant is promoted as a voyage into the world of the blind. Either way, it's certainly an experience.

As far as a disability awareness raising exercise is concerned though, it's doomed. Admittedly, I get a short-lived sense of satisfying revenge vested in the table-turning of power, but when you've witnessed sighted people feeling their plates and eating with their hands, knives and forks discarded to the floor with their napkins, then you begin to wonder if it isn't reinforcing the helpless victim imagery rather than challenging it.

I usually find myself over-compensating by impressing upon the customers how different blindness is when you have had 22 years to get used to it.

I use the somewhat patronising analogy that if you took a five year old child and told them to hold down a job, establish a mortgage and balance the household expenditure, then you would have a similar situation to taking a usually very sight dependent person and plunging them into total darkness. They have had no time to develop the mobility and awareness skills that enable blind people to navigate around competently.

It would also be nice to give them a lesson in blindness 24/7 because once they leave the restaurant, they have no fear that they will ever be turned down for a job or have to change a holiday destination because their access requirements were too costly!

Dans le Noir certainly makes no allowances as far as their staff are concerned. The standard expected of us definitely doesn't have a charity feel about it, even if the pay - six pounds an hour - does.

The mother restaurant in Paris that spawned the London branch has spent two years developing methods of dealing with some very difficult challenges. When you are serving a table of fifteen people - three of them vegetarian, six want the surprise menu, one wants fish and two want the chicken - working out which plate goes with which customer is almost brain numbing when you have to also remember where on your trolley you have placed the different options.

A system of clothes pegs with various markings clipped to each plate has been developed to help and, as long as we remember that three stripes on the peg corresponds with the Barracuda, then it's just a case of making sure the customer remembers what they ordered. Either that or bluffing it and assuring them that it really was beef, but it just tastes like fish in the dark.

We also try our best to equip the customers with nominal capabilities like pouring their own wine, passing the bread to each other and so on. This we do with a certain sense of imperative, as if they drop the bottle on the uncarpeted floor we have to pick the glass up with our hands. It's the same with dropped food.

An extraordinary aside to the more practical details is how people behave when they think others can't see them. The French team who came to train us told some really cringeworthy stories of what they found on tables after customers had left: used condoms and dirty underwear, for example. They also told us they often had to retrieve customers from under the table where they claimed they had been looking for their napkin!

The noise factor is interesting. When eye-to-eye contact is not available, people make up for it with sound and holler at the person next to them just to make sure they can be heard. This ever-increasing din adds to the problems the waiting staff experience, because we can't hear where we are going. When added to the continuous chatter from the kitchen coming through our walkie-talkie headphones, it can be almost impossible to work through.

We have to concentrate very carefully, as each order has to be divided down to table and seat number as one table may potentially have up to six different groups on it. We also communicate our requests for food to the chef, ignoring any irascible messages barked back at us by the Gordon Ramsay sound-alike at the other end!

It's certainly one of the hardest things I've ever done. The practicality of conveying industrial amounts of food around, as well as the more normal frustrations of dealing with questions like "Excuse me dear, can you tell me if I've finished my food?" or being grabbed in a limpet grip by the left breast by someone in a panic and a desperate need to visit the bathroom is incredibly hard, but the fact that no one else is likely to invite me to be a waitress anywhere else keeps me stubbornly coming back for more!

• Dans le Noir is at 30-31 Clerkenwell Green, London EC1R 0DU.
Tel: 020 7253 1100



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