It’s barely been a week since experiential restaurant Nox – Dine in the Dark reopened at bibulous Club Street on the back of a seven-month hiatus, and already, I’m told, they’re nearly fully booked for the month.
At their atmospheric new ground-floor lounge bathed in the glow of a trippy Braille-inspired digital wall installation, general manager Eugene Lim musters verve in ministering to a babel of requests and queries over the phone, while owner Jesper Gustafsson confers with me from the shadows in which he’s ensconced himself.
The Swedish national’s aversion to the spotlight is patently obvious as he sits furtively at a darkened table to my right, evading the harsh glare overhead and averting his gaze. I venture to ask about his wraith-like online presence; there isn’t much to go by, apart from a stiffly issued quote lamenting the eatery’s closure last year due to a lease renewal dispute, and a listing on the Singapore Ice Hockey Association’s website. “No social media for me and that’s how I like it. I’d much rather the focus be on the restaurant and employees,” he replies.
For the uninitiated, the latter comprises sighted as well as visually impaired and blind waitstaff who chaperone diners through a multi-course meal in pitch darkness (more on that to come). While cloaked in anonymity for the most part of eight years for which Nox – Dine in the Dark has been in operation, Gustafsson’s back story is as peculiar as they come. He grew up in Nacka, a suburb outside of Stockholm, and likely would not have made his way to Singapore – if not for a traumatic accident that blotted out a chunk of his memories at the age of 16.
“It caused me to lose a lot of knowledge, including my English skills, which I came to Singapore to relearn them as a university exchange student. It so happens that the National University of Singapore was among two universities that did not require me to take the TOEFL (Test Of English As A Foreign Language) test for enrolment,” he recounts. Despite his woolly understanding of the island, which he “did not know whether was part of China or Malaysia,” he chose it over London School of Economics in the city where his brother was posted, as “there were already many Swedish people there.”
Today, the dapper restaurateur articulates his responses in measured, precise fashion – a far cry from his time as a bewildered 23-year-old chuntering out his first presentation to a roomful of Singaporeans in Swedish. “Everyone was just looking at me as though I was from another planet. For the next six months I studied English at night and probably left campus twice; it was a pretty sad exchange,” he concedes sardonically.
Industriousness aside, what looked to be a dalliance with the Singapore education system was parlayed into a corporate career when he joined the National Ice Hockey League, where a teammate helped wrangle him a bank internship. Three years on in a sector tuckered out by the global financial crisis, the young executive struck out on his own to start a digital restaurant reservation system in the same vein as Chope. This was subsequently acquired by Singtel, which he joined as a consultant.
Then, it began – the way most entrepreneurial journeys do – as an eureka moment whistled from the ground. “I tried dining in the dark when I was in Kuala Lumpur and just fell in love with it. The concept did not exist in Singapore, and though I had no experience running a restaurant, I thought it couldn’t be that hard,” he recalls.
But this wasn’t a strictly commercial flight of fancy, so to speak. Gustafsson’s father is visually impaired, as are several family friends he grew up with, so their lived experiences hit close to home. “Hopefully Nox can shed some light on the visually impaired and blind, and diners can leave with a different perception of not just what it is to be blind, but also what these individuals are capable of,” he says.
Suitably stoked back in 2014, he leapt the bounds of the buttoned-up corporate grind, landing smack into the binding lease of a coffeeshop at Beach road. “I called some old friends and asked if they were interested to invest in it. I said, I wrote a cheque for four months’ rent and I need the money before Monday or it’s going to bounce,” he confesses in sheepish laughter.
Hopefully, diners can leave with a different perception of not just what it is to be blind, but also what these individuals are capable of.”Jesper Gustafsson
There’s moxy, but delivering an unfamiliar concept to a crowded dining scene isn’t exactly a cinch. “There was a lot of scepticism; many friends said it wouldn’t last past six months, when it would no longer be interesting to people,” shares the 38-year-old. It didn’t help that the newcomer had scant knowledge of Singapore’s visually impaired community. So he contacted the Singapore Association of the Visually Handicapped, which introduced him to his first employee Mohamed Rahamatulla s/o Ibrahim Sahib, or Rahmat.
Barring a couple of breaks taken in the intervening years due to health reasons, he’s effectively Nox – Dine in the Dark’s longest serving employee. Rahmat, like their two other blind servers who hold court over its second-floor dining room, is ostensibly attuned to the lay of the land. On a busy Wednesday night teeming with media, they performed their graceful, exactingly choreographed shuffle in Stygian darkness. Deftly leading us as we toddled timorously to our seats, they proceeded to present dinner service, aided by clappers, braille walls and the sound of the air-conditioner to gauge their bearings.
Their manoeuvres in the dark are especially remarkable when you consider the thick chatter they work amid, reverberating in contrast to the hushed, sibilant atmosphere I’d expected to stumble upon. Our server, Bernard Chew – a former drama instructor who’s nailed the art of banter – guided our hands to our cutlery and glasses with the indulgent humour of your favourite teacher who overlooks your ham-fisted attempts at mediocrity. It’s an inexplicably intimate experience, especially in light of the hermetic social isolation we’ve become inured to over the past two years.
Gustafsson says they’ve sustained huge losses over the pandemic, given the sheer impracticality of delivering their concept amid the most stringent of safe distancing stipulations. “We kept all the staff on full payroll during the first lockdown, and tried to retain people for as long as possible when we had to move from our old location. Some of them found new jobs quickly, except for the visually impaired,” he reveals.
Which brings us to the elephant in the room, wrapped in a tersely worded press release last May disclosing their landlord’s demands to vacate their Beach road premises. In hindsight, the entrepreneur reflects, it boiled down to being wrong-footed by a contractual misunderstanding. Though they couldn’t hash out a compromise and “tears were shed” between his team, he says he’s still on good terms with his former landlord. What were the takeaways from this episode? “Make sure you always have lawyers reading through your legal documents,” he pronounces wryly.
There’s no pumping the breaks on Nox – Dine in the Dark 2.0, though. Along with their refreshed menu, they’ve plans to launch corporate team bonding activities in the dark led by visually impaired hosts, under the auspices of ‘Communicate’. Gustafsson takes pride in the fact that they’ve proven to be more than a restaurant du jour, despite the mercurial temperament of local punters.
Beyond offering a novel and – paradoxically – illuminating dining experience, he’s encouraged by the country’s strides towards greater inclusivity. It’s an issue that’s been propelled into the national conversation in recent years, with President Halimah Yacob repeatedly enjoining employers to hire more people with disabilities.
“I’ve seen a lot of improvement in the past 15 years, in terms of government campaigns and organisations that work with people with disabilities. More can be done, but there have been tremendous efforts to make Singapore more accessible for the visually impaired, from installing traffic lights with sounds, to special tiles at zebra crossings,” he shares.
But inclusivity is a hollow epithet, in the absence of equitable employment standards. Gustafsson maintains that his employees are compensated based on their experience, firmly without a distinction between the visually impaired and sighted. “There are visually impaired staff who make twice as much as sighted staff. An inclusive society is one where you give equal opportunities to people, whether at work or in social situations, and they are treated respectfully and fairly regardless of their social, racial, and financial backgrounds or physical abilities,” he concludes.