Arts & Culture

Dinner forges connections between strangers

Bearhead Dinner includes faculty members, students, features dishes from multiple cultures

By
Senior Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Cast in an alluring haze, the dining room’s atmosphere offers an enigmatic embrace. Camel cigarette embers reveal obscured faces. Distinctive aromas of exotic liquors and oysters permeate the air. Intoxicating chatter navigates everything from Middle Eastern history to the artistry of contemporary hip-hop.

Welcome to the Bearhead Dinner — a veritable institution on Williams Street.

Hosted by three students, the Bearhead Dinner is a far cry from a typical meal shared with house mates and friends. The brainchild of Berke Buyukkucak ’18, Caleb Thomas ’18 and Berkok Yuksel ’18, it is rather an atypical yet enjoyable experience that hinges on the unknown. The concept is simple: The trio invites eight people whom they are only vaguely familiar with for a night of experimental recipes and new friends — no cost required.

“It’s all about getting diverse people from different circles together,” Thomas said. In this respect, the three house mates are successful. Last Saturday’s dinner — the fifth and most recent Bearhead Dinner — included a professor, a post-doc and undergraduates from a range of concentrations and years.

The idea for the social experiment occurred to the trio during a Spring Break trip to New Orleans. “We started talking about having dinners once we got a house, but wanted to make it a bit more different than inviting friends over,” Yuksel added. “That’s cool but doesn’t add anything to my or your life.”

“We don’t normally invite people we’re close with,” Yuksel said. “They’re all sort of acquaintances, with a degree of separation that’s inherent,” he added. “The guests don’t know each other, and they’re all from different backgrounds.”

The event’s cosmopolitan cuisine further complements the diversity of guests’ backgrounds. Buyukkucak, Thomas and Yuksel cook a variety of unconventional recipes from a multitude of cultures. Served one-by-one, the delectable and consecutive courses present guests with an experience at once unfamiliar and unforgettable.

“We aspire to original pieces,” Thomas said. “We could make a simple burger with aioli or something, but … (we love) having weird recipes that go well.” 

The chefs’ commitment to creativity manifests itself in homemade dishes that run the gamut from a serving of smoked rabbit to a dish that consists wholly of onion prepared six different ways. Other singular offerings have included Turkish pickled beets and fresh mint served over cacti, courses that speak to the chefs’ rich and assorted backgrounds.   

“We always try to incorporate Turkish or Southwestern dishes into the dinners,” Buyukkucak said, alluding to his and Yuksel’s Turkish heritage, as well as Thomas’ Arizonian roots.   

For the ever-variable dinner parties, emphasis is placed on the idea of eating as a shared experience. Buyukkucak, Thomas and Yuksel create dishes that explicitly foster communal exchange. With trays of oysters and cheeses soaked in coffees, the chefs force otherwise disparate guests to interact with one another in order to receive and enjoy the eccentric food.

“Though making the food is half the appeal, the real fun comes in seeing people connect that don’t really know each other,” Yuksel said. “We had two guests meet at the dinner and then start dating.”

While the dinner is certainly a display to witness, the chefs also attested to what an ordeal it is to prepare the dinners, as recipes must often be formulated well in advance.

“The deliberation process has definitely gotten faster,” Thomas said. “But the day of the dinner, we’re still basically cooking from 9 a.m. to the time dessert is served.”

“It’s very pushing to the edge both physically and mentally,” Buyukkucak said. “If we fail, we try to compensate somehow. It ends up being a lot about expression, for me at least.”

Thomas, a drummer, underscored the “improvisational” aspect of the cooking — a quality analogous to his music.

“I’m drawn to the spontaneous aspect of music, and we reflect that in the kitchen,” Thomas said. “If something messes up, we just reflect on what the next move is,” he added, retelling a humorous incident in which the crew had to salvage chimichangas.

A bear head overlooks the dining room table that plays hosts to the Bearhead Dinners. Enigmatic and vaguely enchanting, the head encapsulates the event’s distinctive variability and mystique. But the distinguished piece, painted by the trio’s good friend, Yasemin Orhan RISD ’18, also speaks to a more important facet of the dinner: namely, its paradoxical capacity to breed familiarity out of unfamiliarity. The meal’s guests may be curated from a breadth of backgrounds, but remarkable solidarity can still be found amongst the collective experience of novel recipes. At the Bearhead Dinner, expectations are left at the door, traded for new friends found along the way.

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