Over 25 years ago, a one-off event in Paris invited diners clad in all white to sup on well-stocked picnic fare at a secret location. Now a global event with pop-up dinners spanning nearly every continent, Diner en Blanc has become one of the most popular New York City events, celebrating its fourth year in the city this month. This year, the event has partnered with celebrity chef Todd English, who has designed baskets for two with eats like Korean roasted skirt steak, miso-poached salmon and an antipasti plate with veggies, cheese and charcuterie.
On Monday, August 25th, thousands of participants will don their finest whites and descend on an as-yet-undisclosed location somewhere within the five boroughs. In advance of next week's event, we chatted with Sandy Safi, co-founder and head of Diner en Blanc International, which runs the events all around the world. Having experienced the event in all its iterations, Safi has seen everything, from an on-site marriage to seafood tower picnic spreads to over-the-top homemade costumes. Below, Safi reveals a possible outer borough extension and talks Diner en Blanc groupies.
I wondered if there were any unique challenges that you discovered putting on the New York event as it compared to Paris and now the whole global movement. Well, Paris is interesting. It’s a completely different animal, I guess. Paris is a place where laws are merely a suggestion of what might be done. And New York is not. So definitely when you’re starting to do a pop-up with over 4,000 to 5,000 people in a town like Manhattan, challenges do come up. Thankfully, we’ve got four years behind us of showing the type of event that we are, that people are respectful of the park and public spaces that they use, and this is all helpful for keeping the event happening in New York.
And New York is such a window for everywhere else in the world. Everyone wants to know what’s happening in New York. Our event in New York makes it to Singapore, to Auckland in New Zealand, to South Africa, to Mexico. Everyone wants to know what’s happening in New York, and New York showcases really well. They just play the game, New Yorkers love it, they get all dressed up. Their fashion-side is all there, they give it all they have and it shows when you go through the pictures of New York. We’ve had challenges which we are, let’s say, facing nicely and getting the support we need and every participant in New York makes the event what it is. Thankfully, every single participant has been respectful of the event, of the space, of the regulations in place, so the event in New York is happening with the support of everyone doing what they’re supposed to be doing.
How difficult is it to find locations and what are you looking for in locations, specifically in New York City?
We always want to showcase the best of, the most beautiful parts of the city. We like to get what really represents the city. Then you’ve got the challenge of how many people you can fit in that park. So while maybe Washington Square can be lovely, but if it fits a total of a thousand people—and we’re 4,500 this year—then it’s not really a usable space. You have to take into consideration the beauty and the representation of the space you’re using. You’ve got to take into consideration how many people fit in the space you are using.
Accessibility and various factors also come into play, those are three main ones. We start with that to see where we’d like to host the event. Sometimes we’re looking for a beautiful skyline of New York, sometimes we’re looking for something that’s really the heart of the city, and try to make that change. Lincoln Center was the hub for the arts, which is a great New York thing, right? And Bryant Park is the heart of the city, the center of the city. So every year we’re looking for locations that in some way represent a piece of New York.
You mentioned the skyline being something that you would look for aesthetically. Have you considered ever putting on the event in an outer borough? For example, maybe in Brooklyn or Queens, which have gorgeous views of the Manhattan skyline? Absolutely. Yes. Absolutely. And they do have gorgeous views, and it’s such a challenge to know what space to take. We have so many things that we need to consider. But yes, I can tell you that I’ve visited all of those places personally and it’s not easy to make a decision. New York’s got a lot of beautiful places to showcase. People think of New York and think hustle, bustle, crowded, packed, but we’ve got these beautiful places where, for one moment, you stand there and go “Wow,” like time stops, just a moment you’re not expecting in such a hustle, bustle, busy lifestyle of a city.
Have there been any dream locations or venues that haven’t worked out for one reason or another that you feel sad you couldn’t make work?
No, we’re very happy with all of the locations that we’ve had. I mean, come on, what beats Lincoln Center and Bryant Park and the arrival, our first year, we were at the waterfront, symbolizing the arrival to New York in a sense. No, I think every location up to now has been beautiful in New York because of the support that we’re having and people are maintaining respect for the space. Playing by the rules. Playing by the very complicated rules.
Does that have to do with city regulations regarding occupancy? And wine is also sold at the event, if I’m not mistaken. Yes. So in Montreal or in Paris or even in Philly people can do bring your own wine whereas in New York, people can’t bring their own wine. And some cities have regulations for people picnicking outdoors with alcohol where if you have food you can consume alcohol, and some cities don’t, so those are the things we just have to be careful for. We try to do our best to bring in wines and a nice selection and to offer people things that are very reasonably priced. Again, we’ve got a great selection from Bordeaux this year, wines, and the prices go from like $18 to maybe $23, so very reasonable considering it’s great Bordeaux wine. They’re delivered on site, they’re picked up cool and you don’t have to go chasing after them and carrying your bottles. So we try to play by what we have to but still offer the best that we can.
We’ve got this year also champagne. I don’t know if you know Moet has this new white champagne that’s come out called Moet Ice Imperial. And the whole bottle is white, so it fits beautifully with the event too. So we’ve got the Moet Ice Imperial champagne offered on site. So, although we do have constraints related to alcohol in NYC, we figure out ways to still make it a great experience for everybody!
It’s been a long running event and I'm wondering what’s changed since the very beginning back in Paris, but also what’s changed since Diner en Blanc came to New York City? The network of events grew a lot, we’re now fifty cities around the world. I think people have just fallen in love with the event more and more as they get to experience it and get to hear about it, whether it’s through friends or social media or people like yourself that share it with everybody. I think people have grown to have a love for it. I don't know if you know, but Todd English's restaurant, at Bryant Park we weren't too far from his restaurant so he just passed by, which is how people tend to fall in love with this event, they pass by and they’re like, “What is going on? Dinner for four thousand people, why not?” And he passed by last year and fell in love with the event and this year we have him on board. I think the event takes people as a sort of “love at first sight” thing, it sweeps them off their feet. People just go, “What is this all about? What’s it like to experience this, what’s it like to live this?”
I wasn’t at the original event in Paris, but I imagine not only has the event grown larger but are people more involved now? Have you seen, as it’s become a bigger event, that people have become more invested? Have the fashions gotten more extreme?
If you look at the pictures through our history, of people twenty-five years ago, they would still go all out. They had hats with feathers coming out of them and the dress of the time and the most elegant things they could find in Paris. And I think in New York they do the same, it’s just a different kind, maybe just an added component of originality versus just simply elegance.
So people go out to do something creative, they’ll come up with hats and create hats. I saw somebody with a hat of the Eiffel Tower on her head that she made herself. We see things that are original and different in every city. I had people that—oh, here’s an interesting one for you! I learned that somebody had a wedding at the event. Not a proposal, because we see proposals regularly, but that this year somebody just did their entire wedding there. Popped up with a minister and said well, everybody’s here, we’re here, we’re having a great dinner and everybody’s in white so let’s just turn this into our wedding party.
What city was this in? I think this was in Victoria, in British Columbia. Yes, so how do things develop? I guess they develop from that angle, essentially the gathering of friends, and it still is but maybe with a twist of a more modern or sense of originality or a new generation, a more hip. I don’t even know if I would say that, because it was hip for the time then and it still is original for the time now. You see it grow, you see people go from one city to another too, which is very interesting. I had a bus of fifty people that went down from Montreal and that was just in the first year, too. I had people go from Kigali, Rwanda to Toronto last year who were like, "Oh my God we loved this in Kigali, we've got to live it in Toronto." You get to see the city through a different light, you get to experience something that you knew but with different people that share the same love for food and fashion. I think the network of what it's become is definitely the novelty. First it was just this one-off event and now we're connecting people around the world.
You've got Diner en Blanc groupies, I love that! We do! I think the first one I met was in Las Vegas. We were filming Top Chef in Vegas two years ago or a year ago with Curtis Stone and they had the competition and there were four chefs left and the challenge was to do a picnic for several hundred people, a thousand people, or whatever it was. Eight hundred people. And I was standing at the lineup getting all my stuff ready and I see a girl who goes, "I saw you in New York!" I'm like, "Yes?" And she's like, "You don't understand, I mean I love it so much I called my parents in San Francisco and told them to meet me in Las Vegas just so we could go!" And they connected and she brought her boyfriend with her and her dad is in I-don’t-know-where and her mom was in San Francisco and they all met up in Las Vegas. So there's definitely a following, and that’s new from previous years.
Has anyone ever showed up dressed all in black? And if not, how would you deal with that situation if it arose? Well, you know how the event happens, right? So people meet up at different departure points throughout the city. Nobody knows the location. So at those departure points, that’s where we get to tell people, "You’re boarding, you’re coming with us," or, "No, you can’t come with us. You don’t have the proper whatever it is we requested you have. You’re not dressed in the proper things or you didn’t bring your table or whatever. Sorry, you didn’t follow the regulations." So I guess because the location is a secret, we get to make sure everybody is ready for the event at their departure point, as opposed to showing up on site and not having followed the regulations.
That’s good, you have a gate-keeping sort of system. Yes, I guess it’s like a layer of filtering.
You’d mentioned the woman with the beautiful Eiffel Tower hat and that the fashions have been really over the top in some situations. What about picnics? What’s the most extreme or extravagant picnic set up or dinner set up that you’ve seen in the years you’ve been doing this?
Oh my God, well, the art of the table at this event is interesting. People really dedicate a lot of time to doing the most creative table. I mean, short of bringing your own generator and setting up, like, a chandelier on site, I think I’ve seen everything. People prepare their table with dedication and really understand that it’s about preparing the best setup. We like to encourage that a lot. We’ve had a couple of contests and do photo-sharing stuff of what people do and how they prepare their table set ups. It’s amazing to see.
In terms of meals, people tend to group together since they come with their friends and suddenly you’ll see—you’re in a park, right, with people who just carried tables and chairs in the subway, and then you’ll look at their table and they’ll have this beautiful plate of, I don’t know, three lobsters and twenty-four shrimp, a tower of seafood, and you’re like, “I couldn’t find this in a best restaurant, how did you just carry this through a subway?” They all kind of just join forces and somebody brought the three-tiered platter and somebody brought the lobster and you look at the pictures and I’m like, “How did people set this up as a picnic?” So you have people who go all out, definitely. I saw a lady who brought goldfish to the event in a little bowl, set that up in the middle of the table setting. We’ve seen pretty much everything. That’s what’s so great about it. People take the time to test their limits. They play with it, they have fun with it, and they enjoy their evenings.
There’s just so much going on with this event. Sometimes I get cities and I’m like, “Where is this city? I don’t even know—what request am I getting?” If I throw a few at you, I’m sure you’d be like, “What?” And they’re beautiful cities, this whole thing is a geography course on it’s own. Currently registrations are on in Vilnius, do you know where Vilnius is?
I don’t, no. Lithuania. I’m telling you, it’s a geography course. And obviously the first thing you do is go to Google and go, “Let me learn more about this city and see how it fits into all of this.” And oh my God, it’s so beautiful. So beautiful. You should take the time to look up Vilnius. And again, when you get to travel and go to different Diner en Blancs, locally or regionally, you see different types of meals, different environments, music that represents the local flair. If you go to New Orleans you’ll find something that represents New Orleans and if you come to Montreal you’ll get something a little more French and I’m sure if you go to Kigali or Avignon, they go all out doing menus that represent different cities around the world. They’ll have a Greek menu and local African fare and your French fare and turn it into an international variety of menus, again playing with the food component and having fun with that, which is amazing.
Diner en Blanc 2014 is currently sold out in New York City; however, you can still register on the waiting list.