Josh Lewin is no stranger to side-eye’d responses when he lays out a vision for some new undertaking involving his livelihood.
And starting Sunday, the chef and co-owning partner of Union Square darling Juliet (along with wife Katrina Jazayeri) – notable already for their embracing open-model profit-share style restaurant management as well as abolishing tipping – is launching a bold and curious experiment in changing things up both on the menu, as well as the very idea of what a restaurant can be.
To wit, meet These Wild Apples, an immersive tech-savvy performance piece blending poetry, opera, time travel, ghosts, and an interactive total solar eclipse. (Stay with us here.) Produced by their Bread + Salt Hospitality group, the pair’s five scenes playing out over five days beginning October 1 after final dinner service Sunday and stretching till October 5 will suspend regular dinner service at Juliet.
In its place will be an unfolding experiment in restaurant-customer engagement, with much of it existing as a dialogue between characters on Twitter (follow #TheseWildApples). But that’s where the general planned action ends, and anyone looking to become a part of the show all they have to do is chime in (Lewin says diners at Juliet during the performance can be oblivious or indifferent to what’s happening and still have a great meal).
“When we opened we leaned heavily to a production-quality of our service and the entire design of Juliet changes considerably based on what we’re serving for dinner,” says Lewin. “I write a menu, then a script for the menu on what you’re going to see and smell and how we present it to customers, and offer the personal and culinary meanings behind all the dishes.” And that’ll be the case during the five-day theatrical experiment, which also serves as the kickoff for their fall menu Les Pommes Sauvages (the French translation of the show’s title).
“I know how the show begins and ends, but depending on how the audience participates and becomes part of the show, I don’t know what’s going to happen along the way. If some Twitter or live-stream video gets someone to interact with us in a novel way, we may insert them into the narrative and action in some way.”
The five days of performance is being produced in partnership and participation with local immersive operatic outfit Promenade Opera Project, Curio Spice, and unwittingly…actual past customers of Juliet. After things start to get weird in the performance (think: Normandy, France over 100 years ago), things overheard from diners in the restaurant will be worked in along with live responses from followers of the performance on social media.
This all may seem out of joint for a restaurant, but Lewin says he thinks of his crew at Juliet as being more than just about the food.
“I think that this is a graduation event for our company,” Lewin says. “We’re performing nightly, but our entire performance until now has been built around what you’re eating. This is the opposite. You could never even come to Juliet during the five days and still enjoy this for what it is on its own on social media, or by engaging with the real life tie-ins within the production schedule.”
Besides the social media aspect, the IRL factors will involve a poetry reading kickoff in Cambridge and culminate with an in-restaurant “roadhouse rock show” helmed by local musicians. Lewin even tapped a regular patron to help create the VR aspect of the performance, hooked to a total solar-eclipse narrative that will involve in-restaurant diners using their phones to view a solar eclipse from 113 years ago via cardboard boxes provided and a special app audience members receive by text. He also promises it’ll make sense. Or hopes it will, anyway.
“I feel like I’m taking a pretty big reputation risk,” Lewin laughs. “But reps can be rebuilt, and I like risks.”