The supper-club phenomenon in London gives participants the chance to enjoy fine food and strike up a conversation with a stranger or two.
It’s five past seven on a Saturday night and my girlfriend and I are trying to find our way through the back streets of East London in rapidly fading light. According to the directions scribbled on a piece of paper, we are looking for a door that has the word ‘boys’ written above it. It’s not as it sounds.
Twenty-four hours earlier we had been emailed the address and directions to our first supper club, a growing movement in London whereby amateur, part-time, wannabe or, in some cases, fully blown chefs invite a bunch of strangers into their home for a dinner party.
We soon spot another slightly apprehensive couple milling nearby and figure we might be in the right place. Then we see the word ‘BOYS’ in faded paint above a gate.
Turns out our dinner tonight will be served in an old primary school that has been converted into a block of apartments. Will, the brother of tonight’s host, meets us at the door, welcomes us like old friends and takes us up to the fifth floor where the open-plan apartment is already buzzing with guests. He hands us a drink and heads to the kitchen. From there we’re on our own.
The supper-club trend began to take hold in London in late 2008 and since then has quickly gained momentum, the idea spreading through word of mouth, food blogs and Twitter. Some events have waiting lists months long, such as the Tudor Road supper club hosted by Ben Greeno, former chef at current ‘World’s Best Restaurant’, Noma.
No one is entirely sure why Londoners all of a sudden wanted to start eating in a stranger’s living room. The recession played its part: with chefs out of work and punters looking to save money, cooking at home for cash has obvious benefits. Restaurant fatigue and an obsession with home-cooking shows may also have been a factor. But for many it’s a social experiment. What happens when you invite around a bunch of people who don’t know each other, let alone the host, and cook for them in a suburban kitchen?
Well, for one thing, it gets people talking. No one knows anyone else, but there seems to be a tacit agreement to let your guard down, have a good time and talk openly. As one person pointed out, it’s probably easier to talk with a bunch of strangers than it is to a friend of a friend (“so, how do you know Julia?”).
I quickly discover that if there’s an equivalent opener at a supper club it’s “so, how did you find out about this?”, promptly followed by “is this your first time?”. We get talking to two other supper-club first-timers and then take our seats. There are four tables of various sizes spread around the open-plan living area (which used to be the science room), enough room for around 25 people in total. There are no seating arrangements, so it’s pot luck who sits with whom. At our table is a marketing executive for a fashion brand, an aspiring actor, a banker and a nurse who once auditioned for the British reality TV show X Factor.
The ambience is much more dinner party than restaurant. The chairs don’t match and neither does the cutlery. There’s an old dressing table pushed into one corner. At the far side of the open-plan area the kitchen is alive with activity. Tonight’s host and chef is James Ramsden, a 25-year-old professionally trained chef who’s now a food blogger, journalist and caterer. His supper clubs are an opportunity to try out new recipes and raise his profile among a food-savvy audience.
Over the next four hours we are fed courgette and lemon soup, roasted sea trout, a dessert of gooseberry fool, a cheese board and handmade chocolates. It’s not Michelin-star quality, but it’s better than many restaurants and miles ahead of your average suburban dinner party fare.
It takes a well-oiled machine to feed 25 people three courses from a domestic kitchen and that there are no delays or disasters hints at the professionalism of the outfit. Ramsden’s sister and brother help out and they now run up to three supper-club nights a month.
On the way out we put a ‘donation’ into a wooden box – a suggested payment of £35 ($55) per head – and then we’re back on the streets of East London.
My first supper club whet the appetite and I’m left wanting more.
The following week we head to a cramped flat in Hackney (again East London) for a Thai-themed seven-course degustation (highlight is course four: fresh salmon sashimi with hand-cut chips). A month later we find our way to the 28th floor of Trellick Tower – an iconic 1960s apartment block in North West London – for a meat-heavy, New York-themed four-courser (including pastrami, beef ribs and cow’s tongue – not one for vegetarians).
Each night is different, shaped by the setting, the people seated at our table and the personality of the host. The Hackney supper club was crammed and rowdy, the Trellick Tower night was intimate and personal.
The concept seems to work best when it is local. The first two supper clubs were on the other side of town, which added adventure but some complexity to transport arrangements. The third was walking distance and the other guests also lived or worked nearby. It meant we could talk about our favourite places to drink, the changing face of the area, the best place to get a coffee, and so on. It also meant we’d see these people again down the street.
This, I suspect, is the real reason why the supper-club concept is such a success: they are an organised way to re-connect with our neighbours and talk to strangers whom we would usually be too guarded to strike up a conversation with. That it has taken online social networks and Twitter to spread the word of supper clubs is perhaps ironic, but also a sign of the times.
No doubt the supper-club phenomenon has already started to infiltrate the living rooms and kitchens of Australian suburbs. Search online for one near you. And if you can’t find one, start one up. Eating in a restaurant is very 2010.
1. James Ramsden runs The Secret Larder in East London up to three times a month. Book early.
2. Fernandez and Leluu is the combined talents of Simon Fernandez (whose day job is making iPhone apps) and Uyen Luu, a Vietnamese filmmaker and jewellery designer. They run six supper clubs a month.
3. Mia and Leo are the team behind ‘Stolen’, a young venture that hosts a market stall every Thursday and a supper club for up to 15 people every Monday. stolen.it
How much do they cost?
The supper clubs I went to had suggested payments ranging from £30 to £40 ($45-$65) per head. At the first two dinners, the payment was anonymous; at the third there was a required deposit of 50 per cent. Many supper club hosts maintain that their events are a labour of love and don’t generate much of a profit, the suggested ‘donations’ covering costs only. In this way, hosts can avoid paying income tax.
Is alcohol provided?
The general rule is BYO, though some alcohol is often provided. At our first supper club this meant a Moscow Mule (cocktail made of vodka, ginger beer and lime) on arrival; at our third a welcome champagne, beers with every course and a midnight raid of the liquor cabinet.