Mason jar candles line the stairsteps into a quaint, dimly lit townhouse in Baldwin Park. You check to make sure it’s the right address, and it is. You walk in, maybe a bit timid, scoping out the room, which is filled with vintage furniture and more candles. The host hands you a drink and gestures you to a tier of shrimp canapé hors d’oeuvres. Other guests start to file in, some hesitantly, others energetically, but both as curious as you. You most likely don’t know any of them — but by the end of the evening, you will.
The Dinner Party Project brings people together around a dinner table who otherwise might not have met each other. Guests, usually around eight people, are chosen based on a randomized “lottery” system from a pool of interested people who sign up online with descriptions of themselves and dietary requirements.
Orlando-based stylist Dana Marie Roquemore started TDPP when she returned to Orlando after a long trip to Australia and New Zealand. She had left a part-time job, cleared out her savings and, frustrated, wanted to infuse her life with something new and creative. A friend advised Roquemore to reflect on what brings her life and joy.
“I love food, I love people and connecting them around the dinner table,” she said.
So she collected some friends’ names, threw them into a hat, drew seven out and was left with her first dinner party guest list. Roquemore initially cooked the dinners herself for fun, but as word spread and the parties grew, she decided to expand the project a step further.
She now organizes up to 10 dinners every month, held in different venues around town, including Roquemore’s home and Downtown Credo. The parties are catered by local chefs and hosts who guide the conversation throughout the night. The evenings can also be themed, such as dinners held in the past for women entrepreneurs and bloggers.
Dinners offer different menus each time, with starters such as a savory butternut squash soup or a radish-herb-ricotta crostini, or a warm apple crisp with vanilla bean ice cream for dessert.
Sometimes, dinners will be made from locally sourced ingredients when catered by Orlando start-up Farm-Haus once per month. TDPP also has other rotating chefs, including self-taught chef and UCF marketing alumna Maria Rivera.
Along with roasting coconut curry- and praline-flavored pecans and cashews for her Kernel Desires business, Rivera’s cooking style takes seasonal, humble ingredients that spark together to make dishes like gazpacho.
“I love being in the kitchen and hearing how loud the group gets because that means they’re getting along,” Rivera said. “I just love to hear people who are complete strangers talking and laughing and sharing a meal together, and I like having a small part in that.”
Dinners have kindled new friendships for Rivera, who regularly meets for coffee with guests whom she has befriended.
“Right now, so much is not even face-to-face. A lot of what we do is on the phone or on the Internet,” she said. “There are some times where I’ve gone to a dinner, and there are tears and people get deep very quickly — and when it gets that way, everyone gets that way.”
The host might start the night with a question like, “What’s your most embarrassing moment?” to break the ice. Later, a more meaningful question uncovers what matters most to the people at the table, like what law they would enact if given the power.
“You get a better idea of a person. Your walls come down really, really early in the game,” said guest Asia Hall, who attended TDPP in early October. “I didn’t feel like I needed to put on an act for anyone — when you’re in a discussion with a bunch of people you don’t know, it might make you feel standoffish, but this environment was more like breaking bread, a family-oriented setting ... it wasn’t like you had to prove yourself.”
Jessica Bott, a TDPP host and program management consultant, remembered discovering uncanny connections with attendees at dinners. She once had a guest who had been to the same city in Russia where she worked, Krasnodar, and another guest who had lived in the same neighborhood as she, blocks away, but who she met for the first time at the dinner.
“‘Tell us about a time where you felt deeply loved.’ That question, for me, has been really fun, because you really gain insight into people’s lives,” Bott said about her favorite question to ask guests.
Bott added that, to her, TDPP is another way of bridging potential connections around town.
“I think it just helps us people of Orlando to continue to grow into authentic relationships,” she said. “It really keeps that reality alive in our city as we continue to grow. I love the idea of sitting down with people and understanding who they are and knowing what they’re up to in our city.”
Nada Hassanein is a Digital Producer for the Central Florida Future. Follow her on Twitter at @nhassanein_ or email her at NadaH@CentralFloridaFuture.com.