The Park Hotel’s ‘Anything But Ordinary’ pop up dinner is about unusual food combinations and novel presentation

“Then you should say what you mean,” the March Hare went on.

“I do,” Alice hastily replied; “at least I mean what I say – that’s the same thing, you know.”

“Not the same thing a bit!” said the Hatter. “You might just as well say that ‘I see what I eat’ is the same thing as ‘I eat what I see’!”

From: Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

The ballroom doors swing open. Suddenly, we are in the middle of a children’s tale.

Stark white light illuminates three hulking table-like structures covered with flowing cloth. On cue, a team of waiters pull aside the cloth, beckoning us into the make-shift tents, under the tables. In what feels like a scene straight out of a Tim Burton movie, we enter a warm space strung with chains of bright marigold, tuberose and orchids. On a gently swinging plank in the centre there are trays loaded with amaranth baguettes, chia seed lavash and pita bread playfully printed with edible green ink. Above them hang cake stands, filled with sticky honey cashewnuts, Kashmiri apricots and roasted hazelnuts.

The effect is difficult to describe. Partly Alice In Wonderland’s memorable Mad Hatter’s tea party: a chaotic blend of befuddled guests sitting elbow to elbow armed with cushions, serviettes and champagne flutes. There are the obvious links to childhood memories of teddy bear tea parties held under adult dining tables, except instead of chocolate biscuits and orange juice, there’s a veritable culinary Ali Baba’s cave of exotic food. The effect is as surreal as it is heart-warming. Normally blasé socialites squeal with wide-eyed excitement as they investigate their surroundings, settling on the low chairs precariously balancing glasses of Moët & Chandon.

By the time the first course appears — an artiste’s palette appears, piled with buttered chestnuts, candied carrots and toasted pumpkin seeds — the tent is alight with laughter as strangers bond: giggling, exclaiming and exchanging notes on each ingredient.

The Park Hotel’s ‘Anything But Ordinary’ pop up dinner formally introduced India to the newest culinary rage: food and diners combining to create living art. Hosted by chairman Priya Paul in Delhi and Chennai, the concept is now travelling to The Park hotels across the country as part of the brand’s revitalisation process. The idea, as always, is to be deliberately different.

In a market catering to jaded diners, spoilt by a surfeit of luxury and desperate innovation, food installations are clever because they lean so heavily on emotion. Food is an undeniably accessible route into art. The past few years were all about astonishing techniques such as molecular gastronomy, unusual food sources such as insects and exotic ingredients. Now the move is towards creating meals that people can connect with. Enter: The ‘eating designers’.

Marije Vogelzang, who came up with The Park’s pop up dinner in association with Chef Rajesh Radhakrishan, creates restaurant concepts, art installations and new food rituals as part of her job profile. Her past work includes an installation called ‘Sharing,’ where guests were seated at a Christmas dinner, blanketed by a massive tablecloth suspended from the ceiling through which they put their heads and hands. Vogelzang believes that unusual situations such as these force disparate guests to bond. Food brings people together. Eating designers like Vogelzang find ways to magnify its powers.

Which brings us back to our pop-up dinner at The Park, where Chef Radhakrishnan and Vogelzang combine forces to tell their story, weaving Indian and international elements together, then transporting them on a subtle, but potent, wave of childhood nostalgia. We eat Amritsari lobster from a glass, along with phyllo parcels of Pindi chole and a puff of saffron-scented candy floss. The next course is set in jewel-like scallop shells: Alleppey crab cakes, sea bass grilled with Goan kokum, Kashmiri morels stuffed with powerful Boursin cheese. As the meal winds down, waiters thump the top of our tables energetically. Emerging, guests gasp with surprised glee. The table tops are now covered with dark chocolates, fudgy Indian sweets and coconut shells filled with nolen gur sweetened coconut ice cream.

Earlier this year, The French ‘Bonjour India’ festival took a Floating Buffet through Bangalore, Chennai and Delhi. At The Park, Chennai, designers Becquemin and Sagot tied 500 little boxes containing Mexican fish cakes, Chicken 65 quiches and Jalapeno-Camembert toast onto helium balloons. As delighted guests scampered about unhooking each parcel, releasing clouds of blue balloons, the normally quiet lobby exploded with laughter. Discussing how they’ve taken the Floating Buffet all over the world, Becquemin later explained that installations like these easily transcend geographical, cultural and language barriers because, ‘Everyone likes to eat. And everyone likes to play’. In the end, that’s what it all boils down to. Food should be fun.