A Mystery Dinner benefiting the education programs of South Shore Arts was held for the fourth consecutive year (more or less) this past spring, featuring the scrumptious cuisine of executive chefs Nicole Bissonnette and Gary Sanders of Bistro 157 and Bartlett’s.
The secret dinner location, known only to the chefs and select South Shore Arts staff, was an anonymous (but far from innocuous) home in Long Beach. Built in 1914 as a modest beach cottage only a block from the lake, the home underwent a major expansion in 2004. “We should have just torn it down and started from scratch,” the wife opines in retrospect. As homes go, it’s strikingly personal and super cozy. Full of colorful art and whimsical objects, it has more life in any given room than most people’s entire houses, but even if it were empty, it would still be a masterpiece of lakeside living.
As collectors, the owners started out innocently enough with “cheap little odds and ends” when they first got married. That was in 1968. They quickly moved on to 17th through 19th century glass, especially from St. Louis (the factory in France, not the place in Missouri) and Baccarat. Why? “What do you think?” the wife quips. “We were obsessive-compulsive. We liked to spend money. We liked to be surrounded by nice things. We enjoyed their beauty. Take your pick. We needed counseling.”
When asked what they collect, the list was endless. There were so many things, who could remember? “Wine glasses first, then spoons and spooners—does anybody even know what a spooner is? Then we went on a binge with English stools, pillboxes, a collection of chocolate molds that we started and ended in one day, nutcrackers, copies of A Christmas Carol to put out for the holidays, copper pots and tubs, Lalique figurines, watches, brass candlesticks, napkin rings. Did I mention doorknockers?”
This year’s guests of honor were Amy and Dr. Michael Koufos of Munster, who had purchased the dinner the previous June at the annual South Shore Arts Beaux Arts Ball. The Koufi (that’s not a typo, it’s the plural form), invited three additional couples, including Mike’s sister Maria McShane and her husband Niall, Karen and my eye doctor Brad Anderson, and Jennifer and my dentist Dr. Rick Johns. If anybody put out an eye or a tooth, we were set.
Our guests had kicked off the festivities back in Munster, where their chauffeur for the evening picked them up in a luxurious party bus courtesy of Southlake Limousine. Amy and Mike served their friends champagne during the 45-minute trip to LaPorte County, none of them knowing the final destination. Some thought they were coming to my house, but I knew better. These are folks who have been best friends for decades, and they are very comfortable with each other to say the least.
A particularly alcoholic evening in Chicago some ten years ago is still a sharp, one might even say painful, memory to all of us, although quite hysterical at the same time. I had to serve on a panel discussing art that I didn’t like in Chicago the next day and can distinctly recall listing to one side throughout the session, almost falling off my chair at one point. I didn’t feel well again until about ten o’clock that night. I’ve grown up since then; others, I’m not so sure about.
So, as the guests pulled in, I girded my loins with the trappings of a proper waiter. Earlier that day, I had stopped at Bed, Bath & Beyond to pick up a slimming black chef’s apron that I could wear for serving, as well as concealing my expanding waistline.
With the evening’s personnel all in place, it was time for drinks and a walk to the beach to see the sunset. The ladies in their impossibly high spike heels tiptoed their way, risking life and limb, braving the gravelly street down to the lake. In the meantime, Nicole and Gary were hauling one load of ingredients after another from their cars into the house, simultaneously staging their prep space for the evening and already cooking away. May I just say that our hostess, the collector, was very accommodating and gracious about consigning her own decorator touches to the cupboard—not to mention fishing obscure whiskies and other cocktail options out from the farthest depths of the liquor cabinet. Making guests happy was the order of the day.
When the time came, corralling the rowdy ones into the dining room was like the proverbial herding of cats. But at last, with a sigh of relief, everyone was seated and we began to serve. I was accompanied in these efforts by our hostess, of course, and Pat Colander, associate publisher of this very publication. It was Pat who conceived of the Mystery Dinner in all its wonderment some years back, and I have to say, we’ve raised a lot of money thanks to her vision. At the same time, my life of subservience has been firmly established.
My own relationship with the guests goes back many years—you could say that some of them have even been intimate with me (eyes, teeth), and I would just like to go on record saying that, yes, they took advantage of the situation! Whenever they needed something, they whistled loudly with their fingers in their mouths, as if they were hailing a cab. The sound cut right through me. It was shrill and vulgar and further more it bugged me. They pinched my hinder parts and forced me to sit on their laps—and that was just the women!
But it was all in good fun, ha-ha. We served one course after another of the most sumptuous foods for what seemed like an eternity. The evening wore on. Would the gluttony never end? Round about dessert time, the guests grew restless. Anarchy reared its ugly head with the announcement that “We’re coming to join you in the kitchen!”
“Oh no, you’re not,” Chef Nicole brazenly asserted, but her objections were all for naught as the guests swarmed us with their enthusiasm and democratic esprit. It was touching, when you think of it, their wanting to rub elbows with the help. But where did they get the energy?
The six courses described below, along with accompaniments and wine, attest to the evening’s excess and the hearty constitutions of our merry guests. I tried to be moderate as far as my own consumption was concerned, even skipping an entire course or two. I’m sorry to say that I get tired now around eight—maybe it’s premature old age, I don’t know, sue me. As a seemingly ancient relative (she was probably 40) used to joke when I was a child, “I’ve got dropsy and heart trouble: I drop down, and I don’t have the heart to get up.” That’s me all over. I couldn’t wait for it all to end.
In the nick of time, the sated guests were whisked away in their party bus before it turned back into a pumpkin, our chefs kicked back for a much-deserved glass of wine, and our indefatigable hostess got out a mop and started scrubbing the kitchen floor. Talk about your Cinderellas.
Oh well. Another year passes, another mystery is solved, another ten thousand calories are consumed by well-fed guests and yet another fairy tale comes mercifully to an end.
Parmesan Short Bread topped with
Olive Tapenade & Beef with Fresh Basil
Raisin Pecan Crostini topped with
Whipped Goat Cheese, Prosciutto Candied Walnuts
Asian Ahi Tuna Tartare Spoon with Crispy Wonton
Truffled Sweet Pea Goat Cheese Ravioli
Light Parmesan Citrus Broth
Celery Root Porcini Bisque finished with Sherry
Whimsical Asian Duck Confit Salad
Seared Diver Scallop, Crispy Polenta, Sweet Corn & Manila Clam Chowder
Smoked Beef Tenderloin with Lobster Leek Mashed Potatoes
Truffled Wine Demi-Glace, Seasonal Vegetable
Warm Guiness Chocolate Brownie
Michigan Sun Dried Cherries & White Chocolate,
with Valpo Velvet Black Walnut Ice Cream