Alone in London with a day to kill, Jon Martin was hungry for an impromptu adventure when he decided to show up for lunch at a stranger's house.
A writer from North Carolina, Mr. Martin, 36, was finishing a trip to Europe and had just parted ways with a friend. Fed up with hopping from restaurant to restaurant, he was browsing the events site DesignMyNight when he stumbled upon the Fengzhen Supper Club, a twice-monthly event that promises a home-cooked Chinese and Southeast Asian feast.
He found himself taking a southbound train to the end of the line and knocking on the door of a townhouse, where he joined 11 strangers for a 10-course meal prepared by Jay Zhang. The host, a hairstylist by trade, was leaning toward another passion that night: taking strangers through an indulgent dining experience.
The experience, for which Martin paid about £65, or $80, in advance, “was worth it” and left him feeling more connected to “the real, everyday people who live there and make the place what it is,” he said. . “In a nightclub you get things that you can't get in a restaurant.”
Before the pandemic, London nightclubs had become a popular alternative to the restaurant scene, offering a more family-friendly alternative to a night out. The events, usually held in the homes of amateur chefs, rode a wave of popularity in the 2000s, until lockdowns forced them to stop.
Now, as community dining has returned, the trend has evolved with chefs old and new preparing meals. With a little research, visitors can eat Indian street food at a chef's home, Malaysian cuisine at a local community center, or Sri Lankan dishes at a neighborhood cafe.
Finding the events and organizing one may require a certain degree of research: many local supper clubs, shared by word of mouth or on social media, are passion projects of self-taught cooks who want to test their skills in their beloved kitchens. Those who want to attract a broader clientele list their clubs on sites like Eventbrite and DesignMyNight or offer reservations on dining experience sites like Eatwith and WeFiFo. Some clubs go viral with the help of TikTokers and food influencers. Visitors looking for a particular theme can even find nightclubs for singles looking for dates, comedy lovers, or Motown music listeners.
Ticket prices for the events also vary, from £30 to £150, rivaling the cost of high-end dining experiences.
What separates a supper club from a pop-up, fans say, involves distinct markers: a place that, if it's not in someone's home, is an intimate space rather than a restaurant. Diners tend to pay for their food before arriving, which observers say makes the experience seem less transactional. The menu is set (although dietary requests can sometimes be taken into account) and tends to include a unifying story or theme, often based on the chef's background. And diners, alone or in groups, are strongly encouraged to socialize.
To achieve this, some supper club hosts use name tags and icebreakers such as pre-dinner quizzes. Others hope shared tables, or a setting strange enough to spark a conversation, will work.
Dining in a subway car
On a recent Saturday night in east London, I sat with eight strangers in a converted 1970s underground train carriage as part of the three-weekly Tube Train supper club. As we squeezed into the carriage seats and waited for the first course to arrive, we exchanged introductions and told transportation-related jokes. By the time the third course arrived (a Peruvian-Japanese dish of cured hake), two Swedish tourists to my right and a group from Kent to my left had covered Brexit, NATO and the noisiest train lines in the city. For the final course, an amaretto-soaked sponge cake, someone had ordered a round of Negronis for the table and the conversation turned to sibling rivalries and bad dates.
“You can meet all kinds of people you wouldn't otherwise meet, and just sit there for hours and talk about this and that,” said Karin Kragenskjold, a Stockholm psychologist who took her sister to the dinner after seeing it online. social. . “I really liked it a lot.” She paid £67 for dinner that night, although drinks were charged separately.
Nightclubs became widespread in the British capital at a time of great activity in London's dining scene. Their popularity was fueled by bloggers and food critics who hailed them as a more authentic alternative to the flashy restaurant scene.
“There's something quite intimate, anarchic and unusual about going to someone's house you've never met before,” said Kerstin Rodgers, author of “Supper Club,” a cookbook and how-to book, and an early adopter of the trend. He began organizing grassroots events in 2009 at his home. “It's an extreme sport.” (In July, she organized a “Barbie and Ken”-themed supper club.) Supper clubs have “fundamentally changed” the way Londoners eat out, she said.
For chefs who felt excluded from traditional paths to culinary careers, the events offered a route to success in the industry. “It gave me the confidence to get a job and start my own business,” Ms Rodgers said.
Among the high-profile success stories is British restaurateur Asma Khan, whose journey from supper club chef to Soho restaurant owner was chronicled in an Emmy Award-winning season of the Netflix show “Chef's Table.” .
Inspired by the bulls
Until the lockdown, Akshi Shah Farrelly, 28, didn't consider herself a great cook. She started cooking to quell her cravings for her favorite Indian foods, “and it actually turned out edible,” she said, laughing. “I thought, let me keep working on it.”
An English teacher by profession, she started hosting a monthly Jamanvar Supper Club (the name means “party” in Gujarati) at her home this year, posting entries on Eventbrite.
This year, in a single seat, 10 guests who had paid around £35 gathered family style around the Farrelly family dining room table. They were deep in conversation when Farrelly poked his head out of the kitchen to present the next dish: pav bhaji skewers, part of a six-course menu he had spent weeks preparing.
Her husband moved around the table in an apron, serving the food. Her teenage nephew politely filled everyone's glasses. Although they had never met Ms. Farrelly, some guests had driven nearly an hour to attend the dinner at her home. After dessert was served, she poured herself a drink and joined the revelry.
But even professionally trained chefs have had success with this format. After training culinary in Argentina and working in London restaurants, Beatriz Maldonado Carreño, 46, had been looking for a location for her growing supper club. She and a colleague of hers decided to rent a decommissioned Victoria line train that is parked at a museum in east London.
“It doesn't get more London than that,” said Maldonado Carreño, who added that the Latin-inspired menu was a nod to the city's growing Latino population.
Aspiring chefs and established supper club hosts say they are driven less by monetary profit than by a desire to feed people and create connections.
“What people look for in a supper club is a certain degree of authenticity,” said Alice Whittington, 41, who runs a Malaysian-themed club under the name Eastern Platters. At her dinner parties, hosted at neighborhood bars and community centers, Whittington prepares sharing courses that are meant to be shared and curates a playlist of Southeast Asian music.
She was surprised, but delighted, when a meal last November attracted a group of New Yorkers, who said they discovered it on social media. “I built this supper club in my London community. “I’m very happy to show outsiders what this is like,” she said, adding that she wanted to challenge the “stiff upper lip” idea of the British. “You're going to meet new and interesting people who will change your preconceptions about London.”
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