When the cloche lifted, I saw the word “Glass” scrawled atop a slab of chocolate mousse. I stood up and announced to the 28 people sitting at the table with me: Yes, that was the word I had silently written down just minutes earlier — the first word that popped into my head after a round of word association, which magician Scott Silven told me to keep to myself. There was no way he could have seen what I wrote, and there was no one standing behind me. So how did my secret wind up written on my dessert? I squealed in delight.
Magic has a reputation for hokeyness. It’s too earnest, whether it’s the version where a magician pulls 18 scarves out of his throat or the version where the too-intense guy in the silk shirt levitates in the middle of the auditorium. Dinner theater gives the same vibe; it’s often a sub-par meal served alongside a bad play, requiring diners to split attention from food and performance. “At the Illusionist’s Table,” a combination of whiskey tasting, communal dinner, and magic show running at NYC’s McKittrick Hotel through April 2, certainly risks cringe, participation in both meal and magic potentially becoming the ultimate oh no, performers coming into audience. You have to buy in. But if you do, there’s a wonder in watching something transformed.
Magician Scott Silven hadn’t originally conceived of the show, now in its third season, as a dinner: It was a whiskey tasting that punctuated the show’s story about his childhood in Scotland. But he realized a meal would be more powerful, “not just to manipulate the audience’s senses, but to lead them deeper into the narrative of the show.” The meal, he says, leads audiences into a “safe space,” opening them up to the tricks being played on them. So as we ate chef Pascal Le Seac’h’s seafood risotto, braised beef with lardon, root vegetables, and Parker House rolls, we also watched as Silven guessed what postcard someone had in their hand. We gasped and applauded when Silven identified what someone drew on a pad of paper on the other side of the room, and as he produced a lottery card with the day’s date and the exact numbers that guests had shouted at random. We ate it up.
In The Prestige, a movie about two magicians deeply intent on pranking each other, Michael Caine’s character lays out the building blocks of a successful magic trick. “The magician takes the ordinary something and makes it do something extraordinary,” he says, whether it’s making an object disappear or escaping a straightjacket. As the viewer, “you’re looking for the secret… but you won’t find it, because of course you’re not really looking. You don’t really want to know. You want to be fooled.”
To some extent, that desire extends to restaurant cooking, as well. I know what the Maillard reaction ice and what it does to the taste of vegetables, and I know that restaurant food tastes good because it contains more butter and salt than I’d ever use at home. But the transformation of the ordinary to the extraordinary is why most people feel the pull of a restaurant in the first place. “You transform something from what you can see whole,” says Le Seac’h. “You see a mushroom on the ground full of dirt, it’s not really appetizing,” but in its final form, sliced and softened and manipulated to bring out its flavor, it’s new. The best meals are the ones that have you sitting back in wonder, marveling at what was accomplished, even if you know it was nothing magical. There is a sleight of hand at play, and we want to be fooled. We want to feel the extraordinary.
Besides the tricks, some of the most magical moments happened when Silven left the room, allowing diners to eat and chat among ourselves. It felt somewhat like the teacher had left the students alone — immediately we started talking about what we had seen, giving our theories on how it all worked, and getting to know each other. That time exists by design, says Silven, because it allows the audience to grow more intimate and comfortable as the night goes on. “It creates this sort of Agatha Christie sense of mystery and paranoia,” says Silven. “What else may be happening?” And when he left the room we investigated. The lotto ticket looked real, surely he hadn’t printed it today. Did he plant the postcards? Was there a mirror somewhere where he could see what was going on? And then, wow these rolls are good, how did they get them so soft?
We weren’t really looking to be proven right and to see a trick fail. The joy is in buying in and in being proven wrong. Technically, all of the tricks could have been done without the meal, and the meal could have existed without the magic. Both would have been fine. But when the cloche came up and the trick was revealed on the dessert we were preparing to eat, the alchemy happened. It was bafflement and delight and yes, the knowledge that this was the result of not the supernatural but human hands and ingenuity. Why shouldn’t that be as incredible an achievement? Isn’t that just as magical? I walked away with the same question about both acts: How did they do that? And of course I didn’t really want to know.