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Singapore Food Festival 2019: Advanced Dining by Telok Ayer Arts Club & The Picnic (Review)

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Expect the unexpected and come away with a new belief in the art of dining.

Spoilers ahead

Eating is and always will be a part of our daily lives. But get into a routine long enough, and you may just begin to forget just what it was that made food such a magical experience in the first place.

Enter Advanced Dining, a curated experiential art and dining experience organised as part of the 2019 Singapore Food Festival. Created by Telok Ayer Arts Club and multidisciplinary artists Aiwei Foo and Wang Xian Tian of The Picnic, while its name may sound a little intimidating, there are no qualifications required to be a part of Advanced Dining, promising only a multi-sensory meal that will blow your mind and tastebuds in its creative interpretation of familiar foods.

Limited to just 15 diners per session, Advanced Dining is a quaint, intimate experience that takes one firmly out of their gastronomic comfort zone. Participants are encouraged to leave all expectations at the door and come in only with an open mind, and certainly, we had no idea what to expect as we sat in Telok Ayer Arts Club. Sipping tea freshly prepared by The Picnic as we waited for the event to start, our ground rules were simple: no phones to distract us from the experience, and no rules as to how to properly enjoy the dishes we would be served.

What happens next certainly wasn’t our usual method of dining – Advanced Dining sees its participants seated around dining tables arranged in a U shape. Specially created by The Picnic, a long white curtain obscures our view of what’s in front of us. As we take our seats, we are to stick our head and hands through holes cut into the curtain, and it is then that our meal begins.

Throughout Advanced Dining, little to no instructions are given as to how one can or should be eating their food. This may sound like a surprisingly simple problem to resolve, but given Singaporeans’ penchant for sticking to rules, especially in a ‘fine’ dining setting, it’s no wonder that when our first dish is served, every diner is hesitant or unsure as to how or even if it is ‘appropriate to proceed’.

Our first dish, cryptically named “A Message”, comes in a literal manila envelope. We fish around inside and pull out what seems to be a stiff piece of browned ‘paper’. Served two dishes, one containing a hummus-like dip and dark, spicy sauces, most of the diners were hesitant at first.

But that’s when our instincts really kick in, and the act of dining becomes an act of discovery. With no instructions, we begin by smelling each sauce, in an attempt to guess what they may be. Is the ‘paper’ edible? We tear off a little piece and try it. Yes – now what? Can we enhance it with the sauce? We do, and suffice to say, it’s delicious, simultaneously spicy, crunchy and savoury.

With that as a taster of what’s to come, the rest of the seven-course meal (prepared by head chef Bertram Leong and his team) that follows takes place in much the same vein, as we receive increasingly unusual presentations of dishes we do not recognise on sight. So much of Advanced Dining is about readjusting our point of view and way of seeing, putting their own spin on familiar cuisine to make it feel fresh and different in our eyes. We see what looks like Pão de Queijos stacked on top of each other, or a clear plastic box holding fish delicately wrapped in grilled chicken skin, almost like some kind of exotic creature. Essentially, as every successive dish only gets curiouser and curiouser as the meal goes on, we’re continually made to think out of the box and stop judging a book by its cover.

But as we soon learn, there is absolutely nothing to be afraid of as we attempt to discover our own individual ways of accessing and consuming each dish. Some of them we bite into immediately, while others, we nibble at slowly. There is a medley of flavours on show throughout the meal, each one evoking an odd a sense of familiarity. Our senses are constantly teased and cajoled, as we taste flavours like otak, but in mochi form, or rojak, as served in a teacup. As different as each dish looks, Advanced Dining has managed to capture the essence of each food in an inventive new way, no doubt spurred by the question: why does a certain food have to look a certain way, when what truly matters is how it tastes and how all its flavours come together? Through this experience, we learn that we cannot trust our preconceived notions, and can only let our experiences be led by our tongues and imagination.

Served by both Aiwei Foo and Wang Xian Tian themselves, there is a strong performative element that characterises the entire Advanced Dining experience, and one feels almost as if one is partaking not just in a meal, but a performance art installation. Neither artist ever speaks throughout the entire duration of the performance, and act only as facilitators. In the background, a mysterious, low rumbling sound grows louder with each new serving, slightly unnerving. We think about our own preconceived notions when it comes to dining, and how they often end up restricting rather than liberating our individual enjoyment of food. Dining itself then becomes a performance, and we too are players and performers as we explore the very limits of what food can be or how we can enjoy it.

Handed odd utensils like a tweezer, the underlying intent of Advanced Dining then is to simply let our imaginations run free and consume as we will, with no ‘right’ way of eating. All of this adds up to a fascinating experiment in form, testing out how our dining experience shifts and changes with the introduction of new elements or subverting pre-existing ones to leave us constantly on our toes and excited to see how they’ll surprise us next. As both artists explained after the show, one of the primary aims of Advanced Dining was quite simply, to completely reimagine the way we consumed food, and have fun with it. Each dish was crafted with the aim to evoke memories, simultaneously familiar in taste yet foreign in look, making for an experience that is completely unique.

Each dish is also accompanied by a drink crafted by Telok Ayer Arts Club’s mixologist. Often, the drinks complement the dish they’re served alongside, inventive and playful, ranging from a pink, molecular ball of alcohol that bursts in your mouth, to a deconstructed mojito we are to mix in a test tube.

But in addition to the sheer delight of getting a chance to really play with our food, each and every one of these dishes are straight up delicious. Take the braised short ribs for instance, served up engulfed in a cloud of foam that contrasts the weight of the ribs against the lightness of the foam, making for some interesting textural interactions. We take a bite, savour the fleeting, rich taste of the foam, before we hit the five-spice ribs beneath, a burst of flavour that reaches our tastebuds just as the foam dissipates in our mouths.

Perhaps one of the most interesting elements of Advanced Dining, beyond the food itself, would be interactions that one may have with the other diners. More or less complete strangers to each other, it can be intimidating to begin a conversation. But if it’s one thing Advanced Dining unexpectedly gets right, it’s the setting they’ve created to enable conversation and diners to speak up, as each dish provokes discussion and questions about how exactly we should eat it, or what even it is. At one point, we’re even tasked to ‘share’ a dish, by ensuring that we work together to eat at the same time, lest we upset a set of scales it hangs from.

What Advanced Dining ends up becoming is an incredibly liberating experience, in its willingness to eschew any and all social and dining norms. With no phones to distract us, all our attention is diverted to appreciating the food and drink before us, with more than sufficient stimuli to activate our artistic, playful sides in figuring out how best to enjoy each dish. Each dish tickled our perception of dining, allowing us to think out of the box as we tasted familiar foods in completely new ways. Suffice to say, Advanced Dining is one of the more seamless ways we’ve seen art and food successfully integrated with each other, reminding us of the simply joys of expecting the unexpected, and certainly, puts the fun back into food again.

Photo Credit: Telok Ayer Arts Club

Advanced Dining runs on 13th, 20th and 27th July 2019 at Telok Ayer Arts Club as part of the Singapore Food Festival 2019. Tickets available from Klook

For more information on the creators, visit The Picnic’s website and Telok Ayer Arts Club’s website

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