FSU brings together students, guests in a fine dining experience

by Tallahassee Table
The Little Dinner Series offers a memorable place at the table

By Moriah House 

The Dedman College of Hospitality’s Little Dinner Series at Florida State University offers a unique opportunity for Tallahassee residents to indulge in world-class fine dining while supporting the culinary experts of tomorrow. 

Ashby Stiff, FSU professor and legendary local food critic for the Tallahassee Democrat, established the series in 1957, and it’s been a beloved tradition of students, staff, and (most of all) diners ever since. 

The annual series of 10 to 12 themed banquets is orchestrated by seniors at the Dedman College of Hospitality. 

‘Real-world experience’

“It’s a chance for them to get the real-world experience of managing and working in a hospitality operation,” Zach Weston told me in an interview. 

Weston took over as chef and professor for the program in 2014 and has worked to make it more current. 

From the menu to the decor, every element of these banquets is thoughtfully planned to create a memorable themed dining experience. The dedication to innovation is clear — no theme, recipe, or cocktail is ever repeated. 

“I tell the students we reinvent the wheel every time,” Weston said. “Not reinventing the wheel would be much easier, but we’re not chasing easiness, we’re chasing something that sets itself apart from the rest of the dining community in Tallahassee.” 

Themed dinners

This impressive commitment to originality challenges students and ensures an impressive culinary adventure for guests. 

Weston starts the semester by giving students in the program a list of themes that have been done recently or often over the last several years.

 “That takes the 20 or 30 most expected, trendiest themes off the table for any given semester,” he said. “It forces them to get outside the box and be very creative in the themes they come up with.” 

This year’s innovative themes include “Glamping in the Smoky Mountains,” “Avatar: Experience Pandora,” “Under the Banyan Tree,” and “Jimmy Buffett – Son of a Sailor.” 

Each event in the Little Dinner Series focuses on a theme like their “Blues Basement” showcase. Photo / Moriah House

The class is made up of 10 teams, each in charge of their own event, but the students aren’t entirely on their own. They have help from Weston and front-of-house coordinator Lacey Wallheiser. 

“We are coaching them through every little piece of this,” Weston said. “If the students are working, Lacey and I are working.”

A team effort

Weston is known as an excellent guide

 “He has high standards and pushes his students to do their absolute best, but he treats everyone with his utmost respect,” said Katherine Rudder, a student in the course. “He made it clear in the beginning that he was a member of every team, and he absolutely was.” 

Rudder’s group hosted the “The Little Dinner Eeries” on October 31st, and she took on the role of chef.  She has six years of waitressing experience, and wanted to try something new and work in the back of the house. 

“Being the chef for this project has taught me so much about commercial kitchens and the work that goes into each dish,” Rudder said, adding that she preferred working in the kitchen for the Little Dinner Series to being a server.

The teams spend many weeks conceptualizing the events, working alongside Weston and Wallheiser. 

“It’s very much a collaborative effort,” Weston said. “We have tons of meetings with these students to help build out every detail of their events … We’re very big on creating a sense of place for the guests.”

I was lucky enough to attend “The Blues Basement” Little Dinner on Nov. 9th, and upon entering the cocktail reception I instantly felt that sense of place. 

The dinner featured a tangy Sinatra Smash cocktail. Photo / Moriah House

Live music and artfully crafted decorations set the mood. Friendly and attentive staff immediately offered me an ice-cold “Sinatra Smash” cocktail. 

The fresh, tangy, dangerously delicious mixed drink featured Jack Daniels, Crème de Cassis, blackberry-vanilla syrup, lemon and lime juice, and blackberries. It made for a strong start to the evening, paired elegantly with savory, fluffy yolked truffle-Parmesan deviled eggs and delicately briny Gulf Coast oyster bruschetta. 

As the cocktail hour concluded I met my dining companions at a beautifully set table, and we all complimented the detailed centerpiece crafted from vintage records. 

Friendly and welcoming

I had been slightly apprehensive to attend the meal by myself and sit at a table of strangers, but the atmosphere was incredibly friendly and welcoming. Except for myself and the musicians, everyone was a regular Little Dinner attendee (and by the end of the night, the first timers vowed we’d be back). 

Being an annoying food writer, I grilled my seatmates on their past dining experiences. They argued good-naturedly over favorites (including a Harry Potter feast and Bordeaux Château), but concluded that the dinners are hard to compare, as each is so delightfully unique. 

The “My Whey” Brined Chicken Piccata is served with potato gnocchi and plenty of capers. Photo / Moriah House

The meal began with a flavorful and generously portioned appetizer of “My Whey” Brined Chicken Piccata, served with fresh and tender potato gnocchi, a delicate and savory white wine sauce, and plenty of capers. It was followed by “What a Wonderful World Soup,” a lovely bowl of house-made chicken stock, turkey meatballs, orzo, and tender veggies. 

Then came the entrée.

“Duke Ellington’s Wellington” featured melt-in-your-mouth tenderloin enveloped in a flaky pastry crust, served alongside velvety yet substantial mashed potatoes, flavorful grilled green beans, and a rich red wine demi-glace. It was a delicious testament to the students’ mastery of technique.

This may sound like a lot of food, and portions are generous. But the attentive servers are happy to provide boxes for  leftovers you’ll want to take home (though my leftovers didn’t last long … I finished them off that very night). 

For dessert, Lemon Curd Marscarpone Cheesecake with raspberry coulis. Photo / Moriah House

The meal came to a sweet conclusion with Lemon Curd Mascarpone Cheesecake with raspberry coulis, a tangy, creamy, perfectly balanced citrus and berry flavor trifecta.

I started my evening slightly nervous but excited, drinking cool cocktails, and enjoying live music and elegant canapes. By the end, I felt at home — sipping a warm cup of decaf coffee, savoring cheesecake, and laughing with strangers-turned-friends. If that’s not hospitality, I don’t know what is. 

Genuine hospitality

FSU’s Little Dinner sets itself apart from the rest of the dining community in Tallahassee, and not just through its themes. This is fine dining at the highest standard, served with genuine hospitality and devoid of the tiniest smidge of pretension. Guests truly feel welcome. It’s clear the hosts are happy to have you and delighted to provide excellent service. 

Some may be apprehensive of an evening of fine dining created and served by students, but this is exactly what makes the experience so special.

 “I think they taught me more than I taught them,” Ashby Stiff, founder of the Little Dinner Series, once said of his students. 

Weston expressed a similar sentiment. 

“We take a lot of pride in what we do,” he said. “I tell the students all I need from them is to believe that we’re going to do something very special … they put a ton of their energy and passion and creativity and ownership into these events.”

‘It all paid off’

For Rudder, the experience has been surprisingly fun.

 “It was a lot of work and a lot of hours,” she said. “But it all paid off when my friends got to come and see what I have been doing all these late nights.” 

Rudder said she also made amazing friends in the class.

  “Professor Zach said I would, but I didn’t believe him until now.”

I asked Weston if he had a favorite memory from teaching the course. He couldn’t pick just one, but said of his students: “It’s so cool to watch them go from being a standard college class where nobody really knows each other, especially in this post-COVID time, to uniting as a real team working towards a common goal together.” 

Weston may object, but I think the Little Dinner Series has at least one recurring theme — bringing people together in the pursuit of good food.

The series kicked off with “A Feast On The Nile” on Oct. 19 and concludes with “Avatar: Experience Pandora” on Dec. 7. All events fall on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Moriah House, a senior at Florida State University, majoring in anthropology, is a guest writer for Tallahassee Table.

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