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Face to Face: Wok+Wine

The fact that we live in a rapidly evolving digital world is a fact that cannot be escaped (or ignored, for that matter) but the reality that social networking is now a term synonmyous with Facebook instead of face-to-face interaction can be a little depressing. Gone are the bars where everybody knows your name, the neighbours we borrow sugar from and the strangers we share smiles with in the elevator. They’ve been swapped for fan pages, online grocery shopping with express delivery and iPhone applications – the modern world’s best cushion against eye contact. The point of all this banter is to say that while we’re a fundamentally online publication, we believe that “online” communities are not the same as “real” communities, and we’re big fans of the latter. And so when Wok+Wine emailed us with their concept and told us they were coming to Sydney, we got seriously excited.

In a nutshell, Wok+Wine gets “40 random people, 40 bottles of good wine, 40 pounds of jumbo prawns (heads and shells on), throws them in a big wok and then serves them up at one communal table with no chairs, plates or knives and forks.” The strangers are then enticed to chat and connect and eat and drink and get a little dirty in a fabulously arranged social setting. It started in New York City just one year ago, but today Wok+Wine has catered to 2000 people from more than 20 cities across nine countries – and they’ll be in Sydney next week. We threw a few FAQs to the brains behind the concept, Peter Mandeno and Lizzie Shupak.

Hi guys! Can I start with getting both of your backgrounds?
As a Creative Director in the fields of Marketing, Concept Development, Design and Entertainment, Peter has spent more than a decade exploring the global creative landscape, leaving his native New Zealand for life in Copenhagen, London, Amsterdam and most recently New York. His desire to constantly challenge himself with new ideas, people and cultures, led him to conceive the international food-oriented social network Wok+Wine.

London-born Lizzie Shupak has spent her career working in both for and non-profit sectors as a business and brand strategist. Since graduating from Cambridge University with a degree in Theology and Religious Studies, she has pursued her academic interest in how particular ideas or systems cause people behave in certain ways, most recently as a visiting researcher at Columbia University’s Institute for Social and Economic Policy and Research. Moving from London to New York in 2006 and leaving behind a place at law school to pursue a career in communications strategy, Lizzie spent years battling her constant desire to change her horizon.

Tell me a little about how Wok+Wine began. What was your main inspiration? Why a social networking event? How did you cultivate the idea, from inception to execution?
As newcomers to big cities, both of us had the need to rapidly build social and professional networks. We both hate the traditional notion of “networking”, and wanted to create a space where interesting people could come together without a specific agenda. We fundamentally believe that when you get amazing people in a room together, incredible things happen.

Our biggest issue with the traditional networking events is the fact that they are usually designed for a certain type of person – the Art Directors club if you’re in Marketing, the expat association if you’re from a particular geographic area, the university alumni club from your college or whatever. We just want to meet interesting people. We’ve also learned that the best conversations are ones with people doing completely different things from yourself. Our objective for W+W was to assure people that although they wouldn’t know what their next conversation was going to be, it was guaranteed to be interesting.

We knew we wanted to keep the concept simple. We wanted good food, but we didn’t want it to be a “foodie” event. We wanted great wine, but we didn’t want the snobbery associated with traditional wine tastings. Our focus was on the people and creating an environment where they could authentically connect. As such, we decided to deliberately create an environment where the guests had no say in the food or the drink, they could just be assured that the quality would be extremely high. By eliminating choice we removed all traditional social cues – deciding what you’re drinking often says something about the kind of person you are, etc. We also wanted to make everyone the same level of uncomfortable, so we chose peel and eat jumbo prawns. No-one looks cool and sophisticated when they are up to their wrists in pink juice! There’s also something very primal about eating with your hands and sharing food with strangers, and the whole experience provides the perfect tools or props to strike up conversation with the people around.

Where did hold your first event?
In New York – in an East Village apartment.

How did you go about setting it up and getting the word out there? Was the first event a success?
The word got out through the guests. People told their friends who told their friends, and quickly we started getting requests for events in other cities. People in Amsterdam were telling us about their friends in Vancouver, and within six months we were doing events around the world. Whenever we travelled, the wok came as well.

The first and every event thereafter has been a huge success. It’s completely humbling. We flick through our guestbook and are just overwhelmed by the goodwill that flows from the pages.

How has the event evolved/changed since the beginning?
It’s become more refined and streamlined. We’re both brand-orientated people by training, and we’re really attentive to details. Our herbs and spices sport their own W+W labels – salt is “rocks”, pepper is “powder”, olive oil is “juice” etc. So we now have a locked up brand that is a huge asset. As our community has grown, we’ve also become an interesting channel for wine brands, and we now work with a range of fantastic wine partners.

Many people would argue that community has somewhat died in recent years. Is this something you brought to the table, so to speak, when you first thought of this event?
100%. We think the online social space is an incredible thing, and we’re huge fans of technology inspiring social interaction. However, we also believe that in-person connections are critical, and that at some point you have to go offline and enjoy real conversations. It’s these conversations that cement relationships of all kinds and are the basis of trusted communities. We hadn’t anticipated the ability of W+W to transcend geographic boundaries and create community to the extent that it has, but there’s no question that it was an early aspiration.

Why Australia? Are you planning on coming here more often?
Yes, we’re planning on coming here more often. We recently launched a website called The Global Lifestyle Project (, to reflect our lifestyle, which is to live between a number of carefully chosen cities around the world. In our case those are San Francisco, Amsterdam and Auckland. We’ll be in the Southern Hemisphere on a regular basis, and Sydney and Melbourne are both amazing entrepreneurial and creative cities that we’re keen to get to know better. Even more important is cementing a truly global W+W presence for the benefit of the existing community. If someone in Amsterdam came to us and said “I’m travelling to Sydney next week, do you know some awesome people I can connect with”, we want to be able to say “Yes!”

And finally, where do you hope to take Wok+Wine into the future?
We want to be able to do more: to do more events, more often and in more places. We also want to be of greater value to the individuals within the community. Our niche is bridging the gap between on and offline social networking, and we want to explore what that really means. We have no intention of undermining the integrity and authenticity of the core concept, so rest assured it’ll still be recognisably Wok+Wine for a long time to come!

Wok+Wine will be on in Alexandria next Thursday, February 17. Although it says "sold out" on the event site, it's not really... for you, anyway. Wok+Wine have saved a few tickets especially for Side Street readers, so simply put yourself on the wait list and get ready to mingle in the non-wankiest way possible. You can also join their Facebook page for continual updates at a city near you.

interview: Seema Duggal


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