WHAT ATTRACTED ME TO THIS PLACE? It’s a very interesting idea – in fact, it’s an idea I had myself some years ago.
Ever since I began my fine dining journey, over a decade ago now, it’s been clear to me that fine dining is about more than just the food: it’s about the whole experience. That’s why the best restaurants go to great lengths to make every meal memorable. This includes concepts such as pairing each course with a different wine, using custom-designed serviceware for each dish, and even using sprays to create an aroma to go with a particular course. But, while many restaurants use this kind of approach to creating a memorable meal, few take it the whole way and extend their creativity beyond the table into the general ambience to deliver a multi-sensory experience. Why not, for example, pair each course with different background music? Or use a video projector to create a visual mood – a garden theme for a salad dish, say, or a forest theme for a mushroom course? It’s an idea that occurred to me years ago, and I’ve often wondered why no one do it.
Perhaps it’s because chefs are sometimes criticised of trying to tap into the entertainment industry, rather than stay true with their art in the kitchen. If so, I think such criticism is unfair. After all, at the end of the day, it’s all about the overall experience: so we shouldn’t be content to let food entertain diners – we should build an entertainment around the food. It was a theory I explored over a period of a few months, with a London-based chef. We developed a plan which would have, at its heart, a good kitchen team who can deliver trendy and delicious food, but would also involve the design of unique serviceware, custom-made videos and audio-visual displays, as well as a dedicated service team with acting experience to deliver each theme. In the end, you need a huge space with a large team behind-the-scene, and the concept could only work with a small group no more than a dozen (since everyone needs to be served every course at the same time), We calculated that this would mean that we’d need to charge (given London rents and rates) at least £800 per head to break even. As this is several times more expensive than any other Michelin 3-star restaurant in U.K., it was obvious that the idea was a non-starter, so we abandoned it.
In 2013, when Asia’s first 50 Best list was published, my eye was caught by the restaurant in the #8 spot – Ultraviolet in Shanghai, run by a French chef (Paul Pairet). The description said that Ultraviolet was “. . . the most avant-garde restaurant experience in the world. . . just 10 guests per night. The high-tech gastronomic production [of this restaurant] utilises elements that include video, audio, bespoke lighting, and piped-in scents to stimulate every sense, with each course its own self-contained mini drama.” Immediately after reading this, I visited the website to checkout the price, which turned out to be the equivalent of £400 per head for weekdays, or £600 for the weekend! In other words, the cost per person was (just as we’d calculated) several times more than the most expensive fine dining in the country. I had mixed feelings about this – on the one hand, I was pleased that our calculations hadn’t been far wrong, while, on the other hand, I couldn’t help feeling a little disappointed that we didn’t go ahead with our idea. Still, a project that works in China won’t necessarily work in London. After all, the top financial tier of Shanghai’s population surely has higher purchasing power than London’s equivalent, and the cost of labour is much cheaper there. Oh well…
It’s worth noting that the only other place in the world which offers a similar experience is Sublimotion in Ibiza. This was opened in 2014 by the Spanish chef, Paco Roncero after he visited his friend Paul Pairet’s Ultraviolet in 2013 (actually, they’re not friends any more, as Paco failed to give credit to chef Paul!). Sublimotion charges €1500 per head, and, as it’s almost an exact replica of Ultraviolet (based on photos I’ve seen), from the table design to some of the themes, it makes Ultraviolet look like a bargain!
HOW WAS THE EXPERIENCE? Food wise, nothing exceptional – perhaps Michelin 2-star, no more. But in overall terms, it was a simply astonishing experience!
By now, you should know what this restaurant is about. So if you’re someone who’s sole enjoyment is derived from the quality of the food, then this won’t be your thing. But if you’re open to any creative dining entertainment, then I guarantee that you’ll like this place. I’m sure of this because (as I’ve explained) I had myself researched the possibility of establishing a similar restaurant, so I visited Ultraviolet with my own ideas of how things should be done. The result was that I approached the experience with an informed, and more-than-usually critical, eye. Despite this, I came out admiring Chef Paul Pairet! True, the food itself would perhaps rate no more than two Michelin stars, and it’s not easy to concentrate on the food you’re eating when in a dark environment with continually changing sound and visual surroundings. But as an overall experience, it was excellent – every aspect was executed to such a high quality that I couldn’t find a single thing to criticise.
The instructions on the (fully pre-paid) reservation was to meet at a bar some distance from the restaurant. There, we were welcomed with a glass of champagne by a manager who was – basically – our “tour guide” for the night. After being told what to expect at Ultraviolet, we boarded a coach which took us to a secret location – and that’s where our adventure really began. On arrival, we were led through a dark and mysterious corridor, into a spacious, rectangular room with a high ceiling. This room was dark and empty except for one long table, plus chairs, in the middle. The door then closed behind us!
To begin with, everyone was a bit nervous, feeling as if we were trapped. But then the visuals kicked in, with each of our names projected on the table from high above, and we relaxed. In fact, with the ultraviolet lighting, the sound effects, and a service team in black leather gloves led by our “tour guide” (who had by now changed into a military uniform), the 4-hour experience just flew by, and none of us want it to stop! It was really good fun! The build-up of suspense from the very beginning and the way they sustained the enjoyment was truly brilliant.
The idea, of course, was that with each change of scenery and matching soundtrack, we’d feel like we were in a new place for every dish. And it worked like a charm, from eating in space, through foraging in the mountains, to sitting in a noodle shop in Japan. There was even a ‘time machine’ which took us back to the 60s, and a helicopter ride over Manhattan. The final setting was a late-night bar, followed by breakfast in a New York hotel room. We felt like we were living in a movie! In short, a fascinating experience!
DID I FEEL OVERCHARGED? No! I enjoyed every minute and I completely understand why it’s expensive. Far from being a rip off, I’d say it’s great value for money.
An experience as (literally) colourful and sophisticated as this is difficult and expensive to organise. Take, for example, what was perhaps the most conceptually sophisticated course, called “8 Differences”! Here, two paintings by Arcimboldo (an Italian painter known for creating portraits made entirely of objects such as fruits and vegetables) were projected on the wall. However, although both paintings looked identical, they actually had 8 differences. We were then served with two dishes that looked exactly the same but actually had – you guessed it – 8 differences. At the same time, the background audio played Tu Vuo Fa L’Americano (a song famous in the 1950s), followed by We No Speak Americano (from 2010), which sounds similar but is actually different. The concept was a stylish and fun marriage of art, music and food – ingenious!
Our experience at Ultraviolet concluded with an invitation to the kitchen to enjoy a cup of coffee with the chefs, including Paul Pairet himself – who worked the entire evening. Although they’d started their day at noon to prepare our 20-course meal, they were happy to spend time with us at midnight. We were even given the opportunity to have go at making our own liquid nitrogen petit fours! Brilliant hospitality!
Ultraviolet is a truly remarkable achievement by Chef Paul. He has gathered together experts in different fields to deliver a unified, coherent and completely enjoyable experience. What’s more, we were given a chance to chat with all the specialists involved . . . the art director, sound mixer, computer engineers, graphic designers, the onsite IT support team – as well as the fun and lively group of actors/service staff (who had to change uniform a few times to suit the theme of the course being eaten). It’s amazing, in fact, just how many behind-the-scenes experts it takes to deliver an experience like this for just 10 diners. It’s rather like producing a movie – and I think “Director Paul” should be nominated for an Oscar! Before we left, we were given a copy of the menu, which listed every course along with the drink and theme that was paired with it, as well as the background music. Great attention to detail! In short, every aspect of the Ultraviolet experience was cleverly thought-out and delivered to the highest quality, and at no point did I feel that it was a “cheap show”. In fact, I felt quite the opposite – that it was worth every single penny. Finally, on the subject of cost, it’s worth pointing out that the price included all drink pairings, as well as the service charge for the night!