If you thought having people round for a meal was all about mixing and matching groups of friends (who may not know each other but all of whom know you) then think again…
At the start of the first National SupperClub Month (launched by Casillero del Diablo), Nathalie Bonney finds out more about this quirky reinvention of the dinner party, and talks to aficionados of a new way of eating out.
With a reputation for stuffiness, dinner parties were ousted in the 90s and noughties by our love of eating out and dislike of candlesticks, place cards and charades. But like a Hyacinth Bucket (sorry, Bouquet…) marching up our driveway, candlelit supper invitation in hand, the dinner party refused to go away. TV show Come Dine With Me reacquainted the British public with the idea of entertaining at home, cooking not just for family and friends but also for complete strangers, too. Admittedly, Come Dine contestants had various reasons for appearing on the show and food wasn’t always the main one. But the programme showed that dinner parties could be fun and unstuffy, and spawned a flurry of copycat Come Dine-style evenings in households across the UK. Combine with that a growing foodie culture in Britain and it was only a matter of time before Supper Clubs took off.
In 2009 musician Horton Jupiter opened up his living room restaurant The Secret Ingredient to strangers; shortly afterwards Kerstin Rodgers did the same. Rodgers, aka Ms Marmite Lover, is perhaps one of the most well known and successful SupperClub hosts. Aside from her much-followed blog (marmitelover.blogspot.com), her find-a-SupperClub website (supperclubfangroup.ning.com) is the go-to source for Supper Club listings. Her own SupperClub, The Underground Restaurant, now takes its bookings via wegottickets.com and last year a recipe book and companion guide to SupperClubs was published. Then there was a certain Rachel Khoo, spotted plating up her home-cooked delights to locals and promptly snapped up to film cookery show My Little Paris Kitchen. Supper just got very trendy, and, for some, very lucrative.
In contrast to Ms Khoo’s stylised cooking kitsch, the original SupperClubs, which hailed from Cuba, were decidedly less glamorous. Much like American speakeasies, Cuban SupperClubs or paladares, meaning ‘palate’, were set up in response to government restrictions and the US embargo. Although msmarmitelover’s Underground Restaurant doesn’t serve up Cuban food, the revolutionary-like thoughts behind its beginnings are not dissimilar. Talking about the first forays that she and Jupiter made into underground dining, Rodgers writes, ‘We both sprang from an alternative sub-culture in London where people lived cheaply, ate at donation-only squat cafes and ‘skipped’ food from supermarket bins (‘dumpster diving’), partly in response to sheer poverty, but also as a protest against consumer waste.’
This is all well and good but, outside of London’s guerrilla gourmande culture, what does the rest of the UK make of this home dining phenomenon? Caribbean SupperClub Tan Rosie, run by a mother-and-daughter team in Birmingham proves the idea has legs outside of the M25, and senior account manager Vicky Daly from Manchester can testify to the supper club’s Northern appeal too. She went along to a club in the flat next door, after receiving a flyer through her letterbox. “The guys have a gorgeous flat – all exposed brickwork and loft style – and serve up amazing dinner party style meals… The food is just delicious and it’s such a nice way to meet new people, particularly as the flats I live in are all occupied by renters, so you never really speak to anyone on our corridor.”
Vicky’s experience highlights the other reason that SupperClubs are growing in popularity. “People are attracted to the social side of SupperClubs,” says Marcus Rowntree, who has set up Secret Dining Club, a group on website meetups.com, which links up prospective diners with SupperClubs. “I just like weird, different ways of meeting people and thought of setting up Secret Dining. We’ve had a few people host dinners in unusual venues, including their car, and a picnic on a roof.”
Meanwhile, the founder of Clandestinos, who in true underground restaurant fashion, wishes to remain anonymous, decided to start up a SupperClub at their Finsbury Park home specifically as an antidote to the digital socialising that has become such a part of our lives today: “to bring back socialising the old fashioned way before chat rooms came along,” he explains.
But for all the gimmicks, the networking appeal to younger diners and even the political motivations of some SupperClubbers the overriding reason to either start up or attend one of these underground eating experiences is (thankfully) the food. Clandestinos has on average four events a week, serving up food from Brazil, Morocco, Portugal and Britain.
Sheba Promod, former business and economics teacher at Nower Hill High School in Harrow, hosts a thriving SupperClub at her home in St Albans. After returning from maternity leave, the 32-year-old decided to change career paths to spend more time with her daughter – and explore her passion for cooking. On top of running classes (see absoluteindiancookeryclasses.com) Sheba runs a Keralan food SupperClub from her own kitchen.
When she started, friends expressed surprise, generally along the lines of ‘I come and eat with people I don’t know?!’, but Sheba was undaunted. “I’ve always come by myself to SupperClubs. You’re not tied to talk to someone and most people like the idea,’ she says. Her guests range from 35 to 50 years old; they get in touch via email to reserve their place and they pay a £20 deposit. “This covers the cost of ingredients and means if you did get a no show at least you’re not out of pocket. The remaining £15 is then paid on the night by the diners. They can decide if they think the evening was worth the total and either pay more or less.”
Samples of Sheba's food
Currently catering for groups of six only, Sheba has considered expanding but is worried that this would change the intimate atmosphere. “I enjoy that it feels almost like a private dinner party. I guess if I did it for twenty or thirty people I could make some money out of it, but that’s not the avenue I’m taking with the SupperClub,” she explains. At just £35 for a Keralan feast, including up to 12 main dishes, plus starters, desserts and a house cocktail on arrival, diners are certainly getting value for money – but Sheba is quick to point out that going to a SupperClub shouldn’t be viewed as eating out in the stereotypical sense. ‘This is home cooked – don’t expect it to taste like [it would] in a restaurant. The point of my SupperClub is to show true home cooking and to show visitors Kerala food.”
Pleasant ambience and food aside, sceptics might argue that sitting next to a stranger for the duration of a whole meal could result in a tedious evening at best, an unbearable one at worst – but none of the hosts I spoke to have any horror stories to report. “I haven’t had to deal with any awkward people yet. The people who come to Clandestinos are the adventurous type, who just prefer to try something just a little bit different,’ says its mysterious founder. Sheba recommends that prospective hosts should advertise on listed sites such as edibleexperiences.com and meetups.com, where potential diners would need to make contact and register their details.
Chilean wine brand Casillero del Diablo is also offering advice and free SupperClubkits (while stocks last, of course) at dinewiththedevil.com in support of National SupperClub month, which it has launched this November with the help of former Celebrity Masterchef winner Lisa Faulkner. The actress is hoping to entice people back into dinner party mode. “Ever since I was a little girl I have enjoyed nothing more than getting my hands dirty in the kitchen and cooking for my friends and family. All of us sitting round the table together, eating talking, food, wine – there is no better combination.”
And she’s right: whether you fancy opening your doors to strangers, family or friends – or tracking down a supperclub to visit – National SupperClub month could be the beginning of a new foodie adventure. Ready, steady, cook.