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Mar 31, 2010

In London: Dining in Secret Thrives

Have you heard about the “secret supper” rage? Also known as underground restaurants, anti-restaurants, or supper clubs, they are essentially paid dinner parties that (usually) take place in a private home. Notice of upcoming suppers is disseminated by word-of-mouth or via online social media.

Maybe you're asking yourself "What’s the point?" Well, for one thing, it's fun and different, providing an opportunity to experience dining in a non-ordinary manner. The host—nearly always a serious amateur chef (but sometimes a professional)—gets to have fun preparing a restaurant-quality meal without all the heavy responsibilities that come along with running a real eatery. Interviewed by the San Francisco Chronicle, one host noted that “It’s literally like playing restaurant.” Not only that, but a secret chef can be indulgently eclectic with the menu. As for the guests, they not only dine on gourmet goodies at bargain prices in an informal environment, but get to meet other people interesting enough to gravitate toward underground dining. All in all, a win for everyone involved.

I knew that Secret Dining had become popular in the U. S., Europe, Asia, and Latin America (where underground eating establishments are known as restaurante de puertas cerradas, or locked-door restaurants). Still, I was a bit surprised when a London-based American friend—a successful entrepreneur and former CEO taking a hiatus from the ordinary—informed me that she had started a secret supper club, The Nomad Chef, in her home in London’s Holland Park.
“Cooking is my passion and I love hosting dinner parties,” Shelley told me. “So this is a perfect pastime and a great way to meet new people. In fact, the people are the best part! Most of them live in London
but many are from all over the world, passionate about arts and culture—lots of writers and actors and people in music. Sometimes I have a musician play, someone I discover at open mike sessions. I experiment with recipes, make things I've never made before.”


I asked Shelley if she’d had any screwups. “No big disasters so far,” she said. “The only problem has been knowing how often to schedule dinners so they are full. It is not exactly illegal, but it’s not a real restaurant either, so I can't advertise.” Most of the guests come through Shelley’s Facebook page, Nomad Chef Secret Restaurant. And as more dinners have been held, the word-of-mouth factor has increased significantly.

One of Shelley’s favorite meals so far was served earlier this month on St. Patrick’s Day, with a decided Green Theme:
  • Appetizer: Guacamole and authentic tortilla chips ("...not a small feat here in London!") served with Kauffman Vodka; one of the only 3 authentic Russian vodkas available in London, it costs £85 [$128] for a 750 ml bottle
  • First course: Haddock ceviche in a little croustade on the plate with paneer in mint, coriander, green chili marinade, served slightly warm (large square chunks of paneer that had marinated for hours)
  • Main course: House-made dolmas (rice, currants, pine nuts and other savory flavors with mint), jerk chicken kebabs and baby corn muffins
  • Dessert: Sticky toffee pudding with whipped cream
By the way, in Secret Dining establishments wine is usually BYOB, although an aperitif or after-dinner drink is sometimes included in the price.

“The excitement for most guests,” Shelley confided, “is not knowing what will be on the menu, what the environment will look like, and who you will meet. Most people come with at least one friend and sometimes a group of 3 or 7 or whatever will ask to sit together. I can seat 25, but the normal full house is 22. Sometimes, depending on the group, we ask people to switch at dessert. They love this because they already have gotten up to talk to people across the room. Usually it is suggested by guests themselves, as everyone who comes tends to be cool-looking and interesting. Really, it’s like being invited to a great exclusive dinner party with culturally invigorating people. Very stimulating.”
Thinking of going Secret? Here are a few tips from Shelley:
  • Consider startup costs. For instance, I didn't have 25 espresso cups when I began, so I had to purchase them. Also, breakage happens.
  • Each dinner is profitable because I tailor the menu to the number of people who have made reservations.
  • The usual dinner price is £30 ($45). With a wine option, the price is £40 ($60).
  • I have two helpers. One is in the kitchen prepping and washing dishes the whole night (unpaid or paid like me, with whatever is left). And a hostess who helps take coats (we have a coat rack assembled in the guest room with a real number system, etc.) and then helps serve. She earns a little, but does it mostly for fun and a share of any future profit if we manage to sell the brand we’re creating.
  • Be prepared for a long night. People arrive at 7:30 or 7:40 and have an aperitif, are seated by 8 or 8:15 and don't start leaving until 11 or so—but someone is usually here until after midnight, even during the week!
I asked Shelley for a recipe, and here it is:
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The Nomad Chef's Sag Paneer (Vegetarian or vegan)

1-inch cube of ginger, peeled and finely chopped
3-6 cloves garlic, peeled and finely chopped
one-half to one whole fresh hot green chili, roughly sliced
Salt to taste
1/4 tsp garam masala
1/8 tsp cayenne pepper (optional)
6 Tbs vegetable oil
1-1/2 pounds spinach, washed and finely chpped
3 Tbs heavy cream (or soya cream)
1 block/pkg of paneer cheese 200-300 grams (or tofu) cut into 1 inch cubes

  1. Blend or foodprocess ginger, garlic and hot pepper with about a quarter cup of water (to make a puree texture) 
  2. Heat oil in non-stick pan and fry paneer or tofu (you can skip this frying step and go to the next step for less fat) until a little golden on all sides; drain on paper towels 
  3. Sprinkle the paneer (tofu) with garam masala (liberally) and cayenne
  4. Put the paste (ginger stuff) into large pan on medium flame with oil (wok or something that can hold the spinach), stir a bit then add spinach and some salt; let simmer for 15 minutes (if water from cleaning spinach evaporates, add a bit more to keep cooking 
  5. Add paneer (or tofu) and cream (or soya cream), stir and simmer for another 10 minutes (stirring a couple of times)
Notes: the frying of the paneer (tofu) is messy but does add flavor and allows the garam masala to absorb into the paneer. You can be generous with the garam masala because it is not hot, just great flavor. This whole thing takes about 5 minutes of prep and then cooking time, and is so great with rice and maybe something else, like chicken or fish or just another vegetable if you are vegetarian like me.

More Info About Secret Dining:




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