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Charles Kaisin’s dinners : totally surreal experiences

Whether they take place in a subway station, at the bottom of a swimming pool, or at the Monte-Carlo Casino, Charles Kaisin’s surrealist dinners transport guests to other worlds. Extravagantly shaped dishes presented on rotating plates on the table, birds flying freely between the guests, tables opening onto pools to indulge in angling, or ballerinas dancing delicately on the tips of their toes between the glasses : not a second goes by without a new event delightfully surprising the guests. There’s a magician in Charles Kaisin’s house. Passionate about art history and trained in design, the Belgian designer has been organizing these surrealist dinners with breathtaking scenographies for private individuals and prestigious institutions for several years now. Endowed with overflowing creativity, rich in historical and artistic references that he puts at the service of his sponsors, Charles Kaisin is also a conductor who leaves nothing to chance by taking infinite care in the preparations, which can last more than a year. He unveils, for Acumen, some of the ingredients used to create the success of his unique dinners, immersing you in an ephemeral world where fantasy, poetry and gastronomy appeal to all five senses.  

You graduated from Central Saint Martins, with Ron Arad as a teacher; you worked with Jean Nouvel and you were also the artistic director of Val Saint Lambert… How did you come to organize dinners ? 

Charles Kaisin : By chance ! When I did my internship with Jean Nouvel in Paris, more than ten years ago, I was lucky enough to be hosted by the Guerrand-Hermès family. To thank my hosts, I wanted to organize a dinner for the different people who had supported me in my work, as well as in all my studies and research. I asked myself what I could do for a family that has travelled all over the world. So I wanted to prepare a dinner that was different from the usual dinners, that was a real experience. 

After the dinner, many of the guests said : « But Charles, why don’t you do this more often ? You could do this for us, for an event. » So, little by little, I organized events for individuals and for luxury brands like Rolls-Royce, Hermès, Roederer… We’ve done a lot all over the world. 

Can you tell us about this very first dinner ? 

As has been the case every time afterwards, we had an amazing location, which in this case was a workshop. It was the first time we had had a big dinner in a workshop. On the tables, there were birds on the loose. It was completely crazy ! There was also a theme, which was surrealism linked to Belgium. A whole group of Belgian surrealist groups had influenced me. The costumes had been designed to measure. I had brought in a starred chef, and there was a waiter for every two people, so that everyone was served at exactly the same time. 

Have you always been attracted to set design and directing ? 

Yes ! I’m passionate about opera and music. I learned piano and organ, and I also played the cello. I have also always loved architecture and design. Organizing these surrealist dinners is therefore a logical continuation that allowed me to create a link between all these fields, and to make them happen in a single moment. 

Can you tell us about the environment in which you grew up ? What was your dream job as a child ? 

When I was a child, I had the chance to live in the countryside, in a small village near Maredsous, Belgium. So the relationship with nature has always been very present in my work. At the beginning, I wanted to be a doctor ! Saving lives was, for me, the most beautiful job in the world. So I studied Latin and mathematics to try to have as much baggage as possible. I hesitated for a long time between medicine and architecture… Then I finally chose architecture because I was interested in the relationship to space.

Can you describe the process of a dinner in detail ? 

In concrete terms, a dinner begins with an invitation. For us, it’s a question of designing an invitation-object that makes sense, so that the guests can prepare for the reception. We often give a dress code, with a very specific theme. This allows people to come in costume, and sometimes, depending on the audience, it can also be more accessible, such as simply “black and white”.  

We often start by organizing a deliberately sober cocktail party, and then give it all at the table. The staging of the dinner is a 360° journey, where we appeal to all five senses. The idea is to amaze the guests, even if they don’t know each other. We articulate the dinner around a theme, in different “tableaux vivants”. We realize real stagings around the theme, which is expressed through the dishes, the decorations, the costumes, the sounds, and the lights.

Servers are not just servers : they perform to give meaning and reveal the chosen theme. As a general rule, in order to give substance to the idea of a banquet, we serve four or five dishes, and the placement is usually arranged around long tables. What interests me is the impression of a monumental banquet that comes out of it.  

What qualities are essential for the organization of such dinners ?

Stamina and perseverance, because it takes time. We have to pay attention to all the details, plan everything, consider all the possibilities and scenarios. We also have to be creative ! 

What do you like most about organizing these dinners ? 

Seeing the joy and wonder on the faces of the guests ! I like to see this childlike side waking up and, above all, revealing itself : it’s the most beautiful gift you can offer.

What requirements and criteria do you impose to organize a dinner party ? Do certain points require more attention than others ?  

We always try to have an extraordinary location, where we pay great attention to the relationship between space and light. This place can be very rough or very sophisticated : in nature, in a castle, in a subway station… All styles are possible, but the character of the place is very important. Then, it is necessary to establish a relationship of trust with the client. I don’t impose anything, I share. Through a dinner, we seek to transcend the spirit of a brand, a house or even a family. The relationship of trust is therefore essential. Each event represents a lot of effort and a lot of work. We don’t make concessions, we go all the way, down to the smallest details. And everything is tailor-made in the workshops. 

What do you think is the recipe for a successful dinner ? 

There is, of course, the location, but also the complicity of the guests that will be born from the dinner when the public and the guests react to the various events of the evening. We see the interactions happening, we take the temperature, and we can thus know how the dinner is perceived. There’s a real sense of excitement ! We can sense when the audience is “hot”, when they want to get up and dance, especially when the waiters arrive. 

Where does your creativity come from ? How do you feed your inspirations ?

First of all, it’s very curious, but I have a very developed visual memory, which I use a lot. Then, I like arts and crafts very much: how to work a material, how it transforms… I find it fascinating. I like to understand the processes of transformation. I also love contemporary art and art history (literature, ancient arts, mythology) : these are inexhaustible sources of references and notes that also offer different degrees of reading layers. Finally, there is travel. I love traveling, seeing different cultures : being on the mountain in Kathmandu or in front of Mont Blanc in Chamonix… All this is very inspiring for me. 

How much time do you spend organizing such events beforehand ? 

It depends on the difficulty, the context : the client, the place, the number of guests… We often prepare an event at least three to four months in advance, but at the moment we are already working on the organization of a dinner to be held in a year’s time !  

How many people are involved in organizing a dinner party ? And who are they ? 

There are a lot of people ! Engineers, designers, graphic designers, dressmakers, make-up artists, hairdressers… At the office in Brussels, we are about fifteen people in all. And during the dinner itself, we are easily 200 to 300 people. We also have to count the dressers, the actors, the artists, and especially the waiters. So there are a lot of people involved in each project.  

How do you find the artists, workshops, and artisans with whom you collaborate ? 

It requires perpetual research and perpetual curiosity. Sometimes it is the people themselves who come to us. Otherwise, we look everywhere we go : singers, performers, dancers… We try to have very typical things, pushed to the extreme, and we also want to have something new, unusual and surprising. That’s our strength.

How do you work with chefs and kitchens ? 

Once a client has asked us to organize a dinner, we present them with a storyboard, usually within a fortnight of their request. Then we work with the chef and explain the process. It’s creativity, we all work together ! We do tests, like tasting the food and seeing how it looks on the plate. 

What customer requests have surprised you the most ? And those that were the most difficult to satisfy ? 

For us, nothing is impossible ! This is our motto. It is also a question of possibilities and means. We have received some completely crazy requests, such as during an incredible dinner where the client asked us to bring Elton John. Katy Perry also came. Another time, a client wanted flowers everywhere. So trucks full of flowers came from Holland to London to prepare this event. We adapt to anything. Anything is possible ! 

Have you turned down any requests ? 

Yes, it happens. For example, I turned down a dinner for a dictator. It’s not a question of means, it’s a question of conscience. 

What do people pay more attention to nowadays ? 

For the clients, the placement at the table is the most important thing. It is often the subject of discussions and last-minute adjustments ! But we know how to adapt. When a brand or a house decides to call on us, we pay attention to a lot of details. To do this, we have a fairly consistent dashboard : a 300-point specification, and we are quite demanding. 

Concerning audiences and cultures, do you take into account the differences ?

Of course we do ! Since there are cultural differences, we have to pay attention to all cultural sensitivities. For example, we pay attention to the type of cuisine, the way of serving, the sense of colors… There are also certain codes that we have to pay attention to.

You’ve organized dinners in a subway station, by a swimming pool, at the casino of Monte-Carlo… Where would you dream of organizing a surrealist dinner ? And what theme would you like to give it ? 

I have never yet organized a dinner at the Guggenheim. It’s something I’d love to do! In France, I would like to be able to do one at the Louvre one day. I think it would be incredible. As far as the theme is concerned, I’d love to choose to enter the universe of a painter like Claude Monet or Marc Chagall, and to fully inhabit it ! That would offer the possibility of interpreting a lot of things, especially when it comes to colors. 

What moment has moved you the most during a dinner ? 

The dinner we organized in a metro station in Brussels in 2016. It was after the attacks. We had voluntarily done a committed job. We had brought together several music academies from different communes in Brussels, and we had gathered together children from immigrant backgrounds who sang alongside other more privileged children. Children are above the prejudices that adults can sometimes have. It was a very strong moment ! I still have shivers, it moved me a lot. 

How much does it cost to stage a surreal dinner ? 

There is no exact answer, because it depends on many things. For some, everything is already in place, and for others, everything has to be built… It is necessary to count at least 500 euros per person, but it can be up to ten times this rate. 

Are all these dinners by private invitation, or are some open to a wider public ? 

The dinners are only commissioned by companies who invite their own clients, or by a family, for an event or a party. They are, therefore, private events. Once a year, however, we organize a dinner in Brussels that is more widely open to the public.