The Mystery Dinner, a South Shore Arts tradition benefiting educational art programs for children in schools, recently celebrated its fifth incarnation with an evening featuring the cuisine of executive chefs Nicole Bissonnette, formerly of Bistro 157 and Gary Sanders of Bartlett’s. One element that was different about this Mystery Dinner was that it was not held in a private home. This time, we were invited into a retail setting, an atelier featuring Customs Imports owned by that indefatigable, inventive entrepreneur, owner of the New Buffalo Times and booster of Harbor Country, Dee Dee Duhn.

Housed in a former bowling alley on Red Arrow Highway, Union Pier Ateliers is a dazzling emporium filled with trademark Dee Dee Duhn exotica: Buddhas, Ganeshes, pagodas glittering with tea lights. Thanks to its proprietress, the structure has taken on landmark status with a Hollywood-style Union Pier sign running across the top that is highly visible to passersby.

Among the intoxicating items throughout the store, a Singha from Indonesia is truly remarkable. Made of sacred jack wood and carved all from one tree, its mate is in the presidential palace in Jakarta, Java. Nearby, a reclining Buddha in a pond with floating candles looked quite relaxed despite the sold sign indicating that he will soon have a new home in Indiana. In one corner, the Roger Harvey Art Gallery, formerly of New Buffalo, occupies a colorful corner of the showroom.

The building, circa 1940s, with original floor and lane markings, the bowling alley’s gutters covered over with metal plates and the whole place topped by a barreled wood ceiling, is dotted throughout with seating that comes in the most intriguing shapes and sizes. A pair of “Highball Chairs” in chartreuse appeared to be the world’s tallest, most over-sized wing chairs ever made, reminding one of something Alice might have found in Wonderland. There is even a chair covered in fur.

It takes a village to put on a Mystery Dinner, and you cannot expect everything to go without a hitch. In this instance, the seed was planted that perhaps this writer/waiter would be riding in the chauffeur-driven conveyance provided for the evening by Southlake Limousine. Guests waited for me for over 30 minutes in Merrillville, their central pick-up spot, under this misapprehension. The delay wreaked little havoc on our plans, other than giving those of us at the other end an opportunity to enjoy Dee Dee’s champagne for an extra half hour, which just made us sleepy.

Dee Dee, a woman of many guises, was looking tres Cher, circa 1985, for the evening with a black feathered headdress, black leather pants and black stiletto boots that made her seem very much in charge, even without a whip and despite the madness swirling about her. Ever the considerate hostess, she had engineered a cunning attempt at a plastic-covered red carpet to prevent the ladies, resplendent in their finery, from sinking into the thawing March muck as they disembarked from their coach and possibly losing a silver-glittered designer heel. It worked!

Upon arriving, guests were dazzled by their surroundings. It was a bounty of sensory delights. Hors d’oeuvres were passed butler-style (some thinking we were real butlers): pork rillettes (pork, pork fat, salt and pepper) on artisan bread with pickled veggies, devilled eggs with crispy pork belly lardons (more pork fat), and spoons of tuna tartare, all accompanied by the evening’s signature cocktail, a St-Germain Elderflower grapefruit martini, shaken not stirred.

It was not a good night for keeping Kosher, observing Lent or adhering closely to Dr. Atkins. While all religious and dietary restrictions were being plundered or at least cast aide, I nipped behind a tiki god and gobbled two of each appetizer, washing them down with two cocktails.

Dee Dee had created an atmosphere of warmth and relaxation accompanied to music by guitarist Ottmar Liebert. It was a beautiful setting: laughter filled the old bowling alley to its exposed rafters. Guests were seated at a table made of 100-year-old teak fishing boats from Bali, very rustic, cool and comfortably accommodating all ten. Dee Dee had added bits of glamour with a fully-lit candelabra, peacock feathers and comfortable, upholstered chairs.

Shortly after the first course, references to “Downton Abbey” began to circulate around the table. It’s amazing how quickly people take to being treated like members of the onw percent.

“Give our compliments to the staff below stairs, Carson,” one guest said to me. Seriously? I had to be Carson, the old guy with a stick up his butt? I couldn’t be one of the cute footmen?

“Certainly, m’lord,” I responded reluctantly. (My better half, the internationally renowned puppeteer, immediately claimed Thomas for himself—naturally, the hot villain of the Downton Abbey. There’s nothing worse than a flippant, fickle footman.) Life is cruel, indeed, for the ninety-nine percent.

As beautiful as everything looked out front, back stage was not so pretty. We servers—Carson, Thomas and Mrs. Hughes—waited on our guests hand and foot, carefully observing the diners’ progress with each course and each glass of wine, of which there was an endless number. In between servings, we partook of the same food served less elegantly, sometimes eating out of the same trough, just trying to make do. (Kidding.)

Perhaps the number one most phenomenal aspect of the event was that the chefs prepared the entire six-course meal, hors d’oeuvres and cocktails without a kitchen! I can’t cook with one, so you can imagine how impressive it was to watch Nicole and Gary at work behind a makeshift screen, possibly imported from Bali, that separated the prep area from the guests but did not entirely conceal the hustle and bustle behind the scenes.

Nicole and Gary’s pas de deux was fascinating to watch, like a finely tuned ballet, each one silently understanding where to go with what and when, not to mention how! They made it all seem effortless, dishing up scallops and halibut and rack of lamb without an oven or a stove.

“Have you done this before?” I asked amazed. “Yes,” Nicole replied. “And it takes a lot of hard-learned lessons over the years.”

The wine flowed freely—too freely for some. The chef recommended a certain pinot noir for the fish course. “I couldn’t possibly,” demurred a guest as I tried to fill her glass. “Oh go ahead and try it,” said her neighbor, “Just for the halibut!”

The lure of shopping is a siren song, and the guests, who never seemed to tire of each other’s company, got up and wandered throughout the store in between courses. Who could blame them—everything sparkled! After dinner, Dee Dee invited everybody to enjoy a cup of Gevalia coffee and a private Ateliers shopping experience. A flurry of wine-fueled spending followed, because, after four hours of non-stop eating and drinking, who doesn’t need a little retail therapy? And when Dee Dee announced that ten percent of all purchases that night would go to South Shore Arts, it seemed like a patriotic duty to spend.

Many remarked that it was the best night of their lives—or at the very least, the best meal of their lives.

“I feel like a princess,” stated one enthusiastic guest of the outstanding food and service. South Shore Arts board member David Schneider, who had purchased the evening with his wife Diane for a record sum at last year’s annual Beaux Arts Ball, described the evening as “magical.”

“What we experienced was beyond anything we could have imagined when we bid last June,” he said. “The time went by too quickly.” As a thank you, one couple bought the beautiful, towering candelabra that Dee Dee had used as the table’s centerpiece, as a gift for Diane and David.

And as for our hostess, “I just loved being included,” Dee Dee said. “It was a pleasure and honor to host the Mystery Dinner and to have two fabulous, famous chefs create in my industrial, state-of-the-art kitchen.” (I think that last part was meant to be funny.)

“It was fun!” said Chef Nicole. “Almost like a reality TV cooking show. No, wait, that will be in a couple weeks,” a reference to Nicole and Gary’s son, young Ian Sanders, age eight, who is up for a spot on the next season of MasterChef Junior!

So, to all parties involved, I extend my heartfelt gratitude. Nicole and Gary were miracle workers, at least in my eyes, being able to produce all that delicious food without a kitchen. Dee Dee was the hostess with the most-est (as if one would have expected anything less). And to Pat Colander of Shore, our Mrs. Hughes who would probably rather be Lady Mary, I say thank you for being the force behind this. I enjoyed attempting to rinse off dishes with you in Dee Dee’s back room.

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