How to Host a Dreamy Outdoor Dinner Party In the Wild

Being a guest at one of Eva Kosmas’s Secret Suppers takes more than the usual leap of faith associated with clandestine pop-up dinners. You won’t know where you’re going until 24 hours prior to the event, and you’ll likely end up trekking to a hidden outdoor location more than two hours outside of Portland, Oregon. But, once you’re there, you’ll know it’s worth it. Kosmas creates tableaus worthy of a Kinfolk photo spread: beautiful natural scenery, decor crafted from local foliage, an expansive, knotted-wood table groaning under the weight of locally-sourced produce, and the serene joy of 20-plus diners, all thrilled to find themselves in the middle of nowhere. “I was thinking about what I wanted the suppers to be, and for me it wasn’t just about great food,” says Kosmas, who hosted her first supper in a friend’s backyard in 2015. “It’s about where they're hosted, and tying that environment into the menu with things that are seasonal, local, and fresh, and also translating [that environment] into the ambiance as well.”

Secret Supper diners have since congregated four times a year under a grove of trees in the foothills of Mount Hood, on the shores of the Oregon coast, and in the shade of the Willamette National Forest. Kosmas’s Secret Supper partners, Mona Johnson and Jaret Foster, create the five-course meals, Kosmas provides appetizers and desserts, and she and another partner, Danielle Firle, determine the themes, which have ethereal names like “Thicket” and “Ebb and Flow.” For Kosmas, the dinners are about showcasing quite literal farm-to-table dining, a spirit that infuses her blog, Adventures in Cooking, where she documents her homestyle meals and stunning food photography. Here's how Kosmas makes these magical suppers a reality.

PHOTO BY EVA KOSMAS FLORES

PHOTO BY EVA KOSMAS FLORES

Secret Suppers are no small commitment: Guests routinely travel up to three hours outside Portland with no more than one day’s notice. The travel has rarely been a deterrent, according to Kosmas. Secret Suppers already draw from a pool of guests who love the outdoors, appreciate good food, and want to try something new. The above supper, Thicket, was held at the edge of Mount Hood in June, 2016. Guests sat on the ground, on Will Leather Goods pillows and hand-woven rugs.

PHOTO BY EVA KOSMAS FLORES

PHOTO BY EVA KOSMAS FLORES

Secret Suppers aren’t exclusively vegetarian, but the fresh produce is often the major draw. Kosmas tries to use items from her expansive garden as often possible. She raises chickens and bees, whose eggs and honey are often featured in the meals, and brings in produce from local farms. Here, carrots and turnips roast for the Thicket supper in June, 2016.

PHOTO BY EVA KOSMAS FLORES

PHOTO BY EVA KOSMAS FLORES

Kosmas’s co-hosts, Jaret Foster (above) and Mona Johnson, specialize in wood-fired cooking, which is how they're able to host so many of their meals in outdoor spaces without electricity. Here, Foster checks on his Portuguese seafood stew at the Ebb & Flow supper in September, 2016.

PHOTO BY EVA KOSMAS FLORES

PHOTO BY EVA KOSMAS FLORES

Kosmas crafts the appetizers (such as this grilled shrimp with preserved lemon butter from the Ebb & Flow supper) and desserts after Johnson and Foster select their three main courses. Local supplier TwoXSea provided the shrimp, as well as fresh sardines, which Foster and Johnson grilled and served with chopped green herb salsa, fennel, arugula, and charred lemon.

PHOTO BY EVA KOSMAS FLORES

PHOTO BY EVA KOSMAS FLORES

Secret Suppers co-host Mona Johnson's love of homegrown food runs deep: She met her partner, Jaret, while working at the Portland Farmers' Market, and the two started Tournant, their farm-focused catering company. Above, Johnson cooks mussels for the Fire & Ice supper in February, 2016. Rather than renting and trucking in everything they need, Kosmas and her co-hosts use the surrounding environment as much as possible. Here, a tree trunk becomes a serving station.

PHOTO BY EVA KOSMAS FLORES

PHOTO BY EVA KOSMAS FLORES

Whole kabocha squash—soon to be combined with feta, greens, and toasted pumpkin seeds—cooks on embers for the Fire & Ice supper, while Staub cast iron cocottes hold fire-stewed cassoulet.

PHOTO BY EVA KOSMAS FLORES

PHOTO BY EVA KOSMAS FLORES

Location scouting is a hugely important part of what Kosmas and her team do. Every supper relies heavily on the immediate environment—be it snow-capped trees in a forest or a sandy beach on a late summer evening—and weaves that aesthetic into the menu, decor, and ambiance of the entire evening. This past February's supper, Wintertide, was deep in the Willamette National Forest and featured a German-influenced menu heavy on cabbage, alpine cheeses, and Pono Farm beef stew. Not everything has to be local: The cheese came from Vermont Creamery, and Kosmas used natural-dyed linen napkins from Nade Studio in Tennessee.

The Secret Supper staff and volunteers have little more than a day to prepare their meal, stage their decor, and create an unforgettable dining experience. Though the meals are typically outside, the team often rents a lodge or house nearby to stage and prepare. In this case, they partnered with The Suttle Lodge, a rustic hotel with cabins in the Deschutes National Forest. But there's always an unexpected hiccup, like having to balance a table for 24 on sodden ground.

PHOTO BY EVA KOSMAS FLORES

PHOTO BY EVA KOSMAS FLORES

Holding events outdoors allows Kosmas to bring in elements from the surrounding land. When hosting the Peak supper on her friend Andrea Bemis's farm (above) in September, 2015, Kosmas used produce grown on site, like Bemis's Swiss chard, which she served with fresh figs and crispy pancetta.

PHOTO BY EVA KOSMAS FLORES

PHOTO BY EVA KOSMAS FLORES

“The dining table was right on [Bemis's] farm, and people could look around and say ‘Oh, this thing that I’m eating was picked literally from right over there, where you’re sitting,'" says Kosmas. The menu also included pulled pork sandwiches on brioche, provided by Old Salt Marketplace, the Portland deli and restaurant, served with pickled Jupiter grapes and fresh cabbage. Guests left with Big Spoon Roasters chai butter and tote bags.

PHOTO BY EVA KOSMAS FLORES

PHOTO BY EVA KOSMAS FLORES

Finishing touches like place settings and menu design are hardly "finishing" for Kosmas; they’re the first thing guests see when sitting down to dinner. Menus are sent off to designer Amy Rochelle weeks in advance, while place settings and souvenirs for guests are carefully selected by Kosmas and co-host Danielle Firle. The above place settings adorned the table at Kosmas's first Secret Supper, in July 2015, which she held in a hidden garden in downtown Portland. Firle and Kosmas chose Schoolhouse Electric Supply Co. utensils and ceramics from Philadelphia design studio FELT+FAT to serve up a menu of grilled honeyed peach halves, chilled blueberry soup, and a spatchcocked grilled chicken with a soy-plum glaze.

Original article published by bonappetit.com