Speed dating may be efficient, but those few moments of conversation with a blind date can be awkward before you rotate to the next person. Beyond "Hi, my name is ...," what else are you supposed to talk about during the five-minute session?
Enter celebrity chef Danny Boome and his new, culinary twist on speed dating: Speed Plating. At the world premiere of the concept, on Aug. 17 in New York City, Boome had a goal for his first batch of 36 awkward attendees: "Talk about the food that is in front of you."
For $100, participants got a four-course meal at Tree, a quaint bistro in the East Village, with 20 minutes per course to wine and dine a potential love match. Meal choices had been filed online beforehand, eliminating the ordering onus. Still, the evening got off to a slow start. "You shouldn't be standing around in the corner," said the 35-year-old Boome, who hosts the Food Network's Rescue Chef, during a postgame analysis.
Before the first course, Boome relayed one cardinal rule of etiquette: "No cell phones on the table." I took my assigned seat across from an alluring Indian woman with big brown eyes and a wide smile. Once she politely ignored my tripping over a floor divider, we shared a plate of asparagus mated with artichoke hearts. The otherwise-bland veggies took on an aphrodisiac edge with the infusion of saffron aioli and horseradish mayo, tilting the taste buds in a romantic direction. But before we could blink, our 20 minutes were up. I learned that she was born in Mumbai and was working toward a Ph.D. in African-American literature. She was also disturbed by a former date who wore incredibly tight jeans. She learned that I was a clutz.
For the second course, the organizers mixed things up a bit, handing the participants a "card of destiny" directing them to their next table and distributing a pink Zorro-esque mask to each new couple. The menu mandate: feed your blindfolded date, then switch roles.
My date for this mystery dish was the first to take the mask, so I spoon-fed her what we later discovered were spiced-wine pears, tequila-marinated lychees, pepper-crusted mozzarella and duck pâté on a thin crisp. This course would have been more exciting for me had I not known what Girl No. 2 looked like before I was blindfolded and started eating. But still, talking to a stranger for 10 minutes without being able to see her face or your meal left ... what? The two foci that most singles can't seem to snag together: a meal to savor and a voice to listen to. Gone was any anxiety about poor eye contact or stray food morsels. Along came deeper conversation, from our shared roots as New Yorkers to the role of Judaism in our childhoods. Neither of us had had a bar or bat mitzvah, and we agreed that we didn't need it. Ding! Time to move on to the next round!
The main course was less dramatic. Our food (lamb cutlets with grilled zest polenta and hot fig jus) was no mystery. Forks were dropped, the lamb became finger food, and Girl No. 3 dished about how her Boy No. 2 had curbed her enthusiasm by hastily handing her his business card.
By the time dessert rolled around (lemongrass-and-ginger panna cotta, chili-chocolate-dipped strawberries, baked figs and crème fresh), the focus on the food had given way to unfinished business: making a match. Girl No. 4 was worldly and nice to talk to (a p.r. account supervisor from Munich), but Girl No. 1 was great and off with another guy. How could I catch a moment alone with her?
During the 30-minute postmeal cocktail session, people exchanged e-mails and phone numbers and made Facebook-friend requests. Three couples kept the verbal vibe going, continuing their conversations at the same tables where they started. Participants on the shy side could opt to join partner site SpeedDate.com and pick up the talk from there.
All in all, Speed Plating struck me as a smart move. Boome plans to expand the concept to 12 restaurants by March, adding Chicago, Boston, Atlanta, Austin, San Francisco and Los Angeles to the company's map. Part of his motivation to press on comes from his experience with his current mate. A night out with the girls during the summer of 2008 led Lauren Sohmer, now 31, to the Bull's Head Tavern in New York City's Gramercy Park neighborhood. After three shots of Jägermeister, she and Boome were a match. "I dated half of Manhattan, and he dated the other half, and that's how we found each other," Sohmer said at the Speed Plating event. "I'd like to hope that everyone here has some possibility of something because of this," she added, gesturing around the booze-filled room.
Unfortunately for the high-on-love Sohmer, the bulk of the Speed Plating attendees were journalists covering the event. As such, we had mostly business on the brain. But with any luck, and a little fine cuisine, we may be on our way to sleeping next to something other than a pen.