Are you on the guest list? Underground dinners gain foothold in Chicago

January 18, 2010

It's been 20 years since I attended my first adult dinner party. It was my senior year in college, and after receiving the Silver Palate Cookbook as a gift from someone, one of my friends felt that hosting a dinner party would be fun (and certainly a lot better than eating from the cafeteria meal plan we had at the dorms). I think his model was the yuppie couple du jour: Michael and Hope from "30 Something." The plan was that our host would attempt to make Chicken Marbella, and guests would bring bottles of cheap wine and candles to help set the mood.‚  We were so grown up. The food may have been just o.k. and the wine passable, but it was the comraderie and the conversation I remember the most.‚  Some people would hook-up after a long, fumƒ© blanc-filled night of reverie.‚  Everyone chipped in for clean-up and the whole night might have cost each of us $10.

 

DinnerClub-424Fast-forward two decades; the idea of the dinner party isn't lost, it's just become a lot tastier.‚  There are dozens of talented chefs hanging out in Chicago; many of them have left dead-end restaurant jobs or just felt their creativity was being stifled, standing on their feet for 15 hours a day, chopping vegetables into a fine brunoise. Some of these chefs have started their own businesses, and others have resurrected the private, invitation-only dinner club.‚  The only difference is that they're not cooking out of books by Sheila Lukins anymore and they're charging for their work (the BYOB policy, however, still stands).

Josh Kulp and Christine Cikowski met at Kendall College and became fast friends.‚  After graduation, Christine went to work at Blackbird and Milk & Honey. Josh got a job at Tweet in Uptown. At the end of 2005, they read an article in the New York Times about underground dining, and it sparked an idea.

"We had similar culinary interests and spent a lot of time at the local farmer's markets, trying to get involved in the community of food people," said Josh.‚  "We decided we wanted to cook the food we wanted to cook.‚  The only way to do that was to start a little dining club."

The Sunday Dinner Club was born. Their first dinner included parents and a few friends. Today, there are 1,200 people on the SDC mailing list, members of an exclusive "community dining club," as Kulp calls it.

The partners maintain a catering business, working out of the Kitchen Chicago space, where they also create a line of granola bars under the "Eat Green Foods" label, which they sell at farmer's markets and about 35 stores in the area (including Whole Foods). But the SDC is a different project altogether.

For one thing, you can't attend a dinner unless you know someone on the list. If you were really committed to scoring a seat, you could probably go visit them at a farmer's market, and strike up a conversation that might eventually lead to the question of how to get on the list, but since they're preparing these dinners in a rotating list of friend's homes, they are reluctant to open the invitations up to the public.

"Tonight [Sunday] we have 18 coming over and we don't have to kick them out early to turn the tables to make enough profit.‚  We want to interact with our diners," Kulp said.‚  "We are trying to show off these seasonal ingredients in a homey environment that breaks the boundries of dining a little bit."

This month, they're knee-deep in cassoulet, the traditional stew from the Languedoc region of France, containing white beans, duck, pork and smoked bacon.‚  To celebrate their fifth anniversary, the SDC is offering an unprecedented 11 dinners.‚  Here's hoping you score a spot on their mailing list.‚  To entice you even further, here's a sneak peek at this month's menu:

Seared Scallop with Celery Root Puree, Wild Mushrooms and Cilantro

Roasted Garlic and Potato Soup with La Quercia Prosciutto and Olive Oil

Cassoulet with White Beans, Garlic Sausage, Roasted Duck, Braised Lamb, Pork Shoulder Confit and Smoked Bacon

Winter Lettuces with Clementines, Black Olives and Sherry Vinaigrette

Dark Chocolate Mousse with Salted Marcona Almond Toffee

You'll find more information about their granola bars and the Dinner Club at www.sundaydinnerchicago.com.

Efrain Cuevas makes it a little bit easier to score a seat for one of his Clandestino dinners.‚  I first saw him work at a Ghetto Gourmet dinner in Wicker Park a few years ago, where he and some collaborators meshed performance art and a multi-course meal, all while dining on the floor above a furniture store along Milwaukee Avenue.‚  The food was just so-so (it didn't help that the kitchen was smaller than a New York City closet) but it was a little edgy and definitely a new experience, meeting new people, sharing bottles of wine and not really knowing where we were going to eat until the day before.

In 2007, Cuevas moved back to Chicago from California, and launched Clandestino Supper Club. He sources ingredients directly from farms and urban gardens, and makes it a point to participate in the butchering and processing of his lamb, goat, and poultry.

 X-Marx is yet another underground dining operation, that also allows you to sign up on their website for notices of upcoming dinners.‚ ‚  They have two primary types of experiences:

"X-Markets" are 4-5 course, 16 person, dining events. Each week they shop in a different neighborhood, find ingredients that inspire them, then attempt to cook a meal that reflects the culture and flavors of the respective neighborhood.

"Junkets" are pre-planned, multi-course meals where the dishes have been tested and then served to go with a specific theme. Expect 7-9 courses for these.

X-markets and Junkets are all BYOB; like the other underground dinners, guests receive an email with the address and directions, and any specifications necessary within 24 hours of the event. Some of their upcoming X-Market dinners include:

  • Jan 23rd, Afro-Caribbean Market $45
  • Jan 26th, Portuguese Market $45
  • Feb 2nd, Hunan Vegetable Market $45