Birmingham, Ala., is just one major city where chefs test new flavors at exclusive supper clubs hosted in their homes.
Like many mid-size cities in the United States, Birmingham historically has had a traditional food scene. But in the past few years, locals chefs have started concepts like ramen and vegan supper clubs in houses and apartments. They’re testing recipes and ideas to gauge the community’s response and the market for potential restaurants, NPR reported.
Chef Josh Haynes prepared one of his signature recipes: a red curry of pumpkin and pork rib for five couples. In his small living room, with space for only two tables, 10 strangers eat his homemade Thai food. Haynes calls it a “speakeasy supper club,” a nod to the days of Prohibition. People hear about the dinners through word of mouth or a local food blog, buy tickets online, and show up to Haynes’ apartment at an appointed time, NPR reported.
Haynes moved back to Birmingham with plans of opening a Thai restaurant. But until he finds the money, he’s decided to open up his apartment. “In the meantime, it’s really important to me to kind of build a following and get a lot of support, as well as get people’s feedback,” Haynes said. “So that when I get to that brick-and-mortar stage and open the doors, I’ve got people who are excited, who are lined up ready to eat.”
So far, it’s working. All of Haynes’ dinners have sold out, NPR reported.
Kelly Dobkin, a senior editor at Zagat, a guidebook to restaurants worldwide, says she’s seen these types of restaurants succeed. In Brooklyn, the supper club Take Root morphed into a highly reviewed and hard-to-get-into restaurant. Underground supper clubs are popping up across the country, from Los Angeles to Detroit and Atlanta, NPR reported.
This exchange of young chefs inviting diners for these exclusive meals is mutually beneficial, Dobkin said. “The chefs are getting this chance to be creative and free without a lot of strings,” she said. “The diners are getting something that is limited-time only, which is really exciting.”
Creating supper clubs could be a special dining concept that could work for clubs chefs as well. Instead of going to a chef’s home, there could be exclusive access to the club’s kitchen for the events. Chris Hastings has been a chef in Birmingham for decades and has trained a lot of chefs, including Haynes. In 2012, Hastings won a James Beard Award, one of the most prestigious in the restaurant business, NPR reported.
Hastings says while things have changed a lot in the Birmingham restaurant scene, it’s still difficult to open a restaurant—and even harder to stay open. “The failure rate is pretty high,” Hastings said. “It’s a business, and it’s very complicated and very expensive. Your margins are teeny-weeny, and you have to have equal parts chef and business person.”
But, Hastings says, if these new chefs can get the business down, diners are ready and waiting for whatever’s thrown at them,, NPR reported.