The Blind Pig Supper Club’s first underground dinner was supposed to be a one-time event. But, whether it was the braised beaver tail over gnocchi, or the nutria, a critter with a reputation as swamp-dwelling vermin, this dinner would be no one-hit wonder.
Today, Blind Pig is anything but underground. Its “secret” dining events have exploded in popularity and scope in the past three years, and waiting lists to get a seat at the table — the location of which isn’t announced until hours before the event — are common.
“Blind Pig wasn’t meant to be what it is today,” says Mike Moore, who founded the Asheville, N.C.-based supper club with his wife, Darlene. “But it was fun for everyone and it just caught on.”
“The next thing we knew, it was a full-fledged, organized thing, though it was birthed under spontaneity,” says Moore. “Today, we get together as friends and chefs and cook — and that’s what we find most enriching.”
Even without the whiff of danger that comes from eating beef tartare from an unlicensed kitchen, supper clubs address a certain foodie ennui among today’s been-there-done-that diners. In Latin America, where home-based businesses are perfectly legal, diners still get a thrill out of eating with likeminded strangers in an intimate setting.
“Most of the supper clubs — or as they're called here, 'restaurantes a puertas cerradas' (closed-door restaurants) are operated out of the owner/chef's home," says Dan Perlman of Casa Saltshaker in Buenos Aires, Argentina. "We have a shared table for up to ten people, who don't know each other, so it's a multicultural social evening."
A wild life... with wildlife
“We can provide a gourmet dining experience in secret intimate locations, which you cannot find from your standard restaurant experience,” he says.
Supper clubs attract an intrepid sort of diner, and Blind Pig is known for pushing the boundaries of even the bravest eaters, serving everything from crickets to kangaroo with squid ink. Next year, Moore plans to push the envelope by hosting an event 40 miles off the North Carolina coast at Frying Pan Shoals Light Tower, a former coastguard station now owned by an Oklahoma software engineer. It’s likely to be a logistical nightmare. “But we’re very, very excited,” says Moore.
Even when locations don’t require access by helicopter or boat, chefs find other ways to appeal to their guests’ sense of adventure. Caroline Grinsted of Muse Berlin builds menus around saffron, pepper — even paintings. “We did an event a few months ago, where each of the courses was inspired by a work of art,” she says. To replicate Cezanne’s Still Life with Apples, she poached apples in white wine syrup and created a tablecloth out of vanilla milk jelly.
Supper Club as Moneymaker?For chefs, supper clubs provide an opportunity to think outside of the box that a restaurant kitchen can become — and maybe make some money while doing it. But is it a living?
After reporting that supper clubs had all but jumped the shark, the Wall Street Journal revealed that Ghetto Gourmet, a West Coast operation often credited with the spread of supper clubs, had gone from passing a hat for donations to raking in $500 a dinner, after expenses.
But to paint supper clubs as a get-rich-quick scheme is to miss a trend within a trend. Many “secret” supper clubs enjoying profitability have been reinvented into sophisticated operations. And some provide "a warm and fuzzy."
"I felt like the natural evolution of my culinary career would culminate in this underground supper club scenario," he says, adding that Guerrilla Cuisine took "about seven minutes to get smoking hot. And it's evolved exponentially."
He partially credits GC's success to the juxtaposition of fancy food with odd locations. “It’s this one-off (event) in an airplane hangar or a cigar factory or some other place where we’re not supposed to be,” he said via phone after hosting an event in New Orleans. “It’s funny when the cops show up for a burglar alarm, and there’s 80 people sitting there, eating crème brulee.”
Jimihatt’s food cost is high, but the chefs have fun, and diners get an upper-tier experience. He has lost money before, but he’s learning the ropes of business, mostly through trial and error.
Is it working yet? “I have enough gas money to get back to Charleston,” he says, laughing. He has also donated thousands to charity. But money isn’t the only currency Guerilla Cuisine pays.
“All chefs are a bit narcissistic, and you’re on the minds and palates of your fans,” he says. “We’re feeding ourselves as much as we’re feeding our guests. Approval rating is an energy source that also fills the belly.”