Monday, March 16, 2009

Dinner with strangers?

I'm intrigued by an article in the Sydney Morning Herald, Australia, about a new way of dining out.

A TEXT message arrives with an address, a dress code and a request to be prompt. Dinner will be served at 10pm.

Welcome to the world of underground dining, Sydney-style.

Transient Diner is the brainchild of an apprentice chef who felt stifled working in five-star kitchens. Realising many of his colleagues felt the same, he developed the dining concept to give third- and fourth-year apprentice chefs the opportunity to run a virtual restaurant for an evening. From finding the location and creating the menu to curating a theme and employing staff, the experience gives young chefs the freedom to experiment without the commitments and responsibilities of opening a real restaurant.

The chef behind Transient Diner refuses to be named, remaining true to the group's strict code of conduct. Explaining the motivation behind the collective, he says, "These young chefs are highly competent, they are the ones executing the signature dishes of Australia's best restaurants . . . it is our intention to bring them in from the background, to encourage, motivate and grow them."

Menus vary from hearty home-cooked fare served in a paddock to a Spanish-influenced 10-course degustation menu with matched wines.

Dinners are held monthly. Patrons log their interest via email and, if selected, receive a return email with a reservation date. No further information arrives until the day of the dinner, via text message.

Underground dining collectives were born of the speakeasy (illicit liquor outlet) tradition in the US during the Prohibition years (1920 to 1933). It is estimated there are more than 100 secret dining groups in the US and a growing number across Europe and Latin America.

Some secret dining groups are closely aligned with political and social movements. Chef Alice Waters, of California's famed Chez Panisse, began her career on the underground dining circuit in the late 1960s. Catering for fellow free-speech campaigners, Walters's community-conscious dinners became known as Alice's Restaurant. Some groups operate as social networks for like-minded foodies, such as Casa Felix in Buenos Aires. It's a private dining club, known as a "closed door", where patrons enjoy fish and vegetable feasts in gastronomic defiance of the city's obsession with beef.

Others provide a way to meet new people, such as Sydney's Cheap Eats group, a collective of North Shore singles who love food and wine. The group has met weekly since 1982. Punters register interest via a website and, once approved, are supplied with a phone number for details of the next location. Convenor "Kingsley" believes secrecy and privacy are major drawcards.

"Secret locations intrigue people and the fact that the group changes constantly means you never know who you will meet," he says.

For many patrons, however, it's all about the allure of the unknown. Dinner might be in a field or a car park or a private home.

The underground dining trend reached Hong Kong in 1997, following the Asian economic crisis. In her memoir, Shark's Fin And Sichuan Pepper, Fuchsia Dunlop chronicles the rise of private kitchens run by families keen to supplement their income, often from their own kitchen table. Many private kitchens gained a cult following and have grown into larger underground restaurants. Some are booked out months in advance.

. . .

Savas has designed and executed a secret dinner for 20 in a tunnel. "The client was so insistent on secrecy that all correspondence was hand-delivered and details discussed in person," he says. "Even I wasn't privy to the location until four hours prior."

On another occasion, guests were transported blindfolded in a minibus to a private home. The windows were blacked out and the guests had no idea where they were.

The style of food is dictated by the environment, Savas says. "The menu has to be designed around logistical limitations," he says. At a secret dinner in a warehouse we had no power and no gas, so we arrived with the food ready and a box of candles."

He believes the key to a successful secret dinner is an extraordinary location, appropriately matched food and a sense of freedom.

"In a private scenario people tend to be bolder and to mingle more broadly," he says. "The experience gives guests a common talking point, it's a great conversation starter."

There's more at the link.

Have any readers participated in these private dining get-togethers? I'm intrigued. I might have to see about starting something here, in association with a very good Cajun restaurant in town that I'll get to do the catering. This might be fun!

(If any fellow bloggers or readers want an invitation, e-mail me and we'll see what we can arrange - or we'll get the beautiful and gracious Phlegm to co-ordinate something in Dallas, which is a rather more central location. How about it, Phlegmmy?)



Unknown said...

Anyone know the number/link/URL/email address for this????

Old NFO said...

I'm in :-)

Julie said...

i'ld love to join in one of your dinners Peter, but i'ld need more than a couple of hours notice :)

(i love the idea ... could you let me know if you hear of a similar thing in Perth, Western Australia .... )

phlegmfatale said...

I was obviously head-in-the-clouds when you posted this, but this sounds like a great idea. I'm in, whether in Dallas, or not!