The Dinner Party Project – Orlando, FL

Have you ever looked back at how a set of coincidental circumstances lead you to a certain moment? Considering that moment, did you think about how statistically unlikely it was to reach it? You’d think for me to find myself eating with seven other folks in a warehouse, in an undisclosed location somewhere in the urban throngs of Orlando, would take some planning. Nope, it was an utter fluke. A fold of the cloth in the other direction would have led me down another path without any knowledge of such an event.

The Dinner Party Project spread

This particular wormhole opened up while folding up fancy napkins with a lady in the middle of nowhere, on a farm, in a field where chickens are free to roam. We were both hired guns brought on to aid with service for one of Outstanding in the Fields Winter tour of Florida. (It deserves a post all to itself, but if you haven’t heard of OITF and you like fresh food from the sweat of a farmers loins, please check out their operation.) We worked in silence, intricately folding napkins, until she put on some tunes. I don’t think either of us could stand the lack of conversation, so she asked what I did for a living. No one wants to talk careers with a postal employee, so I deftly shifted the focus to her. This girl ran down an impressive list of pursuits and causes. Of course the only one that mattered to a person with such food focused pursuits such as myself, I zeroed in on the last one in her list. She casually explained of her involvement in a small, just born Orlando based dinner party club. I believe something like, “no way, that’s awesome,” so eloquently left my mouth. After chatting for a very short time, I was called away to do some grunt work.

The night ended and I never got the name of her project. I was however able to recall her last name, though how last names ever came up in the conversation I’m not sure. The only time I heard that particular family name was from acquaintances in my town. Wouldn’t you know they are related? She just so happened to be my friends’ sister-in-law. A few weeks went by and I started looking at some of the farm table photos online from that night and saw user _thedinnerpartyproject_ had posted a photo.

All was not lost. Things started haphazardly coming together.

I began following and became enthralled at what was going on with her venture. Two dinners a week with eight seats chosen by random lottery system, all of them appeared to be completely sold out since the project began. I wanted to be a part of this, I had to, but when would I ever realistically get the chance?

The Dinner Party Project spread 1

Last week while on a business trip requiring an overnight stay in Orlando, I noticed that they had a spot available the same night I was to be in town. I quickly responded and managed to be the guy who would fill the empty seat. I’d like to extend a hearty thank you to the person who decided to cancel the day of the dinner. I assume you regularly plan poorly. Thankfully, your bad planning really benefited me that day.

I’m not ashamed to admit that the only reason I wanted to join in on this supper club in the first place was for the food created by incredibly talented Orlando based chefs. Food for us is everything. We won’t write about anything if the taste just isn’t there, no matter what your cause is. Good food can cover over a multitude of sins. I would be glad to sit in silence with a group of disgusting eccentrics, if in exchange, I received a great meal. Conversation, networking, and general socializing is way down my list of priorities. Still, I feared I had committed myself to a night of eating with weirdos, as I anxiously drove from SushiPop in Oviedo, after pre-gaming on fatty bluefin tuna bellies and house smoked salmon nigiri. This turned out to be a small, albeit precautionary meal.

There was nothing to fear.

On this night of course, I ate well. The guest chef was a former crew member of some of my favorite spots in town. Michael Garcia, formerly of Ravenous Pig, Cask & Larder and The Smiling Bison treated the eight of us to a Cuban inspired feast, with a hard nod to modern technique. The plates of food that came out were beautiful, though they tasted even better than they looked. Especially the work of art that was our first course. An heirloom tomato salad with charred onion and a streak of avocado marble brought me back to the first time I studied Van Gogh’s Water Lilies collection in person. I really took to the braised flank steak, made into ropa vieja that towered over a plateau of culantro rice. The complexity of reduced tomato sauce with a stellar balance of acidity and sweetness, it would have made my Nana proud. Though, she wouldn’t have gone to this event because she doesn’t drive at night. The last course, and arguably the best received by all, was coffee infused pots de crème, with a salty caramel apex and a custardy cinnamon sugared churro. I dug into that custard with my churro like Mikey, Mouth, Chunk and Data looking for One Eyed Willies treasure.

the-dinner-party-project-spread-2

If you were to take the food away, and asked me to come to a mixer in a warehouse, with a group of people I might not ever see again, the answer would be a polite, “no thank you.”

So, obviously it helped that the food was great. In all honesty, I think the experience of conversing with these new friends, making new connections, finding common ground with people who don’t necessarily have similar interests was more memorable than any meal I had had that week, and for the record, I ate well last week.

I think an event like this, if not exactly this, should be implemented in every city. Surely your town can drum up 16 random people a week to get things going. I feel as if society has been slowly losing their ability to converse and function on a casual level. We’ve all slowed down in our ability to get together for no good reason, adult and child alike. As my host graciously suggested, we ditched our phones for the evening, and it was a relief to many of the guests, myself included. Other than snapping a couple of shots that were preapproved, mine stayed right were it belongs, right under my butt. I don’t know, maybe I’m starting to sound like “drunk uncle,” but I remember when get a together meant something. Nowadays, it’s just could you e-mail me dinner, can you fax me a hug? Ipad, Ipod, Iphone Idontknowanymore!

It was a highly delightful and enlightening evening with a group of complete strangers, sharing stories and ideas that quite possibly wouldn’t have been told so freely, if at all, if it were just a group of old friends going through the motions of catching up. No one had to keep up appearances. Instead it was a chance to meet seven new friends in one shot. For someone who has been married for nearly 14 years, you sometimes take for granted getting to know new people intimately. This meal, in a way, gave me a chance to exercise my storytelling ability on subjects that didn’t involve food, an exercise I sort of miss. If you have the chance to get outside of your comfort zone and put yourself out there to be part of their random guest selection process, I can guarantee that you’ll gain a great deal of fulfilling memories afterward.

The Dinner Party Project serves the Orlando area every Tuesday and Wednesday, with a suggested $40-$70 donation per guest. It’s highly suggested that you attend the dinner alone, although they don’t discourage couples. They usually last around 3 hours, which includes passed appetizers, cocktail, wine, and a 3 or 4 course sit down meal with coffee service afterwards. You can go to www.thedinnerpartyproject.coin order to sign up and be registered for their lottery system.

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