By: Lynn Ogryzlo
If the angels threw a gala, they would invite only the most interesting people and all would come dressed in white. Of course it would involve the most heavenly foods, most ambrosial wines and candles flickering softly among the night clouds. There would be plenty of music and merriment that lasted into the darkness of what would be later talked about as a glowing hedonistic fête. On lookers would be speechless, in shock at the radiant glow of a totally pure white gathering that looks more like an angelic gala than Niagara-on-the-Lakes Dîner en Blanc.
While Dîner en Blanc does not follow the rituals of angels, it does follow the rituals of a posh French past. It all started in 1988 when Francois Pasquier returned to Paris after being abroad. He organized a dinner party to reconnect with friends. So many wanted to attend that he asked them to all meet at Bois de Boulogne, a beautiful park in the north of Paris. Each invitee was to bring a friend and to dress in white so they would be recognizable to each other. The gathering was a huge success that continued year after year, each dinner in a different location throughout the French capital.
Fast forward to 2009, Francois’ son Aymeric, moved to Montreal and spread the tradition to Quebec. Two years later New York City held their first Dîner en Blanc as did Niagara-on-the-Lake and today more than 10,000 people gather in Paris while simultaneously more than forty cities across five continents join in what has become an international epicurean phenomenon.
Back in Paris, the founding group of 25 friends decided to organize their Dîner en Blanc on Pont des Arts. If you’re not familiar with Paris, this is the pedestrian “lock bridge” over the Seine. Pont des Arts is a beautiful location right in the heart of Paris but nothing like this had ever been done before. Fearing they would never be allowed to host their dinner on the bridge if they asked permission, they kept the location a secret until the very last minute. Then in flash mob-style they all descended upon the bridge for dinner.
While the “friends and word-of-mouth only” event has lasted 26 years the main principles remain intact. Diners dressed in white, gather at a secret location with the sole purpose of sharing an uber delicious meal with good friends at the most beautiful locations.
It was a beautiful August evening in 2011 when 400 guests gathered to dine in white down the main street of Niagara-on-the-Lake. It was the first and remains the only Dîner en Blanc in Niagara. The next year it grew to over a thousand guests, all dressed in white, toting food and table decorations.
Then things changed. Last year organizers sought official status as an approved International Dîner en Blanc host. This meant instead of dining down the main street of Niagara-on-the-Lake as they had done, the location had to change. Last year there were buses to transport everyone to the location, but not this year. This year it will be flash-mob style.
The Vintage Inn hotels traditionally take 2 tables and each year the experience is offered to different staff members, making it a coveted privilege to be asked. “The first year when the event was on the main street, our tables were at the end of the group and next to the Prince of Wales Hotel so we set up a buffet. Nothing warm, but charcuterie, salads, cheeses and olives. It was a beautiful evening,” said Kelly Exelby, General Manager of the Prince of Wales Hotel.
“Then last year we had to find a way to transport the food (on buses) and food boxes seemed like a good option”. Everything inside the boxes was beautifully wrapped from lobster rolls to local cheeses and salads. The gourmet food boxes were so popular Vintage Inns will do it again this year. “Our executive chef Chris Smythe is already working on the menus.”
In Niagara-on-the-Lake, Dîner en Blanc will take place on June 12 at a secret location. It’s about people getting together for a special evening of conversation over food and drink and “you don’t have to know each other,” says Catherine O’Donnell of Willow Cakes & Pastries. “It’s better if you don’t, it gets people out of their group and meeting new people which some find hard to do.”
The event is organized pretty simply. You can register a group of eight friends on the official website niagara.dinerenblanc.info. Each group has a captain that delegates duties for food, wine and table decorating among their group. This is where most people would invite comfortable friends, but O’Donnell always invites people who don’t know each other to make the evening more interesting.
When it comes to food the only rule is to serve it in white dishes. Other than that, everyone tries to outdo each other. For some groups it’s a great pot-luck event with each friend bringing a special dish that they share among themselves, others order their dinner at a restaurant and pick it up and set it out on their elaborately decorated table, still some hire a chef and organize a special menu and some even cook tableside.
“It was a great girls night out,” laughs Andrea Kaiser who has attended Dîner en Blanc since it started in 2011. For Andrea the first year was simply a girls get-together. Eight friends divided the chores, dressed in varying shades of white and brought their own food. But “just being part of the larger group, we had so much fun, the following year we invited the boys.” The organizers accept requests for tables to be located next to each other so as Andrea’s group keeps getting larger and larger, so the table keeps getting longer and longer.
“I like it when everyone brings a different food and we all share it among friends,” says Andrea who remembers the table decorated with white hydrangeas and candles. “My friend Billy has beautiful stem wear so she brought it. My sister brought pink flowers and we banned them from the table!” This year Andrea’s group has grown to 24, ”we keep building on it, expanding our circle of friends. It’s nice because you get to see people you don’t always see.”
As for how the secret location is announced, “we’ll all meet at someone’s house for drinks and wait for the text. Then we go,” explains Andrea. This year will once again be a sanctioned Dîner en Blanc event with one major change – no buses.
This year at Dîner en Blanc there will be heavenly foods, ambrosial wines and candles flickering softly among the night clouds. There will be plenty of music and merriment that will last into the darkness. Then at 10 pm, everyone will stand and wave their white napkins and light their sparklers in a glowing hedonistic fête. Dîner en Blanc is Niagara’s angelic gala – plan to be part of it.
Lynn Ogryzlo is a food, wine and travel writer, international award winning author and regular contributor to REV Publications. She can be reached for questions or comments at lynnogryzlo.com.