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Hidden Dinner is perhaps best defined by its name: It's hidden, and it's a dinner. There is no set location or menu. Find a password that allows you to access the website, then buy a ticket with the faith you've purchased a great supper. You get an email a few days before it happens announcing where it'll take place. You go, you get wowed, and you do it again the following month.
These unsanctioned restaurant pop-ups have been a foodie obsession in Orange County for the past year, and the only constants (besides an army of regulars) are the people behind the scenes, the trio that makes Hidden Dinner function: chef Anahita Naderi, event planner Betty Lang and web designer Justin Veiga. They're the Cream of OC's food scene, a megagroup that can shine individually, but is unstoppable together, each contributing a specific, indispensable skill set that, if not present, makes the others impotent.
For the month preceding the dinner, the trio plans, meets and scopes out potential menus, tinkering with themes, ingredients and scenes. Two days before the dinner, Naderi buys supplies for the meal, turning her Toyota Yaris into the culinary equivalent of Tetris, squeezing in products procured from farmers' markets and especially Wholesome Choice in Irvine.
"I don't want to throw myself out there, to put my name on something and have it be crap," she says. "I don't cheap out on ingredients. If I put my name on it, I'm going to get the better olive oil, the better balsamic vinegar, a better cut of the meat."
Naderi then cooks for two days straight in the petite kitchen of her Long Beach home, averaging about two hours of sleep per night in those crucial 48 hours. Lang and Veiga, meanwhile, go to the Hidden Dinner setting of the month (usually a host's apartment but anywhere from Brea to Laguna Niguel) three hours early to decorate. Lang's experience planning weddings shows itself in such painstaking details as the placement of the utensils (knives pointing in, please) and the fold of the napkins (against the crease, if you will).
The set-up is the calm before Naderi's storm, as the loquacious Persian brings forth a whirlwind of hands, pots, pans, kitchen knives and cooking utensils as she does the final preparations for the meal. Quipping and prodding at one another, they are more than just individuals with a common interest; they're friends, and it shows in their collaboration.
Naderi is the ultimate star of the Hidden Dinner—she does make the food, after all—but Lang and Veiga have multiple, crucial roles. Though Lang is the event designer, diners might more easily recognize her as a sometime sous chef. And though Veiga is in charge of the website and designing emails, he is also the host of the evening, donning a suit as if the setting were Fleming's instead of an apartment.
The dishes all follow a particular theme—this year has brought forth suppers based on Valentine's Day, Nowruz (the Persian New Year), or the vaguely titled Market Fresh. Valentine's Day featured wine-braised duck with a mushroom sauté, a dish that included strips of divinely cured duck-breast bacon and a surprisingly fitting cranberry sauce; the Nowruz dinner brought out some of Naderi's heritage, including green herb rice with fish and thick, yogurt-spiked noodle soup. Each dish brings out her flair for creativity, a passion to create good food that will not only make diners full, but also rank among the best meals eaten in Orange County this year.
The next Hidden Dinner remains shrouded in mystery—not even Naderi, Lang are Veiga are sure of the details. They speak in code whenever they talk about future dinners or their other projects: Speakeasy. OC Fair. Movies and munchies.
Naderi is still planning the Eatery, a full-fledged restaurant for which a Kickstarter campaign shot past its proposed goal, fueled by her fans.
"All of my chef friends and mentors told me to leave Orange County," she says. "They'd tell me to go to LA or New York, work there instead. But I didn't want to leave Orange County. I grew up here, and I like it. The ocean, the weather . . . I see so much potential. On a communal level, I wanted to create something that would change the way this area works.
"And on a personal level," she concludes, "I just wanted to cook dinners."
This article appeared in print as "Eat-Easys: The Hidden Dinner wows foodies monthly with its shroud of secrecy and great courses."