The Heart of Gathering

The Heart of Gathering


Words by Trip Owens
Photos provided by Virtuoso Dinners

Connection isn’t canceled. Intimacy doesn’t have an intermission. 

Social distancing has, in effect, put to war two key needs in Maslow’s hierarchy—the need for safety and the need for belonging, especially in the south where the very essence of the region can be summarized as “Y’all come see us!” The question posed is, how can one fulfill one need without disregarding the other? Virtuoso Dinners may be the solution.

Virtuoso is made up of four people in three states that have managed to meld technology and tradition in a way that’s meant to keep the heart of gathering beating:

Julie Bunkley—gently brunette with soft eyes. Soft spoken, but secure. 

Courtney Wolf—a vibrant young miss with a glorious head of blonde hair. She talks out of the side of her mouth. 

Matthew Werngerd—a stationer spouting badinage and big ideas. He looks at his forehead when he wants to pick the right words. 

Chris Hall—a burly, badass Atlanta chef with a big heart and multiple restaurants with a penchant for Darwin. He won a James Beard humanitarian award.

The concept was simple enough: A virtual group, all sharing a tangible experience. Think Doordash, but with fine dining. Through Virtuoso, up to 5 couples in different locations can have a virtual dinner party. Participants receive engraved invitations, all the wares (stem, flat, etc.), a music playlist from a local DJ, and a full course meal. All those involved can chat over a web conferencing app such as Zoom. “It’s meant to honor these old traditions of having somebody in your home,” says Wolf, “being hospitable breaking bread, and having a human connection. People are still going to be able to have this, just in a new setting.”

The endeavor was Werngerd’s baby. He felt a sense of urgency to create something that would allow people to make an emotional connection in spite of quarantines. “The reality is we don’t know what comes for the next year and a half,” he says.  “The ability to connect with people in more meaningful ways that using Zoom; I knew there was something there.” But he admits, he couldn’t pull it off, “I knew I wasn’t going to be the one to execute it. I’m a stationer, not a logistics person.” After percolating on it for about a week, he sought outside help.

Bunkley and Wolf run Invision Events, an events design and planning company whose work has been featured in People, InStyle, Southern Living, and many more publications. Having worked with them before, Werngerd reached out to Wolf. “It was an easy sell,” she says. “I knew he was right. To some extent this will be in our future.”

However, the question could be posited, why the hell do they care? When the world is chaos outside, when people are scrambling, why not just sit this one out and wait for the storm to pass? Who on earth tries something new during a pandemic? 

Julie, a self proclaimed introvert despite her profession, comes out of her shell during events like these. “A dinner party is actually one of my favorite things in the world. You get to have intimate conversation when something is posed at the table. You’re enjoying an experience with such an intimate group." 

For Wolf, it was about helping people connect with loved ones. “I watch [clients] have such raw and tender moments with their family. Family is everything to them. It’s incredible to watch.” Her passion was fueled by, “knowing that we can extend that emotional intimacy and I can be the springboard for that.”

Further still, is Hall’s investment. He has a certain level of empathy for people who can’t be with their loved ones. In fact, he lost his father to a stroke during quarantine—and he acknowledges the strain both physical and mental that takes on a family. “What do you do as a family? Nobody wants to cook. People miss human connections. Something like this could fill a void.”

And he would know. While his father was on a ventilator in the hospital, there was very little opportunity for Hall and his immediate family to visit. The memorial for his father was equally limited. Hall doesn’t want other people to go through that. “I want to give people something to smile about during days where it’s hard to smile.”

So the team was in agreement. Werngerd would handle the technical, Hall the culinary, and Bunkley/Wolf the logistics. They chose their rollout location to be Atlanta. Namely because that’s Hall’s base of operations. “Because of the experience we want to provide, food quality is of utmost importance. Chris is a linchpin.” says Bunkley. But even moreso, it’s in a region that’s ripe for socializing. In the south a meal shared is a bond. 

Werngerd says, “They’re doing it in a place where heritage is deeply important. Doing this in New York is a whole different thing than doing it in Georgia.”

In the future, the whole team has aspirations to take the business national, with dreams that somebody in Los Angeles could have dinner with another in New York City—but that comes with its own share of challenges. To say nothing of logistics, there is the additional hindrance of differing flavor palates. For example, the utterance of the word cornbread evokes vastly different thoughts based on your location. The team isn’t deterred by either, because they aren’t selling food, but an experience.

Hall says, “I think people not only want flavor, they want to know about food. They want to know histories, traditions, how-tos, and why’s. And hopefully we can bring that as part of this [experience], so that it doesn’t get stale.” 

Wengerd echoes the sentiment, “If you can build out a way for local partners to create something true to the original, what you’re doing is sharing your tastes with people. Creating an experience for guests.”

“This entire landscape is making us accept people in whatever environment that they’re in.”

says Bunkley, but with that said, in time, they hope to circumvent the tropes of web chats as well as add a new dimension of depth to them. Right now they’re spitballing everything from sending out a lighting specialist to people’s homes to light their video feed, to creating a keepsake recording of the whole experience, to providing trivia and table topics for the party.

Staring at the same four walls day in, day out can be maddening. A tactile experience may be just the shot in the arm people need. If Virtuoso has its way, people will still be able to experience the lamppost moments within their homes. Bunkley summarizes the situation well, “Seeing as how we’re all in a new era—a new way of living—it’s a way for us to stay connected and still have a high touch experience with those that we love.”