I wish I could give you a huge hug right now! I know exactly what you’re going through!
This is the advice that I wish someone had given me after my first bout of success:
ACCEPT THE HATE
There are going to be cranky folks without any experience organizing squat who are gonna get up on your shit because the event wasn’t as silky smooth as, say, Taste of Atlanta – a huge, corporate affair with tons of paid staff. What you pulled off was nothing short of astonishing!
The internet makes people feel so comfortable spewing hate – nasty blog critiques, bitchy emails. People with the ability to press “update/publish/send” feel justified in off-the-cuff critiques, and they don’t think about the person who made their experience possible – all of your late nights, all of your stress. I’d argue that this is part of our larger disconnect with our food culture – it’s easy to complain about what’s on the plate if you’ve never been in the kitchen. Successful underground events don’t come pre-packaged on slabs of styrofoam for your convenience – they are spontaneous, they can be messy, and we love them because they are undeniably real.
ACCEPT COMPETITION – DEFINE YOURSELF
Yep! I’m not surprised that people are already interested in re-packaging your concept for their market. Let ‘em! Atlanta is big enough to support multiple food concepts. Decide what you’re passionate about – focus on that segment of the market – and let others take on the rest. Listen to the logistical critiques, for sure – but don’t go down the rabbit hole of trying to please everyone. You can’t. Decide what works for yourself – the experience you want your guests to have, the types of vendors you want to support, and create a package that makes sense to you. If pre-selling $20 tickets makes your life easier – go for it!
MAKE SOME MONEY!
Man, I wish someone would have told me this. $400 is no way to compensate yourself for all the work you did putting this market together. I made the same mistake with rogueApron, and I regret it. When you reconfigure your idea, make sure you build in a healthy margin for yourself. After all – a healthy local economy has to be sustainable – and if you’re not getting any compensation for all of your work, it’s exploitation.
Sincerely! Don’t let all of the critiques distract you from the fact that you put together an amazing underground event with very little-lead time and resources. It’s all about iteration – the next one will always be better!
Whether you’re a longtime rogueApron supporter or you just caught wind of us via some nice press writeup, you likely share the same question: “When is the next dinner?”
I know! It’s been a…]]>
Whether you’re a longtime rogueApron supporter or you just caught wind of us via some nice press writeup, you likely share the same question: “When is the next dinner?”
I know! It’s been a while, and I feel bad because in a lot of ways I’ve kept saying “dinners are monthly” long after they stopped being monthly.
Some of you know that I’m juggling a few projects these days … finishing up my master’s degree, running the super awesome Lady Rogue Business Network, and the growBot Garden project here at Tech.
The food world has changed significantly since I cooked up the underground supperclub idea about three years back. At the time, I was recovering from an unwanted downsizing, running out of unemployment benefits, and really wondering when in the hell my luck was going to change. I used my very last check to float the funds for the first rogueApron dinner – a day after the tornado hit back in 2008 – and was so, so excited that we had 30 guests! Some of whom were strangers!
rogueApron grew faster than I could have imagined, with people popping out of the woodwork to volunteer. Tickets to events sold out in 8 minutes flat … it was surreal, flattering, and completely intoxicating. Today our mailing list is at an astonishing 2,500 people long – the number still boggles my mind.
The food landscape in Atlanta has changed beyond recognition in the past few years – farm to table restaurants pop up left and right, while food trucks take to the streets and professionals turn to underground restaurants in order to make a name for themselves.
Some days I wonder if rogueApron should be brought back to life.
And then I spot a super cool recipe and think to myself … YES!
Thanks for your patience all!
By Jane Black
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 10, 2010
On Feb. 23, a select group of Washingtonians received an intriguing e-mail: “The orange arrow is pointing at you,” the subject line read.
It was an exclusive invitation to “an exclusive underground anti-restaurant,” the e-mail explained. “Because the DNA of the magical dinner is unmapped, these events will evolve, month to month, season to season, place to place & plate to plate.”
The invitation alone wasn’t enough for diners to make the cut, however. For the privilege of attending Orange Arrow’s inaugural, $125-a-head dinner, guests had to agree to abide by certain rules.
“If you can’t/won’t eat certain things, this is not for you.”
“No crybabies, whiners or buzz kills can come to our party. This isn’t reality television.”
“Don’t try to sell your ticket on Craigslist. Failure to show basic decency gets you on the blacklist.”
Reached by phone, Orange Arrow’s co-founder, a James Beard award-nominated chef, made no apologies for the invitation’s tone or defiant exclusivity. “We don’t want them in if they’re not fun or interesting,” said the chef, who requested anonymity. “This is a private club. In a restaurant, you’re a whipping post. This is a completely different thing.”
In a city best known for its see-and-be-seen culinary destinations, a new breed of underground restaurants is emerging. These supper clubs shun pomp, circumstance and plebian steak dinners in favor of more-offbeat dining experiences. Some operate as for-profit businesses. Orange Arrow plans to obtain location and liquor permits for its ambitious suppers, which will host as many as 150 select “hungry, hedonistic gypsies” at venues that range from a museum to an alleyway. Others lurk in a legal gray area, accepting “suggested donations” for the food and wine to get around requirements for business and liquor licenses. Hush, the brainchild of a former World Bank staffer, invites no more than 16 for an intimate evening of home-style Indian food and culinary storytelling. There are even traveling underground restaurants. On Feb. 20, 40 in-the-know hipsters surrounded a long table to eat garlicky shrimp (and learn to suck out the heads) at the area’s first Wok + Wine event.
Already, demand is strong. Orange Arrow sold 30 percent of its tickets within 24 hours; it requires visitors to visit http://orangearrowdc.com to list a reference in order to get past the virtual velvet rope. After just one month of taking reservations at http://hushsupperclub.wordpress.com, Hush has an e-mail list of 300 interested diners, and every meal has had a waiting list. “The demand is unbelievable,” said the host, who goes by the name Geeta and runs Hush out of her home in Northwest Washington. “I thought, you know, I’d join Twitter and send out some e-mails and maybe some people would check it out. I thought it would take six months to build interest, not 10 days.”
Unlicensed restaurants have long prospered overseas. In Hong Kong, si fang cai, or speak-easies, in private homes are considered by many to have the best food in the city. But clandestine kitchens are a more recent phenomenon in the United States. The Ghetto Gourmet, which began serving meals in the basement of an Oakland, Calif., apartment in 2004, was one of the earliest. Soon, the concept spread to big cities everywhere. In Atlanta, RogueApron threw an event in an alley between boarded-up houses. In New York, patrons of A Razor, A Shiny Knife have together learned to carve a 150-pound boar. In Washington, two professional chefs launched a short-lived underground experiment, also called Hush, in Eastern Market in 2007. But it wasn’t until this year that the trend took off in earnest.
Washington’s new underground restaurants generally divide into two categories: amateur cooks who want to offer a new kind of experience and recovering restaurateurs who want to set their own rules.
Hush falls into the first group. For between $50 and $75 per person, Geeta serves the dishes she grew up eating in her mother’s kitchen, including dhokla, steamed lentil-and-rice flour cakes, chana masala (chickpea curry) and sweet carrot halwa. It’s a way of sharing her Gujarati culture and her religion, Jainism, which prescribes a diet that bans root vegetables as well as meat and dairy products. “If you want fine dining, go to Rasika,” Geeta said, referring to the popular restaurant in Penn Quarter. “This is the comfort food I’ve been served since I was in the womb.”
The message comes through food and storytelling. At a recent dinner, Geeta told guests about when, as a young girl, she was given her first masala spice box. She encouraged the roomful of strangers to talk about what was interesting and meaningful to them. “We live in a divisive town. We could go the whole night talking about Sarah Palin,” Geeta told the group as they sipped their welcome cocktails, made with coriander-and-saffron gin. “But we are more than what we do. I want you to share things, things that maybe you didn’t think anyone would be interested in in Washington, D.C.”
Whether it was the cocktails or the encouragement, it seemed to work. After some initial nervous chatter, the group of 20- and 30-somethings ate, drank and talked about the Olympics, what they’d cooked during the recent snowstorms and meddling in-laws. Yana Kravtsova, a 33-year-old lawyer, taught software project manager Scott Forman and Rakesh Surampudi (who followed instructions and avoided saying where he worked) the Russian way to make a toast. At midnight, Forman began playing the piano. The last guests left at 1 a.m.
“It’s very refreshing,” said Kravtsova. “I like the concept. Hanging out with strangers is not a very Washington thing.”
Wok + Wine’s mission is also to bring people together. The club was founded in November 2008 by New Zealand native Peter Mandeno, 38, as a way to broaden his social network in New York. In 2009, Mandeno organized 20 events there as well as in Amsterdam, Copenhagen, London, Madrid and Washington.
Wok + Wine’s formula is simple. Interested diners sign up at http://www.woknwine.com on a first-come, first-served basis. Only 40 people are admitted. Tickets usually cost $35.
Twenty-four hours before the event, guests receive an e-mail revealing the location of the party. Wok + Wine offers one kind of wine — all the easier to meet someone by filling up their glass, the theory goes — and one kind of food: jumbo shrimp stir-fried with garlic, salt, crushed red pepper flakes and cilantro in a high-powered portable gas wok.
The Washington event skewed heavily female. During the first hour, guests sipped a 2007 Quinta dos Grilos (it retails for between $10 and $12) and milled around the 6,000-square-foot apartment in Shaw. At about 8 p.m., everyone was called to the long wooden table, lined with banana leaves. Mandeno scattered the shrimp down the center, and his partner, Yrmis Barroeta, explained how to peel them and suck out the heads. In case anyone forgot, a sign was posted on the wall to remind them: Rip. Lick. Bite. Suck.
Guests muscled their way closer to the table. Conversations sparked easily as several people struggled to eat the shrimp as directed. “The structure definitely makes it easy to talk to one another,” said Sylvia Yu, an employee of the Department of Health and Human Services who had heard about Wok + Wine through a friend. “Getting your hands dirty is messy and kind of sexy. It’s fun.”
Underground restaurants run by chefs are, not surprisingly, more elaborate. The goal of Orange Arrow, the chef said, is to create a place where “people who love food want to go,” not another bricks-and-mortar restaurant that has to serve steak and salmon and make the rent. The first dinner is at the end of the month.
Another underground restaurant, operating out of the Northwest home of two former Washington chefs since June 2009, offers guests half a dozen passed hors d’oeuvres and cocktails, then a multi-course tasting menu paired with wine. On a recent evening, the appetizers included seared scallop with roasted beets, cauliflower soup with Oregon black truffle, steak with Brussels sprouts and sunchokes, roasted rockfish with corn grits and turnip greens, and black truffle ice with vanilla cake. The suggested donation: $195 per person.
The restaurant’s founders said they had tired of the relentless pace of the hospitality industry. But after time away, they missed cooking for friends and food lovers. “We missed the interaction,” the founder said. “So we found a different way of doing it.”
The restaurant has no fixed schedule. Dinners happen about twice month. The chefs set up private dinners upon request or get the word out via friends and the Internet. Guests tend to be people who love food but are tired of the restaurant scene, the founder said. In general, the restaurant serves 10 to 20 guests at each dinner.
Despite their questionable legality, underground restaurants don’t seem to be ruffling any feathers.
Rob Wilder, co-founder of ThinkFood Group, which owns seven Washington restaurants including Jaleo and Zaytinya, has attended two underground dinners with friends and says he has no qualms about any unfair advantage the hosts might have over legal restaurants like his. “If it’s five nights a week and anyone can knock on the door, give the password like a speak-easy, they’re over the line,” he said. “I don’t see a few people doing a few of these a month as competition. I think it’s part of D.C. becoming a more vibrant, fun, adventurous food community.”
A D.C. health department spokeswoman said she was unaware that such operations are taking hold here. The department requires that inspectors visit any establishment that “relinquishes possession of food directly to a consumer,” including restaurants, grocery stores, convenience stores, bakeries, delicatessens and caterers. Operators also must be located in an area zoned for commercial business, and they must obtain a business license.
But the hosts say that because they request donations and not payments, their events are no different from dinner parties where guests are asked to pitch in for the cost of the meal.
“In some ways, my intention is to be very public about my desire to spread my culture and my cuisine,” said Geeta. But she never reveals her name. Just in case.
By Bob Townsend
For the AJC
There’s no obvious sign that the tidy bungalow near Grant Park will soon be the secret sanctum for a one-time gourmet meal cooked by a local chef.
But inside the home of Ryan and Jen Hidinger, the 10 strangers who’ve arrived on a cold January evening crowd into a narrow hallway with a mix of nervous energy and giddy anticipation, making introductions, sipping wine and stealing glances into the kitchen.
Call them pirate restaurants, underground supper clubs or dinner party networks, nowadays these kinds of events are taking place all over Atlanta. Many are much larger and more elaborate than the Hidingers’. Some feature unusual locations, such as a cemetery or a farm. A few boast celebrity chefs, while others serve as a laboratory for home cooks to test recipes and network with like-minded culinary obsessives.
Weeks ago, in response to an e-mail alert from the Hidingers, tonight’s guests made reservations for the coveted first-come, first-served spots. Details of the menu were revealed a few days in advance, along with a neighborly greeting: “dinner’s at our house — casual and comfortable; five courses with beer or wine; $65 per head donation.”
With six seated at the cozy IKEA white table and four at the bar, Ryan, who is chef de cuisine at Muss & Turner’s in Smyrna, begins assembling the first course. Indie rock flows from an iPod dock as Jen pours more wine and delivers artfully arranged plates of a salad that blends spicy fried chorizo with tart pickled green tomato, cilantro and red onion.
A couple of hours later, after a final course of chocolate terrine with caramel and sea salt, the group offers a rowdy round of applause for the chef and a ragged rendition of “Happy Birthday to You.”
“The first dinner we did was a birthday gift to some friends of ours,” Ryan said. “After, Jen and I started talking and we agreed it would be a phenomenal way to start marketing what we hope will be our restaurant one day.”
The Hidingers already have a name for their restaurant, Staplehouse, and their intimate dinners have been dubbed Prelude to Staplehouse (www.staplehouse.com ). Since January 2009, they’ve put on more than a dozen and hope to up the pace to two per month through 2010.
Some of the guests who’ve made it to more than one Prelude dinner say they like coming to the Hidingers’ house because of the easygoing atmosphere.
“At first I was watching our Ps and Qs and trying to make it more like fine dining,” Jen said. “But we’ve come down from that. We actually don’t care if there’s noise or if I say a curse word. You’re in our home and you’re just kind of hanging out with us.”
In contrast to the Hidingers’ laid-back style, some other clubs go for a more high-profile, theatrical approach.
Jenny Levison, owner of the long-running Souper Jenny soup and sandwich shop in Buckhead, regularly recruits some of Atlanta’s most celebrated chefs, including Gerry Klaskala of Aria and Linton Hopkins of Restaurant Eugene, for her Underground Supper Club (souperjennyatl.com ).
Last year, Top Chef finalist Richard Blais cooked up a spooky Halloween dinner at Oakland Cemetery, served on gravestone-shaped plates.
“I think underground supper clubs are just another fun, creative way to entertain,” Levison said. “I didn’t start ours as a chef that couldn’t afford to open my own place. I really was interested in entertaining outside of the restaurant. People who know me know I love a good party.”
Souper Jenny supper club dinners are limited to about 30 people, personally chosen by Levison from the e-mails she receives (the more creative the better), and the cost can be as much as $150.
“Our supper club is more expensive than others like Lady Rogue at Rogue Apron,” Levison said. “She is one of my favorite personalities around town and is super creative.”
Lady Rogue, the exuberant young woman who runs Rogue Apron (rogue apron.wordpress.com), prefers to remain anonymous. But she has plenty to say about perceptions of the underground dining scene.
“Writers paint these scenes of fancy meals or secretive meet-ups,” Lady Rogue said. “These are seductive details. But I think there are much more interesting stories. Why have 2,000 people joined the Rogue Apron mailing list? What is missing from people’s experiences with food that so many of us are excited to join an underground dining community?
“From my perspective, the Rogue Apron community is as diverse as Atlanta — not comprised of the fashionista foodies, but people from all levels of income and background.”
Lady Rogue’s back story includes a short stint as a restaurant cook, though she’s quick to point out she has no formal training. She prefers beer to wine and often collaborates with a group of East Atlanta home brewers.
Her suppers tend to have themes, such as Mama Mediterranean. One of her favorites took place at the Starlight Six Drive-in. The cost is usually $30, with opportunities for volunteers who “can’t float the cash.”
“We’ve had people join us who were celebrating their birthdays, pregnant couples enjoying a night out,” Lady Rogue said. “And we can boast at least one romance from folks who met at a dinner.”
Chef Shaun Doty of Atlanta’s acclaimed Shaun’s Restaurant said he’s had some misgivings about the underground dining phenomena. But a recent experience cooking at a For Food’s Sake event helped change his mind.
For Food’s Sake (forfoodssake.com) pairs chefs with Georgia farmers at a variety of Atlanta locations. This time, Doty partnered with Nicolas Donck of Crystal Organics Farms and chef Julia LeRoy of Bookhouse Pub for a dinner at an intown art gallery.
“I cooked for 60 people that night,” Doty said. “I had, like, 40 people in my restaurant that same night. I think people are hungry for these kinds of experiences. I had an opportunity to meet the guests and express my personality. Most of all, I had a chance to talk about things I care about, like farm-to-table cooking and being part of the community.”]]>
OK, the story is up on AccessAtlanta.com [an AJC publication], so I’ve posted the interview in its entirety.
Generally, I’d like to get your take on the scene, especially anything you think has been missed or misconstrued in previous stories.
Great question! Thanks for asking.
Most of the news coverage on the underground scene is either a trend/style piece or food porn. Writers paint these scenes of fancy meals or secretive meetups. These are seductive details; I understand why most writers stop at this level. But I think there are much more interesting stories to be told. Who goes to these underground dinners? Why have 2,000 people joined the rogueApron mailing list? What is missing from people’s experiences with food – in restaurants, in their grocery stores, in their meals at home – that so many of us are excited join a underground dining community?
I think we are a point in which we crave authenticity: food that is sourced ethically and cooked with care, the chance to meet other people who are passionate about their lives and active in their communities. I think that this is the most compelling aspect of the underground dining scene – it is truly the guests.
Then I’d like to know what inspired you to start Rogue Apron and what’s your food/cooking background (chef? home cook? in other food groups or organizations?)
I identify as a cook – I do not have formal training. I have worked in the restaurant business as a cook with some enormously talented chefs – I respect their craft enormously and would never claim that title for myself.
As for why rogueApron started … oh, sometimes I don’t know! No, the more honest answer is that I was at a place in my life where I had absolutely nothing to lose. And thankfully, I quickly met a lot of other people who wanted to be a part of it.
Lisa Hanson tells me you were involved in last Labor Day’s picnic for better food in schools…..(movement started by Alice Waters and pioneered by Michelle Obama)….How does that tie in to Rogue Apron?
1/3 of children born after 1990 will develop Type II diabetes; 1/4 will end up overweight or obese. These are startling facts, but it’s no surprise if you look at a school cafeteria tray filled with processed foods, sodas and chips. It’s a sad truth that fresh vegetables are more expensive than junk calories. Children from low-income families should not suffer life-long health problems because our food system is skewed. Essentially, the more I learned about the Farm to School movement (Thanks Erin Croom at Georgia Organics!), the more I felt that it was just the right thing to do, to help out as best I could. I knew that the rogueApron community would be eager to get involved in such a worthy cause – we had about 80 rockstar volunteers who passed out fliers, informed their community groups, and recruited friends to attend the protest.
I understand you also organize entrepreunerial meet-ups to help people share resources and ideas….
Yep! The Lady Rogue Business Network was a natural offshoot of the rogueApron community. We are all about supporting sustainable local businesses, especially those that are run by female entrepreneurs – although men are welcome! “Loconomy” is the term, and we’re all about supporting our fellow entrepreneurs – including farmers, designers, crafters, shop-owners and jam makers.
[Above, L-R: Lionel Flax, Amy Herr, Jennifer Peté, Rebecca Kern, Lady Rogue, Elizabeth Beasley & Shari Margolin at the November Sam Flax meetup. Photo courtesy Piedmont Review.]
I hear you have a fairly small house and kitchen (as we all do in this part of town), but you obviously love to entertain… Was that an impetus for Rogue Apron?
I didn’t have a place to live when I started rogueApron, so this place seems very big to me! Three years ago, the recession nabbed my job; I didn’t have much besides a wok, two wooden spoons, my laptop and a suitcase of clothes. I tried to get back on that corporate job ladder but the ladder didn’t want me – so I had literally nothing to lose by trying out my own ideas.
I think you’ve collaborated with
Yes, we have collaborated with them – they are close friends of ours, and we usually pair beers with the menu. Either they brew something to fit a theme (for example an Irish Red Ale for our St. Patricks’ Day Feast) or we plan a dinner around their brew (a Coconut Extravaganza based around the delicious Roasted Coconut Porter).
Nothing with wineries yet; I love beer so the dinners stick in this realm
What is the most exotic/unusual place you’ve held a dinner?
The Drive-In gets my vote for the most unusual.
Have there been fiascos/crashers/cooking problems/weather issues?
We’ve been really lucky … the only problem we ever had was with our first dinner, scheduled literally the day after the March 2008 tornado. Our corned beef had been aging for weeks in EAB Porter, and we had to scramble in downed power lines, trees, and ferocious rain to fetch ice to keep it nice and cold. We rescheduled the dinner, and all was well.
[Above: Heath & Berit at our debut dinner.]
You have people host events in their home/business, correct? What does someone need to do/provide to be a host for an underground dinner?
Good question, and yes. It’s more of a timing/space/personality fit than anything else.
Where do you like eat when you’re not underground?
Bookhouse Pub, Noni’s, Gato Bizco, Bone Garden Cantina, Antico Pizza.]]>
by Becky Striepe on January 19, 2010
What do you get when you combine robotics and small-scale organic farming? Atlanta foodie Lady Rogue is examining that very question with her growBot project.
Lady Rogue is a busy woman! She’s a cook, social provocateur, community organizer, asker of questions and maker of plans. She runs the underground food community rogueApron, its corresponding entrepreneur networking group, and serves on the communication board of Georgia Organics. She’s also a grad student at Georgia Tech, and we were fortunate that she could take some time to talk about her new project: imagining what happens when you combine robotics with organic farming.
Here’s a short video to give you an idea of what the project is about:
growBot Symposium – Spring 2010 from Rogue Apron on Vimeo.
It almost sounds like some crazy science fiction future, and that’s no accident. The growBot project is part of the Public Design Workshop with Dr. Carl DiSalvo, and the whole idea is to imagine the future how you think it ought to be, and then figure out how to make it happen. Lady Rogue explained that imagining and a whole lot more when we chatted last week:
gUP: Can you tell me a little bit about the program?
Lady Rogue: The Public Design Workshop is a series of project studios based at [Georgia] Tech around participatory design. The growBot project grew out of a Speculative Robotics course last semester where students imagined ways in which robotics could be used to impact a community.
Lady Rogue: This is a process known as design fiction – which is really fun. A great example of design fiction is “Minority Report” – where Tom Cruise used his fingers to use his magical computer. This fiction influences both the general public, and designers, who incorporate things that they have seen in movies into their real life ideas. So our job is to create participatory design fictions, in which we guide the community (in this case food producers/farmers) in the process of imagining a robot.
gUP: So, how in-depth does this imagining go?
Lady Rogue: That’s what’s so exciting about this process. It literally democratizes the process of new technology creation. An engineer has to get a bunch of fancy degrees and learn quite a lot about what is “possible” in order to create their designs, whereas a layperson has a completely different perspective. Their imagining might be illustrated in construction paper, pipe cleaners, and sketches versus technical specifications that an engineer might produce, but a layperson might come up with a better idea or one that is more suited to solving a problem in organic farming, because they come at it from a different perspective than an engineer. It’s just a different *kind* of imagining. Our role as public designers is to guide the process, and document the result, and publish the ideas, which is a profoundly democratizing force.
gUP: So you sort of facilitate this conversation between imaginers and engineers?
Lady Rogue: In many ways, yes. We will put on a workshop in the spring with food producers and get all of their imagineering documented. In future workshops, we bring in the engineers to talk with the food producers The food producers can bring their ideas to the table and get engineers to think about them and work on them, which is profoundly different than using off-the-shelf technologies.
Lady Rogue: Our job is to make the conversation happen: to make it fruitful, to provide all the resources to make sure that each group knows enough about each other, and then to publish the results of all of these processes in order to facilitate future public participatory design projects.
gUP: I was reading on Organic Nation about the misconception that organic farming is inherently anti-technology. I’m sure you come up against that perception from time to time. How would you answer those folks?
Lady Rogue: I think we commonly conflate “technology” with “industrialization,” and we forget that tools like plows, rakes and tractors are technology. Organic farming is an alternative to industrial food production. we’d like to strengthen the viability of organic farming by helping to create new tools and technology.
Lady Rogue: The future of industrial food production is clear: genetically identical plants will be harvested by robots. This future is about 15 years away, give or take a recession or environmental collapse.
Lady Rogue: Our food is already processed by plants, packaged by robots, shipped with sophisticated RFID embedded pallets to centralized distribution points that are increasingly controlled by intelligent algorithms. That is the clear-cut future progression of industrial food production. Our job is to help organic farmers to imagine tools that will help them create a viable production model as an alternative to this future.
Lady Rogue: I haven’t met a farmer yet who isn’t interested in a way to preserve their way of life. I haven’t met a farmer who isn’t hoping that young people take up the siren call and become food producers themselves. So, no, I don’t think that farming is anti-technology at all. It’s just tainted with a wee bit of mistrust because the technology in recent years has tended to benefit industrial food production, and not organic.
gUP: I’m sure you’ve done your share of imagining on the topic of robots and organic farming. Do you have a vision of what that might look like that you can share?
Lady Rogue: Well, I have this fantastic pipe dream. Wired farms, powered with solar energy and the heat emanating from compost piles. Sensors that continually provide information about the pH levels of plants. A wonderful iPhone gamelike interface that allows people all over the world to care for the farm by issuing commands to the small robots, built from recycled scrap parts, that enable the solitary farmer to produce enough food to feed a few city blocks.
Lady Rogue: All of these technologies exist, right now. it’s a matter of creating an ecosystem of interconnection that is sustainable and affordable for the wired farmer.
gUP: I love how you worked social media in there. What a great way to connect food consumers with food producers!
Lady Rogue: It is completely possible for someone to care for their garden while they wait for a bus. It’s completely possible to earn a share in a CSA by ‘tending’ virtually to a farm: reading through plant data nightly, and sending messages to the robots and farmers to help them grow your food.
Lady Rogue: The project in many ways is about the magical power of ideas. Would consumers want ‘gesture interfaces’ like the iPhone if they hadn’t seen Minority Report years ago? What will people wish for if they are introduced to the idea of a robogarden?
Lady Rogue: There was a ’96 project that has similar ideas. VERY ahead of it’s time. Of course, you’ve never heard of it. Our job as speculative designers is to make sure that people *do* hear about the ideas, even if we illustrate it instead of building a prototype.
gUP: So, what’s the plan to get your ideas heard?
Lady Rogue: Well, the specific technologies will be the ideas of the farmers and gardeners … but we’ll end up creating a series of materials, depending on the ideas. For sure we’ll put together a website and videos. Most likely we’ll also create ‘brochures’ and other print materials to help convey the ideas. In many ways the form of the design will be dependent on the ideas, but overall, we’re going to include the public in as many events as possible and use social media communication to maintain the communications.
gUP: Is there somewhere that folks can find information about your project online?
Lady Rogue: Well, right now we’re on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, and we have a blog. Part of the project ethos is to communicate with people where they already are…very different than most of academia.
gUP: Very! The whole thing takes such an interesting approach. Thank you so much for taking some time to chat about the Growbot project! Definitely keep me posted on how things are going! Is there anything you’d like to add?
Lady Rogue: Nope … I think that is it. Thanks SO much for the interview … it will definitely be a huge help in creating awareness.
The growBot Symposium starts this spring. They’ll first sit down with farmers to brainstorm, then they’ll get those farmers together with engineers and facilitate a conversation between those two groups. We’ll be checking back in with Lady Rogue, so stay tuned!]]>
by Rani Long
When you hear the phrase underground dining, you may envision creeping into a musty basement, giving a secret password to an inscrutable lookout, and bracing yourself for a raid from the police. (Hide the popovers!) The reality couldn’t be more different. While there will be no signs out front, and the majority of people walking by won’t know it’s there, this trend in dining is better described as epicurean, cost-effective, and most of all, communal.
Cook Here and Now
The statement, “There are no guests — all pitch in,” says a lot about the atmosphere of the dinners here. While locales rotate frequently, diners stay informed through founder Marco Flavio Marinucci’s blog and active word of mouth. All dinners are seasonally, locally, and sustainably themed, and all attendees are required to cook, prep, or participate. Marinucci specializes in artisan breads, baked goods, and a wide range of Italian dishes, plus, he also makes his own cultured butter and chutneys. www.cookhereandnow.com
4 Course Vegan
Brooklyn, New York
Producing all-vegan gourmet dinners in his “secret” Brooklyn loft, 4 Course Vegan’s chef, Matthew “Matteo” Silverman, puts emphasis on local and organic foods; one signature dish is watermelon-radish ravioli with cashew cheese and Thai basil puree. He notes, “At least half of the guests who attend aren’t even vegetarians!” www.4coursevegan.com
Clandestino Supper Club
In the beginning, chef/founder Efrain Cuevas kept a low profile to avoid run-ins with the health department. But now he’s obtained his food-safety license, insurance, and a catering kitchen. To keep things interesting, his supper club moves to a different location every month (think abandoned convents and barns) with announcements made via Twitter, Facebook, a website, and newsletters. Our favorite dish is the Blueberry Moonpie — crispy chocolate biscuits, homemade marshmallows, blueberry ice cream, blueberry compote, and chocolate ganache. www.clandestinodining.org
Word of mouth and an e-mail list keep guests informed about the self-titled Clandestine Chef’s upcoming dinners, which are held in a variety of spots, from homes to art galleries to wine shops. If money’s an issue, “People are given the chance to barter for a dinner,” says the chef, “doing kitchen work or serving.” Thus far, only one dish has been repeated: “An egg yolk ravioli with melted mustard greens and lardoons.” www.danssouslaterre.com
RogueApron has a mailing list of 1,800 people, and once a dinner date is announced, reservations are booked within minutes. With the help of volunteers, chef Lady Rogue hosts theme dinners — one favorite was the Soup Line after last year’s stock-market crash — and locations rotate between private homes, parks, coffee shops, and even drive-ins. rogueapron.wordpress.com
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.”]]>