Here at Time Out, the number of projection-based experiential art press releases sent to us on a regular basis has rendered us completely numb to the wonders of "immersive" entertainment. At this point, most readers are familiar with the gimmick: a couple big rooms filled with endlessly looping, skillfully produced creative visuals reproduced hundreds of thousands of times for the ticket-buying masses, all for prices typically higher than other conventional arts destinations around town. Guests then themselves refract their experiences online, in an endless loop of cheap dopamine rewards and expensive, arguably overpriced enjoyment.
In that sense, the Downtown L.A. Ritz-Carlton’s new immersive meal, Le Petit Chef, is no different. The dinner series, which debuted in early December 2021, is one of the many iterations of the tabletop projection-based animated film found in hotels all over the world and on 11 different Celebrity Cruise ships. In the Downtown L.A. edition, patrons on the Ritz’s 24th floor dine on five courses as they receive a whimsical lesson in Cooking 101 led by the eponymous little toque-topped Frenchman. To be clear, the character doesn’t do anything as you eat; each course is preceded by an interactive animation, where the tiny chef appears to talk, cook and jump around your plate. For example, after a segment on origins of the humble tomato, you’ll eat a tart made with the savory fruit as a soothing animation of an Aztec floating farm is projected onto the table.
Surely, Le Petit Chef’s globe-spanning popularity is a sign of something. Hyperbolically billing itself as “the world’s #1 dining experience,” the immersive dinner stems from a 2015 viral YouTube video by Skullmapping, a Belgian animation studio led by fine artist Antoon Verbeeck and creative director Filip Sterckx. The initial video actually stemmed from a failed client pitch; Verbeeck and Sterckx were so passionate about the concept they created a three-minute short anyway, which would go on to garner millions of views.
Now working with a larger business team at TableMation Studios, the Skullmapping team have successfully transitioned from the founding pair’s initial, edgier building-scale projections to the commercialized, family-friendly tabletop phenomenon known as Le Petit Chef. Though you’ll find the little chef elsewhere schooling diners on the influence of the Silk Road on Western cuisine, the L.A. experience focuses on "How to Become the World’s Greatest Chef": essentially a tabletop film where diners are served real-life versions of the 3D chef’s animated creations.
At $145 per head (a price that competes with several of L.A.’s best restaurants), it’s a lot more expensive than other immersive experiences you’ll find around town. Is Le Petit Chef worth your time and money? Based on my experience, it depends on what you’re looking for, whether you enjoy driving to the traffic and parking nightmare that is Downtown’s L.A. Live, and, of course, your personal entertainment budget.
The chances of someone like me (allergic to Instagram bait and L.A. Live) coming away feeling like my time was well spent on Le Petit Chef—even on a free media reservation—seemed unlikely at best when I first agreed to visit and write about it. Navigating the bowels of the JW Marriott megaplex after I mistakenly entered on the wrong side of valet parking, I eventually made my way to the Ritz-Carlton’s 24th floor, which used to house the now-closed WP24 by Wolfgang Puck. Still present, of course, were the space’s glittering views of Downtown (which you can also find at nearby 71Above and the InterContinental’s La Boucherie).
After being greeted with a complimentary glass of sparkling wine at the restaurant’s entrance, I was seated at a table with plates illuminated from above with the TableMation logo. Soon, the show began, with the cantankerous little chef at the helm, as oohs and ahs emanated from other tables, particularly from the two small children in a family of four.
From a sheer technical artistic perspective, Le Petit Chef’s animation and storyline simply blew me away. Once I got over the 3D character’s gratingly exaggerated French accent, the intricate and complex visuals and detailed flourishes overshadowed the middling storyline-inclusive food, which included a burrata and tomato tart ("The History of Food"), branzino and vegetables ("The Art of Plating") and chicken roulade ("The Secret Ingredient is Love"). In the chicken segment, accompanied by animation reminiscent of a psychedelic drug trip, a younger version of the chef and his grandmother ride away on bumblebees after putting together a meal with the help of ants and other woodland creatures. The savory courses finish with a filet mignon ("Technique") and an interactive build-your-own chocolate dessert spread with cake, cremeux, almond crumble, raspberries and chocolate malt balls.
Of course, liberally poured glasses of the add-on $35 wine pairing likely only amplified the night’s simple, unbridled enjoyment of Le Petit Chef, with heavy enough pours such that if I’d actually finished all the booze, I definitely wouldn’t have been able to drive home—which is worth noting for planning.
While educational and age-appropriate enough for children, Le Petit Chef’s stunning visuals and clever historical and artistic allusions keep older diners entertained enough to disregard the fact that not every dish hits the mark in terms of culinary execution. In one charming sequence, "The Art of Plating," the chef creates dishes inspired by famous artists, from well-known tortured souls like Van Gogh to more recent icons like Rene Magritte and Andy Warhol. In another, Aztec warriors battle against Spanish conquistadors, before the latter bring back tomatoes to Europe. While less off-color in nature, the more nuanced cultural references called to mind the adults-only jokes liberally added to ‘90s Nickelodeon shows.
At a little over the expected two-hour mark, I left the Ritz-Carlton satisfied, if not gastronomically wowed, with the same sort of starry-eyed exuberance one feels after leaving a good movie at the theater. It might be easy to deride the obviously made-for-social aspects of Le Petit Chef from the outside, but the concept’s unique, experimental animation and whimsical, interactive storyline—each diner leaves with a "certification of completion"—left me simultaneously delighted and impressed by the combination viewing-dining experience. Not every dinner, even for a literal food and drink editor, needs to actually taste amazing to be memorable, and a meal at Le Petit Chef is unequivocally that.
While I wouldn’t recommend Le Petit Chef for hardcore "food people," the power of managed (or low) expectations remains unparalleled, and those who have the disposable income and the desire to check the Downtown dinner series out will find themselves truly, deeply entertained by what amounts to a form of cutting-edge dinner theater.
Le Petit Chef at the Ritz-Carlton will run through the end of April. Reservations, available via OpenTable, cost $145 per person plus optional $35 wine pairing. With validation, valet parking at the Ritz-Carlton runs $10 for the first two hours and $5 for each additional half hour.