Hollywood's Meeting of the Masters Dinner Club Serves Up "Reinvention of the Ego"

Courtesy of Sammy Fabisch
Bruce Villanch (in glasses) attended the July 20 Meeting of the Masters dinner; the next, featuring Tuscan-Mediterranean fusion is Aug. 3.

Producer and culinary enthusiast Guy Shalem's gatherings draw a showbiz crowd with guests such as producers Howard Rosenman and Jonathan Murray and actors Alec Mapa and Amy Acker.

At one of Guy Shalem's Meeting of the Masters dinners, a soccer pro might be seated next to a real estate agent who might be seated next to one of Hollywood's top execs.

These high-profile but disparate guests are directed to look under their plate or seat cushion to find a charm — shaped like a butterfly or maybe a cat (actor Jim Rash found a rose). Finding your "soulmate" with the matching emblem is a way to spark fresh conversation. (And occasional friction: A former studio head at one dinner was seen in an uncomfortable exchange with a pro-Trump author.)

The concept took root in 2006, when Jane Lynch wanted to host dinners for cast and crew (Wendi McLendon-Covey, Eric McCormack) of Lovespring International, a Lifetime comedy co-created by Shalem.

"She knew of my culinary skills," says Shalem. "We wanted to have a family, intimate time after the show."

In the years since, such guests as execs Garth Ancier, Sony's Nina Lederman and AEG's Kevin McDowell; writer Bruce Vilanch; Bohemian Rhapsody composer-editor John Ottman; producers Howard Rosenman and Keeping Up With the Kardashians' Jonathan Murray; and actors Carolyn Hennesy (General Hospital), Alec Mapa (Doom Patrol) and Amy Acker (The Gifted) have dined in groups ranging from six to 45 at private homes around L.A.

Shalem began charging to cover costs about a year ago (from $85 to $245) at Murray's urging: "I said, 'You're really good at bringing different kinds of people together,'" explains Murray, who has hosted two dinners. "I encouraged him to make a business of it. … It's something he enjoys doing, but he shouldn't be doing it as a charity for all of us.”

That's also when the event was branded as Meeting of the Masters, a tongue-in-cheek nod to Shalem’s spiritual guide, who taught him about strong-willed spiritual masters. Attendees cannot be guests, or "masters," two dinners in a row. They can either skip an event or be a "servant," helping in the kitchen before joining the buffet (save for Acker, who only wanted to be a servant: “I was hoping to learn some of his secrets. ... He sent me home with some [hummus] and I was dreaming about it for weeks.”)

More than a dozen dinners later, Shalem admits the role-playing of it all is a "risk that it's going to sound a little arrogant or over the top," but it remains "a really interesting way of also making it about the reinvention of the ego. You have the director coming as a guest and then the next week he wants to come again — well, this time you have to come and volunteer in the kitchen."

Less than a month ago, Shalem took on Broadway producer Scott Mauro (Dear Evan Hansen, Tootsie) as a creative consultant to help with marketing and is preparing to launch Meeting of the Masters as an LLC. The pair eventually hope to partner with nonprofits, book more guest chefs, bring the dinners to other cities (New York, San Francisco, Palm Springs, Chicago) and throw custom corporate feasts as VIP events.

“There is no money to be made yet. Maybe in the future. But what I think is the real valuable currency of this endeavor is in L.A., we have a lot of functions that bring people [together] professionally,” Shalem says. “This particular venue is really bringing people who are looking for friendships and intimacy and real connection and real conversation, not have a conversation that is laced with [an] agenda.”

Part of that conversation is indeed orchestrated; Shalem organizes games and activities, like making homemade hummus in jars with garbanzo beans, tahini, salt, lemon juice, pepper and olive oil. "I remember people going, 'Oh, mine is better,' 'Oh mine is worse.' These are high-profile executives and they are little children sharing their jars," Shalem laughs.

The filmmaker describes his process of inviting the perfect mix of guests as a game of chess. "The beauty of the game is in its balance of all the pieces. And I often think about this when I help curate the tables," he says. 

Attendees agree the night transcends a typical meet-and-greet or wine dinner: "You would go from small talk to deeper talk pretty quickly," Rash says. Even for professed introvert Mapa, the mix works. "The idea of a dinner party with stranger is enough to send me into panic mode," he says. "All my fears were put to rest the minute I arrived."

Ancier adds that "it is fun to meet people you don't know, because we're all in our little bubbles in Los Angeles. … You end up meeting people who are pretty far afield of what you're doing. Not always. Sometimes it's a writer or producer that you may or may not already know." He asked Murray questions about reality TV and chatted up Rosenman about shooting Call Me by Your Name. On top of attending a few dinners, the definitive non-vegan hosted one of his own, with one request: "When they did it at my house, I said, 'You can do it here, but there has to be something for people that don't eat only vegetables and hummus.'"

This summer, a controversial Hollywood director hosted a sushi dinner (thanks to guest chef Keizo Seki) — Shalem says he didn’t want to discriminate just because the host was in hot water. "It's interesting in this day and age in Hollywood where some people are guilty, some people are not, why not have a conversation at least about it? Why do we shut people out? My angle, even though I was warned against doing something at his house, is we don't discriminate. … I think that's the only way out of these dark times is to have people at the dinner table talk about this."

A version of this story first appeared in the July 31 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.