“Look for the man learning How to Cook Everything. He will direct you to the location of the feast.” And so began a recent cloak-and-fork odyssey that ultimately led some 150 food lovers to a secret—and historic—culinary event in a vacated photographer’s loft in midtown Manhattan.
Put on by Undergrounds Unite, an umbrella moniker for five of the city’s most active private dining clubs, the happening was the first of its kind; never before had so many NYC clubs, or amateur chefs, come together for such an ambitious meal. More than 1,800 plates left the kitchen as part of an elaborate 12-course Thanksgiving-inspired dinner featuring dishes like turducken roulade with oyster-andouille stuffing. Curious food-geeks of all ages paid $125 for a seat at the table at the lively clandestine party, which lasted well past midnight. (The last course, a dark chocolate pistachio Linzer torte, arrived at 1:30 a.m.)
“I like having the chance to meet fun people who are passionate about food,” says Leah Moskowitz, a financial advisor in New York who attended the dinner. “The evening lived up to expectations.”
Whether it’s takeout fatigue or the allure of the illicit and new, food-obsessed diners around the world are seeking out these secret clubs, where strangers braise, sauté, and flambée for strangers, often illegally, for the sheer love of cooking. Some hobby chefs do it to test the restaurant waters before committing; others just like to entertain. Most club buzz happens by word of mouth, with access granted via secret passwords. Often, it’s trial by application. New York’s Studiofeast online membership form asks: “You’re about to die. What’s your last meal?”
Prices average $50 for a few courses, but can reach as high as $150 for more elaborate meals with wine pairings. While dinners are typically held in private homes, some are staged in galleries, garages, grocery stores, and fields, where makeshift kitchens with propane stovetops are as good as the cooking facilities get. Space, which is often tight, determines the size of the group and the chances of getting in.
“The reality is we don’t want to be exclusive, but we have to be because we only offer dinners a limited number of times per month to a limited number of guests,” says Becky (who prefers to go by her first name only), cofounder of the NYC-based club Homeslice West.
Jenn Garbee, whose book Secret Suppers was released in October, estimates that there are more than 100 such operations flying under the radar across the country—many in big cities, and a few in smaller urban centers like Austin, Charleston, and Portland, OR. Countless more have sprouted around the world—in suburban apartments in Vienna, Buenos Aires townhouses, and parking lots in Melbourne.
While today’s dining clubs take shape according to their founders’ vision and tastes, the basic phenomena is frequently compared to the experience of dining at paladares—small family-run restaurants (often in modest homes) across Cuba. Rarely advertised, they can be a challenge to find, lending to that underground feel. Back on American soil, Alice Waters is often credited with kick-starting the home dinner business. Before she opened Chez Panisse in Berkeley in 1971, Waters, using strictly local ingredients, fed fellow Free Speech activists dishes she’d learned how to make in France. “Alice’s Restaurant” evolved into the community-conscious, groundbreaking restaurant.
Cut from a similar (table) cloth, many club visionaries want to shake up their local food scene and support local farmers and purveyors while creating a new breed of dining alternatives. To this end, travelandleisure.com is dishing up a diverse selection of underground tables around the world. Cook Here and Now in San Francisco hosts communal dinners with sustainable themes, like sushi made with the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch List in mind. Efrain Cuevas, of Clandestino in Chicago, coordinates meals inspired by artists. In Italy, the Home Food network of “kitchen empresses” teach and cook regional dishes, like lasagna Bolognese in Emilia-Romagna, for small groups in their homes in hopes of sharing and preserving Italy’s culinary traditions.
The founders of Paris’s Hidden Kitchen had a less obvious motive when they accepted their first reservations: to meet people. The professional chefs from Seattle used their knife skills, and delicious market ingredients, to make new friends in a foreign city. Some 10,000 dinners later, their social circle could fill a small arrondissement.
After nearly a decade of sustained momentum, it appears dining clubs are more than a passing trend, which is good news for gastro-adventurers near and far. So, make a reservation today—if you know the password.