World Bank employee starts dining event in D.C. that includes smart conversation as focus

March 11, 2011

After a bite of beet salad drizzled with chocolate and a sip of a pear brandy cocktail, Soung Wiser turned to her husband, who was seated next to her at the giant, L-shaped table.

“What’s your happiness number?” Wiser, 38, asked David Batista, 40, a restaurateur.

“Six,” he said, with one being miserable and 10 being jubilation.

“Mine is seven,” responded Wiser, co-founder of the General Design Co., a D.C.-based graphic and web design firm.

The couple seated across from them wasn’t in as much agreement over their ratings, Wiser later recalled. “The wife’s number was really low, and the husband’s number was very high,” she said.

On the evening of Feb. 20, Wiser and Batista were dining with about 40 guests in a loft on 14th Street NW that during the day is home to Fathom Creative, a design firm. An open kitchen bustled with sous-chefs plating pork shank ravioli with mustard rye, a dish conceived by Mike Isabella, the former executive chef of Zaytinya who is opening his own restaurant this spring in Penn Quarter. A makeshift bar brimmed with frosted cocktail glasses to be filled by Derek Brown, mixologist and co-owner of the Columbia Room and the Passenger. A film takeoff on the Bonnie and Clyde legend, provided by DC Shorts, streamed on an exposed brick wall.

Judging by the murmur of conversation about the nature of happiness, might this have been the scene of a new self-help movement? A literary salon? Couples therapy with inventive cocktails and great lighting?

Try again.

This was the No. 68 Project, which Jill Richmond, 34, who started it in London in March 2010, describes as “a conceptual dinner party.” Translate that as an attempt to roll together culture, film and provocative conversation over a restaurant-caliber meal with a handpicked group of guests who had to apply for a seat at the table.

That night, Eric Weiner, former NPR correspondent and author of “The Geography of Bliss,” was the cultural ambassador, a non-paid gig that entailed making thought-provoking comments throughout the night. So over a course of tuna crudo, Weiner asked the guests to think about their happiness number. And that’s how Wiser and Batista wound up telling complete strangers how happy they were.

Getting a spot at No. 68, which will run every Sunday evening through April 17, might be reason enough to feel good.

First, you have to request an invitation through No. 68’s Web site. Then an application arrives in your inbox asking, among other questions: “What is your idea of earthly happiness?” All of the applications are read by a committee of two — Richmond, a former communications professional whose official title is “culinary director,” and Hosan Lee, 34, a former entrepreneur Richmond recruited to be the cultural director for the D.C. edition.

Despite the hefty price tag of $155 per person, competition has been stiff. There were more than 200 applicants for the 45 seats at the inaugural dinner, marketed mainly by word of mouth, and demand hasn’t waned, the organizers said.

The qualities Richmond and Lee are seeking in participants are a bit elusive.

“We are trying to make sure we have diversity in our guests, like any good dinner party,” said Richmond, who with Lee established No. 68, which does not make a profit. “D.C. can be so balkanized. There are a lot of people who socialize based on their work at the World Bank, on Capitol Hill or on K Street. We are hoping to cut through that a bit.”

No. 68 began like any memorable dining experience — with great food, explained Richmond, a devout foodie.

Noting the popularity of pop-up restaurants in London, Richmond recalls asking her her friend, chef Faiza Hasan, ‘Wouldn’t you be interested in vetting some of your new ideas without the investment of starting a whole restaurant?’ ’’

Hasan was the chef at No. 68’s first dinner in London in March 2010 — held at 68 Boeylyn Rd. The No. 68 Project made a splash in the city: It was featured on BBC and attracted chefs from Michelin-starred restaurants.

After living in London for more than three years, where she worked at a global communications firm, Richmond landed a job as a consultant to the World Bank’s innovations team in Washington. The idea to bring the No. 68 Project with her was a fairly obvious one, but the new location seemed to call for extra ingredients.

Although Richmond rejects the term “supper club” to describe No. 68, the city plays hosts to some similar events. They include Hush, run by an amateur chef in exchange for donations, and Artisa Kitchen, started last year by Jaleo chef Bryon Brown. (Brown is starting another, Sensorium, in April that promises to add “visual/performing arts” to the experience.)

But none appears to orchestrate conversation as elaborately as No. 68. Having lived here on and off since 2002 and at one point worked as a scheduler for Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg (D-N.J.), Richmond felt she understood D.C.’s social ecosystem. Smart conversation needed to be on the menu.

Although food still had to be a big draw, “I wanted to make it about what people talk about when you get to the table. Now, I wanted to bring together all these different multisensory experiences under one roof,” she added.

So she called Lee, a friend from London who now lives in New York City, to help her. Lee had just left a company she founded in 2009, and the idea of helping launch the No. 68 Project in Washington intrigued her.

“We could have chosen to launch in New York, but D.C. is the decision-making capital of the U.S., and maybe the world. Not only is the sphere of influence here, but it’s a less-crowded cultural marketplace. Here we can actually be heard,” Lee said.

No. 68’s unusual vetting system yields more than enough interesting participants. So far they’ve included the founder of an international trade consulting firm who runs a wine importing business and dot-com on the side; the intellectual property adviser to President Obama; a literary agent; and the director of a nonprofit group that promotes freedom of the press.

But to spark conversation, Lee and Richmond have gone beyond the tightly curated guest list to guide the four-hour evening through a different theme every week.

Lee works on No. 68 full-time (and unpaid), working on marketing the events and coming up with the themes and finding collaborators, who will include Derek Beres, a self-described yogi, writer, and deejay; Ogi Ogas, cognitive neuroscientist and former contestant on “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire”; Amanda Hesser, food columnist and writer for the New York Times; and NPR correspondent Michele Norris. (The cultural collaborators are not paid, but No. 68 extends them and a guest a comp.)

On Feb. 27, to riff off the theme of fear, ABC foreign correspondent Martha Raddatz was invited to speak about reporting in war zones — specifically Iraq and Afghanistan — and how fear manifested itself while she was on assignment.

The idea is to get the guests to grab the conversational ball and run with it, and some do.

“To get the conversation going, I asked people if they liked scary movies, since it was Oscar night,” said Victoria Lai, 31, a government lawyer. “It led us into a conversation about “Silence of the Lambs.” Maybe our conversation wasn’t as deep as talking about one’s experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, but it was relevant to the theme.”

The chefs and mixologists also work off the week’s theme. Mixologist Jared Boller, who works at Lani Kai in New York City, infused ice with cicadas and froze ice over cocktails for guests to break through to get over “fear of drowning,” he said.

Eating bugs and mini-lectures over dinner — what is this, exactly?

“The evening is really a cross between a dinner party at your house and a smaller, more intimate TED Conference filled with smart, interesting people who dress well,” Weiner said.

Lai said the concept reminds her of a “19th century literary salon,” but one that serves beef cheek and mackerel.

But it appears the food is still the primary reason people pony up for a ticket. Over the next several Sundays, D.C.-based chefs Peter Smith of PS 7’s, Jaime Montes de Oca Jr. of Zentan, Justin Bittner from Bar Pilar and Todd Gray from Equinox, among others, will be preparing six-course meals. Richmond is asking the chefs to veer away from safe, traditional cuisine.

“The chefs will be doing real tip-to-tail dining,” Richmond said, referring to the method of cooking with every part of an animal.

The promise of a more intrepid menu is what encouraged entrepreneur John Stubbs, to attend the Feb. 20 dinner. “I was looking for an alternative to the predictable gridlocked dining scene in D.C,” he said.

What might the future hold for No. 68?

Richmond and Lee have thought about taking No. 68 to other cities on the East Coast. But although the women have invested several thousand in the venture thus far, they say they haven’t decided whether to focus on making money.

For now, they just want the dinner parties to be fun.

Well-choreographed fun, that is.

style@washpost.com

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