Kitchen Confidential

Originally published in GO, AirTran’s in-flight magazine

Uncovering the mystery and allure of underground supper clubs
By Jane Black

TO GET TO THE DINNER, THE GUESTS MAKE their way down a dark alley, past a series of run-down houses. Then they see it: a porch at the end of the road lit with thrift-store chandeliers and flickering brass candelabras. This row of homes, built for newly freed slaves who worked on the Atlanta railroad, was abandoned years ago and is usually empty. And yet, here people are, digging into homemade bread, a salad of local, organic greens and a vat of Slovenian stew, which is, to the relief of the young, adventurous organizers, pretty good. The recipe that called for bacon, roasted pork, kidney, sauerkraut and potatoes came from a total stranger, one mysterious “Tatjana,” who met the food-obsessed hosts online and mailed the recipe in on a postcard.

Despite the seemingly unseemly setting, the 30 attendees consider themselves lucky to pay $25 for this culinary experience. The dinner, organized by rogueApron, an underground supper club in Atlanta, is one of the hottest tickets in the city. Nearly 2,000 people vie for a seat at the secret get-togethers, which take place every four to six weeks. Guests are notified about the dinners two weeks before and find out the location on the day they are scheduled to arrive.

RogueApron’s first event—the one that sealed its reputation— was scheduled for March 14, 2008. That day, a tornado ripped through the city, blowing out windows and, more importantly as far as rogueApron was concerned, knocking out electricity. For two weeks prior, the ringleader, a digital media master’s student who identifies herself as Lady Rogue, had been brining corned beef in dark porter beer. Without refrigeration, the precious meat would start to spoil. And so Lady Rogue and her loyal friends braved the rain and downed power lines to procure enough ice to save dinner. The meal was rescheduled for two days later and 30 people showed up. “That was when we first got the inkling that this was going to be big,” Lady Rogue writes in an email (she only grants anonymous interviews in order to keep her identity a secret).

ODDBALL AMBIENCE AND UNCONVENTIONAL MENUS are all part of the allure of the underground dining trend, which has exploded across the country. While unlicensed restaurants have long prospered overseas—in Hong Kong, si fang cai, or speakeasies, in private homes are considered to have the best food in the city—such clandestine kitchens are a recent phenomenon in the US. The Ghetto Gourmet, which began serving meals in an Oakland basement apartment in 2004, was one of the earliest. Today, its founder, Jeremy Townsend, who tracks the trend, says there are currently as many as 250 social-dining experiments.

Curiously, the attraction isn’t usually the food. In an age where chefs are celebrities and entrées can top $40 (even in a recession), diners are on the hunt for something more authentic: a self-taught chef, a connection with a fellow diner. Of course, there’s also the mystery. Will you get a seat at the dinner? Who will join you at the table? And, since some of these restaurants operate without a license, is there any chance that the officials from the health department will arrive to bust the whole thing up?

Most underground restaurants follow the basic rules—mystery location and guest list, one set menu—but they cater to different crowds. In New York City, Whisk and Ladle feeds urban hipsters with cocktails and a five-course meal based on “the deeply entrenched belief that all things civilized and debaucherous find common ground on a dining room table.” Another New York-based supper club, A Razor, A Shiny Knife offers more interactive experiences. At one gathering, guests might prepare recipes from the cutting-edge Alinea cookbook, which includes dishes such as liquefied caramel popcorn. Another time, they might help butcher a 150-pound boar.

In Atlanta, Souper Jenny (which has an aboveground restaurant in Buckhead) offers 30 guests the chance to attend a $150-per-head dinner cooked by a celebrity chef. At the first soiree in 2008, Linton Hopkins—who was named a “Best New Chef” by Food & Wine magazine in 2009—created an upscale picnic that included a salad of grilled baby romaine with chèvre, ham, spiced almonds and citrus vinaigrette and salmon with a tomato-and-basil fondue. At another get-together a week before Halloween, celeb chef Richard Blais used a cotton-candy machine to create a spun-sugar dessert that looked like a spiderweb. The plates were slabs of black slate that resembled gravestones.

THE ONLY PROBLEM WITH THIS GROWING trend? When underground supper clubs become successful, they can lose their charm and, ultimately, disappear. The best ones are those that are just getting started. “They are real and raw,” says Jenn Garbee, author of Secret Suppers: Rogue Chefs and Underground Restaurants in Warehouses, Townhouses, Open Fields, and Everywhere In Between. But, she continues, “What starts as covering costs is suddenly a business.”

In a way, that’s what happened to the Ghetto Gourmet. The dinners began as a way for Townsend and his brother Joseph, a sous chef at San Francisco restaurant Mecca, to try new dishes. By inviting a few guests, they could take care of the expenses. At first, just friends came along. But soon Townsend posted a Craigslist ad: “Fun, underground and delicious,” it read. “Monday nights in the dark heart of Oakland in an effort to make the world a better place, you’re invited to dinner.”

The dinners were ultra casual to start. People sat on cushions at low tables Townsend had fashioned out of closet doors and folding aluminum legs. The brothers borrowed silverware, plates and glasses from neighbors. Then the press got wind of it. In January 2006, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that four people had given up their reservation at Berkeley temple of gastronomy Chez Panisse to eat at Chez Townsend. The next day, the health department showed up at Ghetto Gourmet’s door.

So Townsend took underground dining on the road. For four years, he became an underground event planner, coordinating dinners in cities across the country. “Anyone who’s gotten into social dining can talk to you about how one month it’s you and your neighbor and your nephew, and the next month you’re in Time Out London,” he says.

The concept is so hip that even “real” restaurants are launching sometime speakeasies. In 2008, Korean restaurant Dokebi in New York City served up bowls of ramen on Friday nights from midnight to 4am. Last year, “Top Chef ” host Tom Colicchio offered $150-per-person meals for 32 guests twice a month in the private dining room of his Manhattan flagship restaurant Craft.

One of the most popular pop-ups, as they are known, is at Brooklyn Fare, a gourmet supermarket in New York City. Chef César Ramirez, formerly executive chef at Manhattan destination Bouley, began holding dinners for 12 in the store’s kitchen last summer. The 10-course menu has included oyster with crème fraîche and cucumber jelly; butter-poached lobster topped with sugar-snap peas, mint and a tarragon foam; and a Long Island duck wrapped in spinach mousse and artichokes and served with foie-gras Chantilly sauce. Here, the attraction was not only the food, but also the price. Ramirez charged $70 per person; Bouley’s tasting menu starts at $95. Plus, Brooklyn Fare is BYOB, which allows diners to spend whatever they wish on a bottle, without paying the restaurant markup.

Within weeks, the kitchen was booked two months in advance. Ramirez’s dinners now take place five nights a week, and the price has jumped to $95 a head. Plans are in the works for an expanded dining room and a liquor license. In other words, a restaurant.

So will underground restaurants disappear? Certainly, some people will go to one dinner just to say they did it. And some clubs will get too big and implode. But the Ghetto Gourmet’s Townsend says most underground restaurateurs will stay on the down low and keep doing it for the love of community, adventure and good food. “Ultimately for these people, it doesn’t matter if you can build a business,” he says. “It matters if you can change the scene.”