Digging into the fourth course of dinner — a butter-poached beef tenderloin with caramelized onion — tiny carrots with arms and legs danced to a jaunty piano tune around the plate. Joining them were Champagne glasses and avocado halves (also with arms and legs) swaying back and forth in an almost cult-like celebration. As the server took the plate away, the dancers disappeared and the chef promptly walked on the top of my table to talk about dessert.
No, the diner isn’t deep in the throes of psychosis. Le Petit Chef at Fairmont Chicago utilizes augmented reality (AR) to digitally project animated characters, settings, and foods right onto tables and plates. Diners experience a five-course dinner while an eponymous 2 ½-inch-tall chef (yes, like in Ratatouille) appears in 3D to prepare the meals while whisking them away across time and space to tell the story of the meal’s history and ingredients.
The experience is a partnership between Skullmapping, a 3D projection animation studio in Belgium; TableMation Studios, which provides the projection technology for the dinner; and Fairmont Chicago located on the edge of Millenium Park. The goal is to bring the meal to life as the aforementioned tiny animated French chef ostensibly preps the meal at the table.
In that way, it’s an ideal dining experience for the TikTok generation: one that encourages pictures and videos to entice friends, family, and followers to purchase a reservation. Le Petit Chef at Fairmont Chicago costs $155 per person for a five-course dinner with an optional $42 drink option that pairs a different wine with each meal.
“We tried to bring immersiveness every step of the way,” William Shultz, the director of food and beverage at Fairmont Chicago, says. “Whether it’s through the way you’re entering, the look of everything, the table, the room decor, the way the servers are dressed. Every part of it needs to create that kind of 360-degree experience.”
Le Petit Chef has made the round in places like Dubai, Warsaw, Taipei, Bangkok, Los Angeles, New York, and at sea on cruises. However, it Chicago residency marks the tiny chef’s first Midwest visit.
The dinner is set up in a conference room in the Fairmont, which makes for a slightly cavernous dining experience. The show started with Le Petit Chef himself appearing on the plate in front of diners. As the name suggests, he spoke with a thick and squeaky French accent that was nearly incomprehensible due to the sound system and the limitations of the space it was held in. Hotel conference rooms aren’t exactly movie theaters, after all. The Le Petit Chef doesn’t have closed captioning or subtitle options at this time — so those who are hard of hearing or looking for more accessibility options will find themselves out of luck.
Each course had its own mini-storyline that, while simple, provided effective scaffolding for eye-popping animation.
The first took us through the history of the humble tomato (foreshadowing our first course) and included a surprisingly violent depiction of the Spanish conquest of the Aztecs. The second was a primer on the art of plating, which included lovely homages to Van Gogh, Andy Warhol, and even the dadaist urinals of Marcel Duchamp (a downright strange choice for a dinner setting). The rest of the dinner included lessons on making food with love and even a song-and-dance number a la Beauty and the Beast’s “Be My Guest.”
Of course, there are still some limitations with this type of technology — especially since it just arrived in Chicago. As mentioned already, the sound quality was not great and downright dreadful at times. A couple who attended the dinner said it was hard to understand the diminutive chef’s tinny French voice at times. The animation also hiccuped occasionally, causing the chef and set pieces to re-do certain scenes and dialogue. These instances were few and far between, but would occasionally be enough to disrupt that feeling of an immersive dining experience.
That brings us to dinner itself. Shultz says the menu was designed in-house at Fairmont; the kitchen drew inspiration from the animation. Each city will have different menus.
Each meal was plated in advance, so by the time it was in front of diners the food was either room temperature or cold. That’s a bit of a letdown considering both the price point as well as some of the ambitious courses that could have been serviced better if they were hot like the bacon-wrapped chicken with pickled shimeji mushrooms, charred haricot verts, and a wild cranberry jus; or the butter-poached beef tenderloin with caramelized onions, beets, and a bittersweet chocolate sauce.
The animation also proved to be occasionally distracting during the meal itself. For example, during the second course, Le Petit Chef just stands next to your plate and looks up at you the entire time while you’re eating your carrots like an ominous, French Elf on the Shelf — but this time diners know it’ll actually start moving at some point.
There were also some more eyebrow-raising food items such as the tomato course that included raw, picked, and compressed tomatoes along with a green tea gel and whipped feta; or the salt-roasted carrots with quinoa granola.
The animation and experience suggest that it might be something for kids — if the little ones can sit still for long enough. On the other side of the coin, the dinner could be a fun date night for adults or a gimmicky way to hang out in a group.
Overall, Le Petit Chef delivers some great animation and colorful visuals — but diners might struggle with the food and sound quality. If nothing else, it makes for a truly unique dinner experience using emerging technologies that might not necessarily take off in restaurants but will certainly make for a fun and memorable time out.
Le Petit Chef at the Fairmont Hotel, 200 N. Columbus Drive, now through April 6, reservations via Tock.