Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Dîner en Blanc Cincinnati: We Did It!

I’m still that nerdy kid who actually enjoyed summer school, taking French after my family moved and I switched high schools from Walnut Hills to Mariemont. When I heard that Dîner en Blanc – the white pop-up picnic that originated in Paris 24 years ago – was coming to Cincinnati, I knew I wanted to go. Initial details were sketchy about the process of gaining admittance. But I noticed they were looking for volunteers. So I offered to lend a hand with what I expected would be a big night for my city. .

Even if you aren’t an organizer or volunteer, the occasion requires a good bit of planning and a willingness to adhere to the rules of the event, including wearing white attire (white shoes recommended but not required) and bringing your own 32” or smaller table and white chairs, plus white tablecloth and linen napkins, real wineglasses and cutlery (not plastic), and water, wine, or champagne (no beer or liquor). Each pair of attendees is also responsible for their own picnic fare. While most brought their own, pre-ordered picnics were also available from Orchids and Eat Well Catering for onsite pick-up. Here’s the one offered by Orchids.

I found a kicky white sleeveless dress back in July, and spent way too much time looking for white shoes that would be elegant enough for the occasion yet not kill my feet. (I finally settled on faux lizard-skin sandals with heels that I managed to wear ALMOST all evening, a small personal victory.) When last Monday’s forecast predicted a dip in temperatures – and, worse, the prospect of thunderstorms for this rain-or-shine event – I shifted to plan B (white pants and layers) and started googling places to purchase a white or clear rain poncho and/or umbrella. Thankfully, we ended up with a clear night that couldn't have been more perfect. Overall, attire ranged from “I’ll wear whatever I have in my closet that is white” to some fantastical costumes.

There was the organizing committee, then a handful of Group Leaders, and finally Table Leaders like me, who were each responsible for leading a group of about 50 either on a bus or from the pedestrian departure point to the event site, which would not be revealed – even to us – until shortly before Dîner began. The idea was that each busload would set up their individual tables adjacent to each other and, in my case, connect to the tables of the other two groups of 50 under my Group Leader’s auspices, to form one very long banquet table.

I wasn’t entirely sure how we were going go pull this off when I arrived at my bus departure point, the Frisch’s Mainliner in Fairfax (just down the road from where I’d taken summer school French). I drove around the parking lot looking for my Group Leader, finally spotting a car on the outskirts occupied by a woman wearing white. As we waited for the buses to arrive, she handed off sparklers, three bottles of champagne supplied by event sponsor Mumm’s that I was to raffle off to my bus mates, a sign identifying my bus as #5 that I was to tape to it, and a map of the event site – Lytle Park! – showing the exact location I was to lead my group to for table set-up.

I had a few minutes to consolidate food and gear with my friend and dining partner for the evening, Stephie Boertlein, of Small Girl Adventures. The next thing I knew, some 100 white-clad people descended on the Frisch’s lot bearing picnic baskets, tables, chairs, and flowers! They’d been urged to be punctual, and most showed up before the designated 6:00-6:15 arrival time. A good thing. The other bus leader and I assisted them in figuring out which of the two buses they belonged on, and checked off names to make sure everyone we expected was there. I learned I had groups of 10, 12, and 8 on my bus, that one couple had to cancel last-minute, and that there was some switching between buses I was not informed of earlier. I took a deep breath and went with the flow, suggesting that friends sit with each other on the bus so we could file out in roughly the order in which we would set up our tables, and encouraging everyone to work things out amongst themselves.

Which turned out to be no problem. I had a great group on Bus #5! We were a diverse group of internationals, some Cincy notables, a couple who drove from Lexington to attend, and several food writers. And everyone was ready to have fun! Speaking as loudly as I could over the road noise as our bus drove down Columbia Parkway, I revealed that we were headed to Lytle Park, ran through the rough agenda for the evening, and shared a few more guidelines (like “if you decide not to return on the bus, please let me know”). When people at the rear of the bus couldn’t hear me, a kind gentleman in the middle of the bus took on the role of relaying my info to the rest of the group. Then my friend Ilene Ross of {513}eats assisted by drawing names to raffle off the champagne, which put everyone in an even cheerier mood.

Next thing I knew, we were at Lytle Park, and I navigated us to our designated spot. Many tables were already set up. Although each “couple” was theoretically responsible for their own table and fare, there were some groups who partnered to set up extremely elegant tables.

We mixed, we mingled, and we ate!

None of us knew what to expect this inaugural year of Dîner en Blanc in Cincinnati. But winging it works when you’re with great people and the mood is festive! Although we started planning early, Stephie and I ended up pulling our dinner together somewhat last-minute too. We’d planned to meet at Dutch’s Larder last Wednesday to jointly select items for our first course. When she fell victim to a mean migraine, I went to Dutch’s myself (don’t miss the Larder’s housemade country paté!) and we divvied up duties. She made delicious whole wheat baguettes to accompany our cheese and charcuterie board.

I prepped some pickled veg, a simple Caprese salad, and an Alsatian sausage and gruyere salad for our main.

And Stephie once again turned her considerable baking talents to conjure up our dessert course: two kinds of sablés (vanilla, and chocolate chip and peanut butter) and an awesome apple spice cake with cream cheese quenelle and fruit compote in a Mason jar!

As the sky darkened and we were sated (was there anyone who didn't exuberantly bring too much food?), it was time for Dîner en Blanc to shift gears. The music shifted from jazz combo to high-energy tunes from the DJ. It was time to pull away from the dinner table and light the night with sparklers!

Some people released their white DeB balloons, and lanterns lifted skyward. Quite a sight in the middle of downtown Cincinnati, with the historic Taft Museum at one end of Lytle Park and the new Great American Tower overlooking other. And then there was dancing. Oh, my, was there dancing!
It was indeed a great night for Cincinnati! We may be the smallest of the cities worldwide to hold our inaugural Dîner en Blanc this year (including Philadelphia, Atlantic City, New Orleans, Las Vegas, and San Francisco in the U.S., not to mention Mexico City, Barcelona, Sydney and Brisbane, Australia and Kigali, Rwanda). But we seized this opportunity and were filled with pride in what our Queen City continues to become!

11:00 p.m. came all too soon. We gathered our gear and trash (per DeB custom, we are to leave the spot with no trace we've been there), and headed home. I made one last pass to make sure my people were packed up, then got on the bus myself. To an astounding round of applause! Clapping ensued as the last few folks stowed their tables and chairs in the underbelly of the bus and came on board too. Things quieted as we retraced our route in the darkness to Frisch's Mainliner. But I overheard people talking about all the great ideas they gathered from this year's event that they couldn't wait to put into place next year. With this kind of response, I think a second annual Dîner en Blanc Cincinnati is a good bet!

Special thanks to the {513}eats gals, Ilene Ross and Gina Weathersby, and their wonderful husbands, Marc and SB, who were kind enough to carry tables and chairs for Stephie and me, as well as "white chair-cover maven" Natalie Wolf and her husband Scott. A pleasure to share the evening with you!

For great photos that truly capture the spirit of the event, don't miss this {513}eats blog post and this set of photos from Jens Rosenkrantz.And stay tuned to the Diner en Blanc - Cincinnati facebook page for more.


fishy said...

How wonderful! I would have been a volunteer too as there is more fun with prepping and attending than just attending a special function like this. Your photos indicate most everyone was in the spirit and to my eye, y'all did your city proud!

I tried a while back to send you an e-mail which was returned :-(
But... take a look at I am sure you would enjoy reading the histories of the owners as well as reading the menus. Let me know if you need a road trip .

Anonymous said...

Ohhh, that just looks FABULOUS! One of my college classmates was there, too. I saw her photos on FB and it just looks like everyone had a magnificent time. So glad you all were able to pull it off and hopefully it will be come a Cincy event!



Joyce Pinson said...


This looks like a GRAND time. Too bad we both couldn't be at two places at once! Glad you had fun!

Sharon Rudd said...

Fishy! So glad you stopped by and gave me a heads up about Grits & Groceries. A trip to SC is on my agenda next year :)

GG, Diner en Blanc was brilliant in more ways than one :) You're welcome to take that road to trip to Cincy you've been threatening - promise to show you a good time!

Joyce, yes! Too many great things going on - if only we could clone ourselves, eh?

Buzz Kill said...

I never heard of Dinner en Blanc until a couple of weeks ago when it was featured on Top Chef Masters. And here you are actually going to one. How do you sign up for this? The one for Philadelphia apparently happened in August.

I don't wear white well, but I think this would be cool to do. For some reason, while I was reading this I had the party scene from the movie Stealing Beauty in my head. I loved that scene and I think one of these parties would be just as cool. I hope no one openned the champaign on the bus. Bwahahaha

Sharon Rudd said...

Buzzy! So good to hear from you!

Diner en Blanc is kind of an underground thing, at least most places. Each city has its own website where you can sign up to be on the waiting list. Better yet, find someone who already has an "in" and have them invite you. My understanding is that anyone who went this year is guaranteed an invite next year and will be able to invite more people.

It was pretty darn cool!