The premise of Studio Table is simple, Michelle Wei tells me.
Get a bunch of interesting people together, from a wide range of backgrounds and who don’t know one another, and have them over for a phenomenal dinner party to experience delicious food and interact with awesome art—and then sit back and see what happens.
“Each dinner is grounded in bringing new people together, and hopefully they leave having made new friends or getting to know people they otherwise wouldn’t have met,” says Michelle. She and her businesses partner—San Francisco-based expressionist artist Heather Day, whose bright and airy three-story live/work studio is where each dinner is hosted—like to say that Studio Table is a way to “force serendipity.”
Because experiencing something new, she says, “does something magical to your brain. You come in, you don’t know anyone at this dinner, and that can be uncomfortable for many, but you open up and experience something beautiful, and hopefully it just makes everyone a little more helpful and lighter and creative.”
What started as a way for Michelle and Heather to meet people outside of their own industries has, in the span of just over two years, become one of the most sought-after dinner invitations in San Francisco.
Now, they also host sponsored events, raising enough money to fund the community dinners, keeping them free for guests who enjoy five-course meals—which is everyone, of course.
It’s thanks to serendipity that Studio Table exists at all.
Michelle and Heather were both brand new to San Francisco when they chanced to meet in their apartment building in the Mission neighborhood. Michelle had recently moved for a tech job at Adobe; Heather had just relocated to pursue a full-time career in art.
They bonded over how hard it was to meet people in their newly chosen hometown. They decided that needed to change, and after a few months of brainstorming, they landed on the Studio Table concept—a low-key but fine-dining experience to serve as a sort of social incubator, the kind of activity that could help strangers find deep conversation and broaden their community.
Michelle would focus on operations and community engagement; Heather would be the creative force. All they needed was a chef.
Luckily, serendipity struck again when chef Ben Roche—the Michelin-starred chef who, in 2006, beat Masaharu Morimoto on Iron Chef—overheard Heather describing the concept to a friend at a coffee shop and offered to join forces.
“The very first one was definitely scary,” says Michelle. “Are people just going to think of us as a silly dinner party? But we really just wanted to show people what it could be. We were adamant about telling the story of why we were doing this.” Each with their own careers, they pooled resources and paid for it out of their own pocket—and it went remarkably well.
They invited furniture designers, tech startup founders, and a photographer.
People laughed and were moved by each other’s openness. By the end, they were exchanging numbers and making future plans. “Things spun from there. Now, we’ve had 18 events,” Michelle says.
Eventually, a new chef, Kristen Berlangero, and Sous Chef Nicole Erickson, both from the famed Michelin star Moroccan restaurant Mourad, took Roche’s place.
Here’s how it all works:
Dinners are small by nature, between 12 and 14 guests, and they’re invited to answer an open-ended question to kick off conversation.
“What is something unexpected that has happened in your life recently?”
“What keeps you hopeful in this current climate?”
Each menu is themed. “We come together to talk about the concept—we ideate on the menu and the art,” says Michelle. Their most recent, called Layers of the Pacific, drew inspiration from the ocean and from Heather’s art, which focuses on layers, textures, and colors. But this was not merely a seafood dinner, says Michelle. “Each course goes deeper into the ocean, and with each course our hope is that we’re getting deeper into the conversation.”
They started with a Wakame-crusted rice cracker, inspired by the idea of being on the surface: “walking on the beach, seeing seaweed washing up.” And then they went deeper, to an oyster dish with elderflower and water chestnut; then to a squid ink risotto with prawns; and then deeper still to a Pacific Black Cod. And closing the meal? A deep ocean dessert of sesame matcha sponge cake that has very oceanic flavors.
Studio Table remains a passion project for Michelle and Heather. Michelle’s day job is as a senior product marketer at Adobe.
For Michelle, having Studio Table as a side gig means “essentially, I don’t have my nights and weekends, especially when we’re in event mode.” But the team is passionate about what they’re creating, and supportive.
“It doesn’t feel like work at all,” she says. “When I finish my job-job, to hop on a call with our chef or Heather and to plan out the next event and think through the nitty gritty logistics, it still doesn’t feel like work.”
Recently, they sat the founder of Invisible Talks, a design lecture series, next to a Bay Area leader on diversity and inclusion in tech.
The two ended up working together to ensure there was a diversity track at the next lecture series and added a panel on the subject.
At another dinner, a mathematician hit it off with a lighting designer, and the two later collaborated on a computational lighting art display.
Another time, they invited a San Francisco born-and-raised gallery owner who was initially skeptical of the event.
“He was like, ‘Who are all these people?’ He’s an OG San Francisco person. He was skeptical of the newbies trying to create community,” says Michelle.
But then, over the course of the dinner, he opened up. By the end of it, he’d made lasting connections with new San Francisco tech people, “who are totally outside of his world. And to see him stay after dinner and get people’s contact info, and ask people who are polar opposite of him, ‘Hey, should we go grab a drink around the corner and continue our conversation?’ To see them totally flip around is exactly why we want to keep this going.”
And though it may be a side gig now, Michelle says they have big plans for 2019.
Turning it into their full-time careers, she says, is “the dream,” but they don’t want to rush it. “We’re really lucky to have advisors and mentors who have done similar things.”
What they know for certain is that so far, they’ve mastered the “small dinner format.” But they have also ratcheted it up to a larger crowd.
“We’ve had 40-person dinners,” says Wei, which sponsors pay for. It’s a unique way to bring in paying customers and also for brands to participate in something authentic. “For sponsors it’s a refreshing way to tell their story: it’s not like we’re putting product on the table. It’s not an overt advertisement for the company. But with each sponsor, we work with them on how to incorporate them into either the dinner concept, the conversation, or the types of guests we invite,” says Wei.
What’s more, these larger format dinners have so far been “just as magical,” but there are kinks they still need to work out.
For example, it’s definitely harder for everyone to meet each other, says Wei, which is something every Studio Table event strives to accomplish. “It is an interesting challenge that we’ve been noodling on for the past few months: How can we keep that magic and charm while hosting more people?”
Currently, the sponsored events provide enough income to fund all of their operations. Their team is small and scrappy, which means they can afford to experiment without having to take on any investment money.
“We continue to put our heads down and try to churn out something that we love and are very proud of, and it’s been rewarding. We’re in a place where people have recognized that and want to be a part of it.” Now the challenge is learning how to expand, while keeping what everyone expects from a Studio Table evening intact. “We’re in it for the long game,” says Wei. “We’re not trying to fizzle out.”
There’s no word yet on what the theme of the next dinner will be—but whatever it is, we’re sure hoping for an invite.
Bryan Schatz is a journalist based in Oakland, California, where he enjoys living just steps from water. He has written for Mother Jones, Men’s Journal, and Outside magazine. Follow him on Twitter @bryanschatz or on Instagram @bryan.schatz.