By Kristi Willis
Photography by Shannon Kintner and Jenna Noel
The fellowship that’s forged while sharing a meal is one of the most beloved perks of our food traditions, and perhaps it’s this spirit of community gathering that’s the key ingredient behind the birth, proliferation and popularity of the supper club. Even though these clubs are often members-only with limited seating, enticements like themed meals, guest chefs and a variety of unique dining locations continue to lure enthusiastic participants lucky enough to snag a coveted spot.
Hosted club dinners are thriving today, both through circles of friends and, more formally, through new-media public groups like those organized through Meetup. Former Londoner Marcus Rowntree started the Secret Dining Hub group after watching culinary firebrand Jamie Oliver attending secret, underground dinner parties on a TV show. “It looked like such an amazing thing,” says Rowntree. “But I couldn’t figure out where to find dinners like that in London, or other people that would be interested in doing something like that, so I decided to start a group.”
It didn’t take long for the group to grow to over 100 events, and Rowntree realized that the model could work in other cities. He started groups for several American cities, including Austin, which already has over 250 members who’ve hosted six dinners in just four months. Rowntree believes that what makes the supper clubs special is bringing together people from different backgrounds who share a common love of food. “Yes the food is important, but it’s not all about the food,” he says. “I think you can have a really simple, nice, home-cooked meal and what is special is everyone coming around the table.”
The camaraderie and uniqueness of those shared meals has drawn Austin’s local chefs to become involved in supper clubs, as well. Special event dinners hosted outside the walls of a restaurant’s familiar brick and mortar have become a popular way to enjoy a fine meal from a sought-after chef in an exciting new atmosphere. Stephen Shallcross, owner of 2 Dine 4 Catering, stumbled into his supper club over a decade ago after a pre-wedding tasting for a few brides turned into a group dinner. “Everyone had so much fun, we knew that we should do it again, and Supper Friends was born.”
The Supper Friends dinners give Shallcross’s catering staff an opportunity to experiment and work with guest chefs who bring fresh perspectives and different techniques to the kitchen. “Every dinner is an experiment for us and for the guests,” says Shallcross. “It gives the diners an opportunity to meet new people and socialize in a way that we don’t do that often anymore. We encourage people to turn off the cell phones and engage in easy table conversation. It doesn’t always work, but most people have fun even if they were uncomfortable when they arrived.”
(left) Dai Due at Outstanding in the Field at Johnson's Backyard Garden, September 29, 2009
(right) Event Manager Michelle Llaguno and Chef Liaison Brandon Byrd at the Dinner Lab, November 1, 2013
Dai Due Supper Club has hosted 150 dinners over the last seven years. Chef Jesse Griffiths and team prepare unique menus of locally sourced produce and meats and serve it family style, often outside at a local farm. “There is something special about every dinner, but I have a special place in my heart for Boggy Creek Farm,” says Griffiths. “I cook every dinner with one person in mind, and at Boggy Creek, I cook for [owner] Carol Ann [Sayle]. She loves vegetables, so for her I make the vegetable dishes extra special.”
Several of the dinners have showcased Griffiths’s philosophy of making use of a whole animal when cooking. The Whole Hog Dinner, for example, is presented after a full-day class in which participants learn how to break down, process and cook a whole hog. Dinner guests share dishes prepared by the class that are as likely to include the pigs’ ears or tail as more familiar cuts like the chops or ham. “I love the inventive focus on the local aspect,” says recent Dai Due supper club guest Joe Ahlquist. “It’s one thing to see a menu, but it’s something different to see how it’s presented and be surprised about how things come out.”
Culinary creativity is also the driving force behind Brenton Schumacher and the team at Pink Avocado Catering’s Bread & Circus Supper Club—a monthly dinner that also includes an entertainment element, which has ranged from movies to DJs to burlesque dancers. A recent circus-themed dinner included sword swallowers and contortionists, while another focused on a viewing of the film Moonrise Kingdom and a campout-themed meal. “This is a way for our staff to really be able to flex their creativity,” says Schumacher. “We try to create a whole experience…it’s almost like a dinner theater.”
Other clubs like L’Oca d’Oro focus on music paired with food as the inspiration. At their Dinners to Rock To series, held on Sunday nights at Franklin Barbecue, Chef Fiore Tedesco and General Manager Adam Orman dedicate the meal to a band, and each dish to one album. Recent dinners included work by artists like David Bowie, Radiohead and Prince. What pairs with James Brown’s album Sex Machine? Pickering oysters, bacon aioli and flying-fish roe, of course. For Nina Simone’s soulful Black Gold: risotto and charred cuttlefish in its ink, fresh porcini, baby kale, golden beets and tomatoes.
Giving restaurant chefs a playground is at the core of what newcomer Dinner Lab hopes to achieve. Founder Brian Bordainick wants chefs to use their dinners as a place to experiment in ways they may not be able to in their own restaurants. “We believe there is a disconnect between what chefs are preparing on a regular basis and what they actually care about cooking,” says Bordainick. “We try to give talented chefs the opportunity to put forward food that means something special to them.”
When a chef has a well-reviewed meal, they might be invited back to do a dinner with more courses, or to cook in one of Dinner Lab’s other locations in New Orleans, Nashville, New York or Los Angeles. “For us, it’s not just about the food; it’s about the aspiration of the chef and what they can achieve,” says Bordainick. “We want to give them a stage to show off in their own city and around the country.”
For Chef Bridget Weiss, a supper club was the perfect way to transport the experience of running her now-shuttered restaurant in Marfa after she’d moved back to Austin. Rather than investing in another physical restaurant, she reinvented Marfa Table to include personal chef and catering services as well as a supper club. And while catering is the bulk of her business, the supper club gives Weiss a way to meet new people and share with them in a more personal way than was possible when she was stuck in the kitchen. “People who attend a supper club are food-curious, social and engaging,” says Weiss. “We might have people from ages eighteen to eighty at a dinner, and at the end of the night, they are all swapping phone numbers. There is something magical about those dinners.”
Whether sharing a meal in a friend’s home or under the stars at a chef-prepared dinner, supper clubs offer a respite from the daily hubbub of life—encouraging diners to slow down, connect and enjoy. Dai Due guests Susan and Jay Stein were drawn to a recent dinner because of the family-style nature, and were delighted to share their meal with three other couples who were previously strangers. “The food is wonderful and you can have a conversation with people you have very little in common with except that you all like food,” says Susan. “It’s just the most pleasant evening possible.”
Story Update: Marfa table has returned to Marfa, but Bridget Weiss still does catering out of Central Texas.
Supper Clubs in Austin