I attended Dîner en Blanc’s inaugural picnic in Asia at the ArtScience Museum, Marina Bay Sands on 30 August 2012. The whole episode was fraught with a PR fiasco at the last minute that I almost did not make it to the pop-up picnic or blog about this experience.
Origins of Dîner en Blanc
Dîner en Blanc started as a small, modest affair in 1988 for a group of Parisian gourmands looking to dine out al fresco-style. It was launched by François Pasquier in Paris, when he wanted to hold a dinner party to reconnect with friends after returning from a few years of living abroad. To deal with a mounting guest list, he asked attendees to convene at the Bois de Boulogne dressed in white so they could all find each other. What started with simple word-of-mouth—friends inviting friends—today has as many as 15,000 white-clad guests meeting annually in the public spaces of major cities like New York, Montreal, Boston, Las Vegas, Singapore, Barcelona, and most recently, Kigali, Rwanda.
The promise of White Magic
The evening takes place in a public place which was not designed for such a purpose and is often crowded. The location of the picnic will only be revealed at the last minute. Against the theatricality of the city’s backdrop, be it in the court of the Louvre, outside Notre-Dame, or at the Eiffel Tower, and on the strict orders of event organizers, picnickers will assume their designated space, setting up their strictly prescribed, foldable dining tables and chairs into military rows. It must necessarily be very controlled in order for future editions to be held.
- Seats are allotted on-site in a very specific manner.
- In order to participate, one must be invited by a participant from the previous year or get on the official website’s waiting list.
- Once confirmed, the presence of each guest thus becomes mandatory, regardless of weather conditions, as the event is held regardless of weather conditions.
- The only acceptable color — be it attire or table décor — is white.
- Table seating is symmetrical with men seated on one side and women on the other.
- Participants arrive and depart at the same time by chartered bus or organized public transportation.
- Depart with one’s belongings, leftovers and trash, leaving the place as clean as it was upon arrival.
What must guests bring?
- A white table, two white chairs.
- Guests must bring a picnic basket for their dinner, laden with “quality” foods. Plastic cutlery and paper plates are prohibited. Food must be eaten off of fine china, and proper stemware and flatware used.
- Beer and hard alcohol like spirits are prohibited. Only wine and champagne are allowed, and must be purchased with the organizer (limited to two bottles).
- Participants must wear white and be dressed elegantly. Originality is encouraged as long as it stays stylish and denotes taste.
A celebration of friendship
Beyond the spectacle and refined elegance of the dinner that is likened to the elegance and glamour of court society, guests are brought together from diverse backgrounds by a love of beauty and good taste to share a high-quality meal with good friends at the heart of one of the city’s most beautiful locations.
That was also the key reason why I chose to go with chum Darren, and took it as an opportunity to celebrate my birthday the following week. Furthermore, the secrecy surrounding the picnic, participating in something rebellious as this ‘wild’ gathering in a public space and the promise of a magical evening sounded like a fun adventure, so I was quite happy when I got an invite with over 8,000 on the waiting list.
A whole load of preparation
Little was I prepared for the immense amount of preparation that had to go into the picnic – I definitely had no problem in the clothes department, but I had to buy white crockery (I am strictly a floral or black crockery person), prepare the food and almost died trying to find a table within the specified dimensions – it was sold out at the recommended stores and nowhere to be found despite countless searches; I contemplated bringing a mahjong table and have a game after dinner!
Barely a week to the event, the event sparked an uproar when its Facebook page said that local Singaporean food was not permitted, and prominent local bloggers whom they have invited were dropped off its invite list like hot potatoes on the claim that there was insufficient space. I was naturally quite shocked at the turn of events and really didn’t know if I should still attend the event since it seemed more snooty than exclusive now – it also was the first time I have ever heard of someone un-inviting their guests. Darren was also no longer interested to attend – the pragmatist in him never fancied such lavish affairs and he was understandably none too pleased with the organiser’s bad manners. But with the food prepared, wine ordered, and table finally found – we decided to attend rather than let all of those go to waste (the cost could have bought us a comfortable meal at a fine-dining restaurant). Furthermore, having gone through the entire preparation process, I wanted to know if it was really as great – or as obnoxious – as I had imagined. At the worst, we would collect our wine orders from the picnic and wheel our mobile picnic to another location to have our own picnic! So off we went, half expecting to be pelted with tau hway and char siew baos. Thankfully, that did not happen.
The night passed by like a blur to me. It went on for 4 hours, but it felt more like 40 minutes to me. Most of the time was used in setting up and cleaning up that I barely had enough time to eat (maybe because I prepared enough food to feed a village). I would say the picnic wonderfully made use of a public space which is left empty most times. It could have been done with more finesse, and that was where the inexperience of the organizer showed. Being much involved in the picnic preparation from the start, I could sense the eager puppy in them trying to follow instructions of the international organiser down to a ‘T’, sometimes to the exasperation of the participant. I think what was overlooked was the fact that the picnic started out as a celebration of friendship, and rules put in place so as not to get into trouble with the authorities, definitely NOT to restrict the participant. I felt deeply saddened by the turn of events, because I have the most wonderful French friends who love their char siew rice at our food centres. I am not sure if there are plans for a second edition in Singapore, but I must say it’s quite an experience to be part of the very first edition. I would encourage anyone who is interested to attend to go with a group of friends so that you can share the preparation work and it’s always more fun to toast together. For my next picnic, I think I will bring a picnic mat to the next Singapore Symphony Orchestra performance at the Singapore Botanic Gardens, enjoy a leisurely da-bao (takeaway) meal with wine and lie down to take in the beautiful music. At least I know fuss-free Darren would approve of that.
Here’s a video of that sums up the night: