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Dinner Parties Go Below the Radar and Into Public Spaces

8/25/11 UPDATE:  On Thursday, the first Dîner en Blanc will be held in the U.S. at an undisclosed location. Here’s what one of the New York organizers, Daniel Laporte, had to say about the dinner considering today’s forecast for rain: “It’s our tradition to carry on through,” he said. “If it rains, we leave our stuff there, go hide, and come back. There’s never been constant rain.” He added that because of the way the event is created, there’s no way to reschedule or delay the dinner in the case of inclement weather. Group leaders are set to meet attendees and “once this is started we cannot go back,” he said.

Less than three weeks from now, 1,000 New Yorkers decked out in brilliant white outfits will descend on a public space for dinner. They will arrive toting tables, chairs, beverages and likely several courses. The location of the the city’s inaugural Dîner en Blanc (White Dinner) has not yet been revealed, but one thing is already certain — for every person at the dinner, 25 people will wish they were there. According to Daniel Laporte, Dîner en Blanc's New York organizer, the waiting list has already grown to 25,000 names.

“It’s like a pyramid of friends,” said Aymeric Pasquier, the son of François Pasquier, who began Dîner en Blanc 23 years ago in Paris.

The younger Pasquier lives in Montreal, where he has held the event since 2009. He will stage Dîner en Blanc in New York City on August 25.

“There is no goal except to spending an extraordinary night — an unconventional picnic — and to re-appropriate the places of the city that belong to the citizens,” Pasquier said.

While it will be the first Dîner en Blanc to be held in the U.S., the event joins an increasingly long roster of exclusive and impromptu dining options in a city where residents prize scarcity and unconventional experiences. Dinner party–devotees are taking meals outside of restaurants and staging them in below-the-radar locations or — as is the case with Dîner en Blanc — in public spaces. Whether the events are held on the L train or in a Brooklyn loft, many groups face one common problem: more people want to come than they can accommodate.

For the Gastronauts, a supper club that boasts the mission, “To thrill our clients with adventures on the food frontier,” invitations to their 60-seat dinners fill up within 15 minutes — and that’s for a club that focuses on eating traditionally shunned foods like offal, sweetbreads, and live shrimp.

“It’s not a business for us,” said Gastronauts founder Curtiss Calleo. “We don’t make any money off of this, so it wasn’t like we were pushing people to join. In fact, it’s becoming a problem that there are so many people now.”

Like the organizers of Dîner en Blanc, Calleo, an art director, has a separate day job unrelated to his culinary endeavors.

The Whisk and Ladle Supperclub founder Mark Low, along with two friends, hosts dinner parties out of a Williamsburg, Brooklyn loft that dates back to the early 1900s. Six years ago, the group started with sit-down meals for 25. Over the last few years, the guest list spiraled to include about 100 people, and now the club has a mailing list of 9,000.

“I think if we really tried to make money at it, I wouldn’t be talking about it so enthusiastically,” said Low, a college math professor.

Mike Lee, a founder of Studiofeast, works in digital marketing and recently partnered with Michael Cirino of A Razor, A Shiny Knife, to host a six-course lunch that took place on the L train.

“For New Yorkers, a lot of dining concepts are getting kind of tired,” said Lee. “We have a really unique social experience you can’t get in any restaurant, even at a high-end restaurant.”

Lee, dismayed at being unable to feed everyone who is interested in his events, recently tested a virtual solution: he hosted a Google+ hangout that allowed anyone with an Internet connection to see how the group cooked dishes served at a recent dinner.

“I think that New Yorkers are obsessed with trying to find as adventurous a way to do anything, whether it be eating or cycling or anything,” said Low. “It’s taking something and making it a little more outlandish. I think supper clubs benefit from that because our dinners are a little bit peculiar. It’s not like going to a restaurant.” Diner en Blanc 2010

The organizers of Dîner en Blanc hope to capitalize on New Yorkers’ desire for adventure, and see the experience as beginning with the hunt for white clothes, chairs, and tables. The origins of the event are humble, though. It began simply as a dinner party that grew too large. François Pasquier suggested a public location and had everyone dress in white so they could recognize each other. In true Parisian form, the uniform was also supposed to lend a sense of fashionable elegance to the gathering. 

Since then, the popularity has grown, and this year’s Paris event was spread out in two locations: 4,400 people gathering in front of Notre Dame cathedral while 6,200 convened in front of the Louvre. The organizers had reservations about bringing the event to New York this year, said Alexandra Simoes, a New York organizer and French teacher working with Laporte, who is an architect.

“At first...we were like, ‘There’s no way New Yorkers are going to carry their table and their chairs and their dinners—we will have to provide everything,'” she explained. “But Aymeric was like, ‘No, you can’t. If you do that you’ll lose the whole concept of people building their own dinner. If you have people rent their tables and their chairs onsite, then it’s just like going to the restaurants. That’s not the point.'”

Pasquier, a TV producer who dedicates half his time to organizing Dîner en Blanc, compared the experience to being a child, and deriving pleasure from having built something tangible.

“It’s a lot of preparation, and we know it,” he said, “but that’s the secret to add a lot of pleasure.”