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The Comfort of Strangers

Described by its creator as a “roving supper,” Wink hardly sounds like a work of art. The premise and practice of Wink is deceptively simple: as a private chef, he cooks a multi-course meal for a group of guests in various homes around the city. The location is not divulged until the night before and invitations are circulated via email lists, the idea being to keep the party sizes relatively small and exclusive while ensuring new attendees each time.

I first discovered Wink by a method that, even the in the age of blogging, remains the means by which most truly great things in life are found. I discovered Wink by good old word-of-mouth. Although I was immediately intrigued by the idea of a secret supper, I was also highly skeptical. It sounded too much like the sort of thing that monied young professionals would do to make themselves feel exclusive and tasteful. Thoughts of ostentatious “networking” with young investment bankers in a soulless South End condominium complex marked my initial hesitation.

What I found, that mysterious and wonderful first time, what I stumbled upon on a fortuitous whim, was unlike any sort of gathering I had ever experienced. Equal parts culinary exhibition, intellectual salon and voyeuristic home invasion. Not surprisingly, the first thing you realize after meeting other Wink attendees is that everyone vividly remembers their first Wink, because Wink is far more than just a really great dinner party. It is a communal experience that transforms, if only for a night, the space and all those within it.

The space of the city is essential to the experience of Wink. Daily city life presents us with a series of impenetrable exteriors and unapproachable strangers, and though we may be contented to travel in our own small circles, to inhabit our own small spaces, there remains the constant desire to explore that which is consistently shuttered off from us: the unmarked door in the alleyway, the neighbor’s window only feet away from our own. Wink, for all its carefully orchestrated and playful secrecy, is a kind of public art, a happening, an opening up of both people and place. Donations are accepted at the very end of the evening, but Wink never feels like a commercial transaction.

Thanks to a more than generous supply of wine, reservation and decorum erode quickly at a Wink supper, and though you have just moments earlier entered the home of a complete stranger, you and those around you feel a tremendous levity and familiarity. And small apartments do not lend themselves to secrecy; you eat, drink and converse surrounded by the vestiges of other lives. The experience of a Wink, like the experience of a great work of art, creates a sense of community among the participants that seems to elevate everyone to a higher state of being. People tend to do away with the banalities of “where do you live?” and “what do you do?” and instead freely discuss their passions, their aspirations and their secret hopes. I met an office assistant who desperately wants to design clothing. I overheard an art teacher and an avian biologist bond over their mutual love of the accordion. I made the acquaintance of painters, administrators, professors and yes, even a few bankers, but socioeconomic status meant little as we drank from the same bottle and ate of the same loaf.

Wink’s creator and chef (who shall remain nameless) is himself a work of art, a carefully orchestrated character. I will only say that he is young and of few words. His gift is for imparting complexity to even the most simple of dishes. He gives little of himself away, but it is hard to imagine this man paying taxes or waiting in line at the DMV. He gives the impression, perhaps deliberately, of an itinerant genius living only by his wits and his prowess with the stove. To watch him work is to imagine that he leads a life without banality, which, not coincidentally, is precisely the power of Wink. If only for a night, Wink re-enchants the small worlds that we inhabit, making us recognize our neighbors not as strangers, but as fellow dreamers. The camaraderie one feels around fellow Wink guests is very much akin to that of fellow travelers. Indeed, after each event, I leave feeling as if I have been traveling in my own backyard.

All images are courtesy of Mike Schechter and from the largest 'winksupper' to date: 40 people.

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