Why so secret? First, because to take part in these kinds of dinners, you have to keep your ears open and know which blogs to read. Second, they need to be kept secret because they can only accept a limited number of people. Third, the events usually only take place monthly – with the rare exception for weekly dinner. And getting a reservation is much easier said than done!
A while back, I’d begun to hear about the dinners given by Julia Ziegler-Haynes, the cook and brain behind the Dinner Bell events, which take place once a month at her house in Williamsburg, in the heart of Brooklyn, where a 4-course dinner costs $80. I was curious to sit down with 16 unknown people in an informal, relaxed atmosphere with excellent wine and traditional, regional food.
When I contacted her last May via email – thanks to word of mouth among friends – she answered me almost right away. But she didn’t have a free reservation for 6 months. The only rule is «first come, first served». And a 6-month waiting list gives you an idea of how many New Yorkers are looking for alternative eating experiences! Of course, now that Julia has a website, it’s all become much more simple.
When the day of my Dinner Bell dinner finally comes, I decide to arrive a bit early. It’s Julia herself who opens the door for me: she’s a brunette with intelligent eyes, bright red lipstick and vintage sequined top worn with jeans and – of course – an apron. She may be at the stovetop, but she cooks in style.
The atmosphere is relaxed and inviting, but intriguing all the same. Julia completes her beet rotolo while telling me how this lovely venture began. «I graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design and then moved to New York. But it wasn’t easy getting into the job market. So I was a waitress for five years in various restaurants, which was useful because it was when I realized that I loved food, good company, and the dynamics connected to this world. And then I just added a bit of skill.»
The first edition of Dinner Bell took place a year and a half ago, and began as a dare. Julia invited 14 friends to a 4-course dinner. «They didn’t know what to expect, but they were really happy with it, and then invited their friends, who then invited their friends. Today, Dinner bell has become a real job. I organize dinners at my house and also do catering. Every so often I even find the time to concentrate on a design project…»
Julia admits that she wasn’t “born” a chef, but learned on the job. «I have no professional training, but I love to experiment. Every time I try to invite someone different so my customers don’t get bored and so I don’t either! »
Dinner Bell allows for people who don’t know each other, to engage in relaxed, easy conversation among themselves, while eating delicious specialties. «Food is really important to New Yorkers. They love looking for new places to go with their friends or to meet new people. It can be a really expensive pastime and it’s not guaranteed to be enjoyable. Sometimes you feel like waiters are hurrying you up so the table will free up for other customers. Dinner Bell offers a relaxed, informal dinner with traditional food in generous portions, second helpings, and a sense of complicity that allows you to get to know everyone there. And at the end of the evening, people always exchange addresses to stay in touch.»
In the meantime, the other diners begin arriving: some come alone, but most are in couples. We number 16 in all. We break the ice with a cocktail and the first question we all ask each other is: how did you end up here? I discover that a third of them are regulars, others were told about Dinner Bell through friends, and some people found out about it by reading blogs. There’s a photo editor, a gallerist, an architect, a designer, a PR person, a woman who has a couple of furniture and vintage jewellery stores, and an artist. Basically, the city’s creative clique.
I soon learn that the photo editor knows the prop stylist with whom I collaborate, that the gallerist admires the work of an artist who I am hosting in my Brooklyn home and that the architect works for a creative collective who is putting on an opening that I will be attending the following night. While New York may not be small, it certainly is interconnected!
It was time to take our seats at the table. The meal began with a salad ofMustard Greens as an appetizer, followed by her Roasted Beet Rotolo (click here for the recipe) accompanied by an excellent Tocai wine. Someone asks for a second helping, while, from the other end of the table, a discussion breaks out about engagement rings and suddenly all of the women are chiming in.
Julia brings out the dishes and explains their origins, how they’ve been prepared and sprinkles each presentation with anecdotes and jokes.
The Braised Lamb Shoulder with Wild Rice Pudding (click here for the recipe) is worth a story all to itself, and with the help of the wine – Julia pairs each course with a different bottle, to the delight of her guests – the atmosphere warms up. Someone asks for suggestions about where to take a visiting friend – restaurants, exhibitions, shopping – and while everybody offers their advice, the dessert arrives: Fennel Doughnuts, Calvados ice cream, Roasted Quince and then, a digestif of Amaro Montenegro.
Before we know it, it’s already midnight. The time has come to exchange contact information – phone numbers, email addresses – and say our goodbyes. And what a wonderful night: I’ve enjoyed a wonderful meal and made a few new friends in just the time it takes to eat dinner.