The fun of the increasingly popular “secret supper” movement lies in the old “What’s for dinner?” question. As in, no one will tell you. You buy a ticket without knowing where you’re eating, what you’re eating or possibly even what specific chef is preparing it. Timid eaters need not apply, but for culinary adventurers, it’s a wonderful lark.
My first secret supper was this fall in Lincoln, Nebraska, where Dan and Sunny Parsons are building a rapidly expanding community around a traveling harvest table that seats 50 people. Every couple of months, they announce a new dinner at a price of about $90 per person, and it quickly sells out. The day before the meal, participants get an e-meal telling them where to show up. So far, the harvest table has landed in an old warehouse, a greenhouse and a beach, among other stops.
The dinner I joined was an unusual one: 250 people, who knew in advance that they’d be dining at center court of the Nebraska Cornhuskers’ sparkling new Pinnacle Bank Arena. Twelve teams of chefs and mixologists worked together on each course built around locally produced foods. The meal presented a spectacular three-hour showcase that felt like the city’s best talent all trying to outfiddle each other in a culinary version of “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.”
Chef Lorin Dagel opened with an amuse-bouche (an appetizer the chef selects to showcase their artristy) of veal mousse, sweet corn bourbon sauce and lemon pea puree. (You could spend a couple of minutes savoring that sentence alone.) The next three courses included mixed greens with local chèvre and tarragon vinaigrette; brined pork with a smoked corn fondue; and Wagyu beef garnished with marigold petals. The drinks were conversation pieces of their own with mixologists serving up the likes of vodka blended with a watermelon and sweet basil shrub and a pickled watermelon rind. Before each course, the chef/mixologist team took the microphone to describe their creations, turning the night into an advanced course in food and drink that was infinitely more passionate and insightful than the reality-TV soundbites popular on cooking shows.
The service alone proved memorable as the legion of servers somehow pulled off plating a gourmet meal for 250 people in a basketball arena with the timing of an intimate restaurant.
At evening’s end, celebrity guest Andrew Zimmern, a Minnesota resident who hosts Bizarre Foods on the Travel Channel, closed by reminding the crowd what those of us in the MIdwest already know. "In cities on the coasts," Zimmern said, "they have to reconnect to their food traditions. In cities like Lincoln, we're just reorganizing that connection."
That secret—like the reputation of these mystery dinners—isn’t going to stay undercover much longer.