Hosting a dinner party is not for the faint of heart. All the shopping, cleaning, cooking and schmoozing, followed by more cleaning, can suck the verve out of the most enthusiastic party planner.
Then there are people like Jen and Ryan Hidinger, who have 10 strangers over for dinner about twice a month. For them, it’s a labor of love with a specific goal: to create an experience that will make guests come back for more. That way, the Atlanta couple will have an instant following by the time they open a restaurant, if all goes planned, by the end of the year.
Guests tend to leave their home with equally memorable impressions of the convivial atmosphere, which is just as important as the food, said Ryan Hidinger.
“This is how we want people to feel when they’re in our restaurant, like they’re in our home,” said Hidinger, who has been honing his culinary talent for the past decade in restaurants in Indianapolis and Atlanta, currently, as head chef of Muss and Turner's.
“We want it to be a place for people in the neighborhood, simple, unpretentious, casual. A place you come to not just to eat awesome food, but a place to hang out and relax.”
The concept of the intimate, quasi-legal supper club has been around for decades, from Paris to Texas to London, paving the way for secret suppers, pop-up restaurants and the first mass luncheon ever served on New York’s L train.
They rarely evolve into restaurants - especially in an era of tacos trucks and food fairs, with chefs looking to avoid investing in a brick and mortar establishment, said Kate Krader, restaurant editor of Food and Wine magazine
“Opening a restaurant doesn’t seem like end of the yellow brick road anymore,” Krader said. “On the the other hand, when you cook in your home kitchen and you know you’re doing it well and people like it, I can see why someone would want to pursue it.”
If the restaurant landscape isn't what it used to be, it’s creating a fertile climate for alternate means of building buzz - especially for the right concept. Southern-bred chef Sarah Simmons started her City Grit supper club in New York City after identifying a need to educate Yankees on the versatility of grits. The dinners expanded this year beyond her Manhattan apartment to a pop-up restaurant in a defunct Catholic school in Little Italy, with plans to grow into permanent restaurant one day.
There’s also precedent in Atlanta for the Hidingers' growth plans. Asha Gomez and her husband Bobby began welcoming groups of 20 into their home last October for the Spice Route Supper Club. Thanks in part to financial backing from one very pleased guest, they plan to open a restaurant in October.
Named “Cardamom Hill” for one of the dominant spices in Gomez’s cooking, the restaurant will offer her take on cuisine from India’s southern coastal region of Kerala. Rice and coconut are its main staples, along with seafood and - owing to Christian influences in Kerala – beef and pork. Gomez incorporates seasonal vegetables for a modern twist on the flavors of her childhood, a means of “educating” guests on the alternatives to saag paneer and tikka masala, she said.
“The supper club was a great way to test out the market and see if people are interested in regional authentic cuisine,” Gomez said.
Gomez’s intention, like the Hidingers’, to create a “third place” that fosters social interaction, seems to resonate in a city of transplants, where many find common ground in food and drink.
Donald Bernstein, an oncologist from Sandy Springs (a neighborhood located outside the perimeter that delineates in-town from the suburbs), said the unique dining experience was well worth the drive.
“We live in the suburbs so we’re used to driving. And really good Indian is hard to find in Atlanta,” Bernstein said at a recent Saturday dinner over a bowl of Kerala vegetable stew - root vegetables, cabbage, and beans simmered in a coconut broth.
“It’s also the atmosphere – the chance to sit and meet people who share my interest in ethnic food and cooking; it’s more than just food.”
Gomez hopes to retain some of the supper club’s intimacy by keeping Cardamom Hill small, perhaps by incorporating a communal table, and ensuring her hands touch “everything that comes out of the kitchen.”
But, hosting supper clubs is a tough act to quit, she said.
“I just had the best time ever this past year with supper club experiences. I met best the people, forged amazing friendships; it was my stepping stone into the culinary world and I enjoyed the journey tremendously,” she said.
Supper clubs thrive on their exclusivity, but consistency is key to maintaining momentum, she said.
“You can’t overcook the pasta or undercook the pork chops. And, no matter how fun is, if the air conditioning is not working, or the server spills water, people will think twice about going again.”
So far, the Hidingers seem to have avoided such pitfalls. Thanks to raves in food blogs, local media and through word-of-mouth, they have no trouble attracting 10 people to their home any given Sunday to donate $65 for a five-course meal, paired with wine and beer. They accept guests on a first-come, first-serve basis, lending an egalitarian air to the event and making repeat visits increasingly rare, Ryan Hidinger said. There was the case of the man who set up an auto-reply to their e-mails, but the couple caught on after the third RSVP.
On a recent Sunday, strangers began arriving at Hidingers' home in the Atlanta neighborhood of Peoplestown about 20 minutes before dinner at 6. Jen Hidinger welcomed guests from the lawn of the bungalow-style home, while inside, her husband chatted up others as they sipped glasses of wine and beer.
Some had been trying for months to get in. Others had been lucky on their first shot – no small feat, considering the dinner typically sells out within seconds of the Hidingers announcing it to a list of more than 2,000 people.
A food truck owner, a restaurant owner and a marketing research account took seats at the Hidingers’ dining table. A software programmer and two graduate students sat at the counter facing the kitchen, offering a view of the Hidingers at work and the chance to lob questions about preparing Waygu flat iron steak (course number four) and duck confit (course number three).
As beer and wine flowed, so did the chatter, ceasing for a few seconds at a time as guests took their first bites.
“This definitely doesn’t suck,” one guest said of course number two, a plate of Scottish salmon alongside avocado terrine served with a slaw of carrots, radish and cilantro and a dollop of chili lime mayo on the side.
After the meal, everyone gathered on the front lawn for the traditional group photo. Hugs and businesses cards were exchanged with vows to keep in touch.
“I have no doubt Jen and Ryan will succeed and not just because the food’s amazing,” said guest Matthew Ruppert, the owner of Noni’s, an Italian restaurant in town. “They’re focused on creating the right atmosphere, and if the whole package is anything like it is in their home, there’s no doubt that it’ll work.”
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