Participative dining experiences are redefining the way we think about food
Underground restaurants have found their niche. Stringing together the farm-to-table movement and a bloggy kind of interactivity, they have gained a following among food lovers, mostly in their 20s and 30s, who have an opinion on local versus organic, prefer intimate and casual to grand and ceremonial, and are open to meeting people and building connections in new ways.
On a beautiful Saturday morning in this village of 6,000 about half an hour from Ithaca, a group of friends and acquaintances gathered at Cold Brook Farms, which specializes in wild game and doubles as a hunting preserve. Most had driven up from Brooklyn late the night before, and now, at an hour that was way too early for brunch, they were in a low-slung outbuilding decorated with taxidermy, groggily joking about the décor and awaiting coffee and doughnuts. “All right,” announced Michael J. Cirino, one of their hosts, “we’re going to butcher a boar, if anyone wants to watch.”
Forget the coffee and doughnuts. The group moved to a processing room in the back, adjacent to a large walk-in meat locker. There, hanging on metal hooks from the ceiling, was the carcass of a freshly slaughtered 150-pound boar. Mr. Cirino nicknamed it Louis. For the next hour and a half, he and his friend Daniel Castaño, 30, a cook who has worked at Otto, Babbo and Quality Meats, methodically broke down the animal with cleavers and saws, hacking it into recognizable parts like tenderloins and ribs. Mr. Cirino, 29, who works as a legal aide and closer for commercial and real estate transactions, had never attempted anything like it: he was 20 minutes in before he thought to put on an apron. Another professional cook — Jacqueline Lombard, a caterer — and two enthusiastic amateurs helped butcher, while the rest of the crew snapped gory photos with their phones.
That they were able to lure a half-dozen urbanites upstate to dismantle a pig is nearly achievement enough, but Mr. Cirino and Mr. Castaño had grander plans: the rest of the day was to include lessons in pasta-making, knife skills and using hydrocolloids to create fluid gels, as Mr. Cirino outlined in an e-mail message to prospective guests. The event — “exploring and cherishing an entire wild boar,” he wrote — was supposed to culminate in a six-course meal, complete with wine pairings and dessert, served at a communal table, with time left over for a boccie game. For this unique guerrilla cooking school experience — organized by Mr. Cirino and Mr. Castaño as a kind of field trip for their New York-based dining club, called A Razor, a Shiny Knife — they charged $80 a person, barely enough to cover costs.
Mainstream it’s not — and that’s just how the organizers like it. A Razor, a Shiny Knife began as a regular post-boccie Sunday dinner with friends and grew as those friends told other friends. The meals became more ambitious and eventually, anyone who turned up was asked for money to cover the groceries. It became what is called an underground restaurant, but it, and others like it, often have less in common with restaurants than with other alternative culture, like indie rock.
The passionate enthusiasts who have opened dozens of unlicensed restaurants in apartments and other private spaces in recent years do not generally aspire to become traditional restaurateurs, with overhead and investors and the health department — a k a The Man — telling them what to do. They are not in it for the money or for Buddha Bar-size crowds; instead, they say, they are in it for the community and the creative freedom. It’s hard to imagine even the most adventurous legitimate restaurant encouraging customers to hack the hindquarters off a boar’s carcass. And underground restaurants have found their niche. Stringing together the farm-to-table movement and a bloggy kind of interactivity, they have gained a following among food lovers, mostly in their 20s and 30s, who have an opinion on local versus organic, prefer intimate and casual to grand and ceremonial, and are open to meeting people and building connections in new ways. No doubt a lot of them are members of a Facebook fan club for bacon.
“Any night of the week you can go out to dinner, but this is unique,” said Jeremy Townsend, a founder of Ghetto Gourmet, an early underground restaurant based in Oakland, Calif. “People want to get out of that cookie-cutter experience and have a shared experience that has some meaning and authenticity, and some story behind it.” Mr. Townsend’s Web site, theghet.com, tracks the movement; the number of underground restaurants has doubled in the last year, to about 70, he said.
That was part of the reason that Greg Rubin and nine others paid as much as $48 each to sit in the non-air-conditioned Brooklyn apartment of Sara Newberry, a cookbook editor, on Saturday night. They eagerly sweltered through a four-course feast — plus amuse-bouche — based around Greenmarket and organic ingredients like heirloom tomatoes, watermelon radish and purple basil. Mr. Rubin, 27, a culinary school graduate turned music marketer, came with his fiancée, Jenny Spyres, and his sister Jess, a high school student visiting from Boston (“I wanted to give her a true New York experience,” he said). He compared the experience to shopping at an indie record store instead of a big box retailer and said he appreciated the small scale, market-driven menu and informality. “I want a dog walking around while I eat,” he said after Ms. Newberry’s mutt was loosed. “I want the fan to tip over. I don’t want that sterile white tablecloth. That’s why I’m not in a restaurant.”
For each course, Ms. Newberry, in cut-offs and a T-shirt that read, “Meat Is Murder — Tasty, Tasty Murder,” would emerge from her galley kitchen, barely shouting distance away from the two butcher-paper-covered tables set up in her living room, to describe the dishes. “This is quail,” she said of the entree. “They look a little obscene because they’re doing yoga.” The birds, splayed and stuffed with goat cheese and wrapped in bacon, were served with corn pudding and pomegranate molasses. “Yum,” was the general consensus.
“Get messy!” Ms. Newberry exhorted the group. “Eat with your hands!” Ms. Spyres dutifully picked up and gnawed a tiny leg. After dessert — lemon curd tarts with blueberries and fresh whipped cream — Ms. Newberry left the clean-up to her hired sous-chef, Justine Renson, grabbed a bottle of wine and plopped on the couch to talk shop with two of her guests, who run another underground restaurant known as Homeslice West.
The women would give their names only as Becky and Hayden to avoid attracting attention from the authorities. They work in advertising by day but have been serving Southern food out of a rotating series of Upper West Side apartments for more than two years. The dinners have regular customers and, because they often start with a cocktail hour, a reputation as something of a singles scene.
“Dating companies e-mail us all the time,” asking them to set up a dinner for clients, Becky said. Though they won’t do that, they do act as a conduit for the timid. “After the event, men will e-mail us and ask for people’s e-mails,” Becky said. (“They always say, ‘I forgot to ask!’” Hayden added, rolling her eyes.)
Now that the underground dining scene is more established, its members — like the Whisk & Ladle; A Razor, a Shiny Knife; and Coach Peaches — have had time to get to know each other. The Homeslice West women are working on a two-day Thanksgiving banquet with about a dozen of their compatriots. They hope to have sponsors like wine companies defray costs and help them earn a profit.
Another ambitious venture is the New York Bite Club, which has as many as 45 guests for its twice monthly eight-course meals, asking each for a $150 “donation” (not including wine, which is officially donated to avoid selling alcohol illegally). It started two and half years ago and has grown so popular that the couple who founded it have hired both a part-time reservationist and a part-time Web site manager. But the couple still go by their first names, Alicia and Daniel, because they fear being shut down.
In an e-mail message, Elliott Marcus, associate commissioner for New York’s Bureau of Food Safety, said, “If you’re serving food to the public, you need a health department permit and you have to comply with all the health code rules to keep food safe,” adding that they inspect frequently.
Still, New York Bite Club’s customers have included a chef from Nobu and a Food Network producer, Alicia said, and Joaquin Simo, a founding bartender at Death & Co., provided cocktail pairings. “It was a challenge,” he said. “Their menus are really out there.”
Of course, like all things underground, the scene may be threatened by its own popularity. After word of their dinners spread, Mr. Townsend, who started the Ghetto Gourmet with his brother, Joe, a professional chef, received a visit from the Oakland health department in 2006. Instead of closing up, he simply hit the road, apartment-hopping and eventually embarking on a two-year cross-country tour, working with local cooks along the way. (Joe Townsend is now a chef in Nashville.)
Many new underground restaurateurs like Ms. Newberry were inspired to start after attending one of Ghetto Gourmet’s roving dinners; now undergrounds exist even in smaller cities like Des Moines. Whether the growing numbers, sponsorship or mainstream restaurant practices will kill their mystique remains to be seen.
“Making it bigger but keeping it intimate and secretive and mysterious, that’s the balance we’re hoping to strike,” Hayden said.
Another option is to change course. Inviting people to get their hands dirty — to stir or sauté or just taste-test — is what sets apart Mr. Castaño and Mr. Cirino’s events from other supper clubs. At the boar cookout, held on an 800-acre farm that belongs to Mr. Cirino’s uncle Jerry Contento, they explicated every step and cut of the butchering. Mr. Cirino gave his girlfriend, Kathryn Mahoney, 27, a vegetarian, a chance to take a whack. Moments before serving, spoonfuls of the boar Bolognese were handed around, to determine if it was too liver-y. (Nope.)
The all-hands-on-deck ethos is intentional, said Mr. Castaño, who led a tutorial on how to make ravioli. “Everybody gets ownership of what they’re doing,” he said. “It tastes that much better just because they can tell whoever’s sitting next to them, I made that.”
Sitting at the long table, set with Mr. Cirino’s grandparents’ china, across from his aunts, uncles and cousins, Ms. Mahoney did just that. Also, she had a flour fight with her fellow ravioli maker, Paul Fawell, while they were working. Mr. Fawell, 27, a chief financial officer for a nonprofit, had been a paying customer and helper at several of Mr. Cirino and Mr. Castaño’s dinners. “I expected it to be good food but didn’t expect it to be so informal,” he said, “and I didn’t expect all the great people I met.”
Mr. Cirino and Mr. Castaño were hiding out in the prep room, where, nearly 12 hours earlier, they had cut up the animal they were now eating. “One of the best bites I’ve had all month,” Mr. Cirino said of the forkful of smoked boar and collard greens he had assembled.
The menu also included a dish described as “wild boar rillette topped with a pot-lickies gelée and served on a duck skin crackling” — in other words, a boar pâté served with a tab of jelly made from the condensed liquid leftover after cooking collard greens, accented by a fried duck skin chip. (The skin was held together with Activa, an enzyme that the chef Wylie Dufresne calls a “meat glue,” and one of many untraditional substances Mr. Cirino had packed. He also brought his own immersion circulator.) He is undoubtedly extreme: he always makes his own butter, is working on a “bacon press” — to make it paper-thin — and is most excited about a new method for cooking pasta without water (“we can laser etch!”).
He and Mr. Castaño considered their wild dinner experiment a success. “Nothing that we did today has been done before,” Mr. Cirino said proudly. But their ambition caused problems: One course was delayed after the smoker and deep fryer in the garage blew a fuse, the succotash custard didn’t set properly and there was no local supplier of quality sweetbreads.
As she was packing her knives, Ms. Lombard, the professional caterer, gave the dinner a grade of C-. She came as a friend and unpaid helper to learn molecular gastronomy techniques but instead wound up doing everything from washing dishes to taking out the trash. “When this last course comes out,” she said toward the end of her 12-hour shift, “I’m going to go to McDonald’s and get a Big Mac with extra pickles.”
Via NY Times