Look who’s coming to dinner: An open invite to new elites

April 28, 2011

“Are you smart enough to eat here?” When I go out to eat, these are not typically the first words out of the host or hostess’s lips. But then again, Number 68 Project isn’t your typical restaurant. Part of a new “pop-up” restaurant fad, this originally London-based dining experience has made its way to the District and brought with it a new outlet for creative chefs, intrepid diners, and elitist aspirations.
The Number 68 Project is just one of many pop culture phenomena that has recently complicated our understanding of elitism. Exclusive clubs and organizations of the past were shrouded in a web of obstacles and secrecy, making it difficult for the average person to seek them out. Now, however, we are given access to these exclusive groups with the click of a button.
Washington was quick to hop aboard the trend with the Number 68 Project, the brainchild of cultural director Hosan Lee and culinary director Jill Richmond. The all-inclusive “Cultural Dinner Series” ran every Sunday from February through April with each meal consisting of five to seven courses with beverage pairings. The project’s mission, according to its website, was to use “food and drink as a vehicle to bring people together for the sake of meaningful dialogue around the dinner table,” with each evening structured around the exploration of a theme selected from a fortune cookie. In order to request an invitation to a Number 68 Project dinner, prospective diners were asked to answer questions such as “What is your idea of earthly happiness?”  and “Living or dead, who would you invite to your ideal dinner party?”
Any Georgetown student, especially one who has applied to an internship or a job, is no stranger to questions like the ones required to earn a coveted seat at the Number 68 Project dinner table. Over-achievers that we are, I doubt there is more than a handful of us who haven’t written from the perspective of our favorite color or explained what we would do with the superpower of our choosing at least once or twice. Unlike the standard cover letter, these questions aim to dig into our psyche and reveal just how witty, creative, and smart we really are.
Selection and elitism has always been an inherent part of nearly every group; everything from sports teams to college admissions to Greek societies has some form of application and acceptance or rejection process. However, when everyone is running marathons, acing the SATs, and meeting a general standard of financial security, how can anyone hope to stand out? And on the reverse side, how can an organization hope, with so many over-qualified applicants, to attract and secure the cream of the crop?
What we face in the microcosm of university life—and later the professional world—is a hyper-aware sense of competition that is no longer necessarily based on the traditional foundation of wealth, class, or even hard work. Even more than in the meritocracy of the past few decades, in our society, success depends on a hybrid fusion of all of these elements. In a market overstocked with top-tier students, top-paying jobs, and top-end chefs, one answer that has become more prevalent is a sense of modern elitism. It’s a standard principle of supply and demand: by limiting the availability of a position you instantly up your ante. In fact, though, by limiting the appearance of supply, organizations have made themselves more exclusive and therefore more desirable.
All of this is self-perpetuating. The more elite clubs attract the more elite people who then lend their status as proof of a given society’s, restaurant’s, or school’s superior nature. Once a niche gains a certain amount of credibility, it has the potential to accumulate interest until it reaches mythological proportions—just look at the secret societies of the nation’s top universities, or the Freemasons. Are we, in buying into this elitism, creating a caste system for ourselves? And, even more troublingly, if we hope to succeed in our goal-driven society, do we have a choice but to keep working toward these coveted spots?
The very fact that these elite, secret, or invite-only opportunities are becoming more prevalent puts the power in our hands. Today’s elitism is far more ambiguous and far less concrete. To “Request an Invite” to dine with the Number 68 Project, all you have to do is go to their website and fill out a simple questionnaire. As the Chinese fortune cookie at one of the events read: “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always gotten.” If this new elitism is purporting the notions of innovation, change, experimentation, and self-betterment, then sign me up.

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This is an incredibly enticing idea.

Contemporary intellectuals and thinkers oftentimes find themselves at a loss for companionship and mentally stimulating (and sometimes competitive)conversations. Many are too shy, brooding, or simply afraid to state their opinions for fear of appearing foolish.

I wish they had more places like this around the country, they remind me of mid 20th-century “Philosophy Cafes” in Paris where the existentialists met.

Sign me up too!