TAMPA — When the table of eight begged to eat roasted eyeballs, chef Chad Johnson knew he had a lively bunch of diners at the Epicurean hotel’s new monthly supper club.
The peepers came directly from a hog’s head Johnson roasted for the dinner he held two weeks ago in the hotel’s Epicurean Theater. Meat from the head was to be used for a gourmet Cuban sandwich along with jamon serrano ham, comte cheese, spicy pickles and a side of frozen mustard ice cream.
Sitting at a table just a few feet from where Johnson was cooking, a dinner guest asked how often he had occasion to roast a hog’s head. The chef said once a week, and that chomping on eyeballs was a ritual for new cooks and servers at the hotel’s sister restaurant SideBern’s. The guest raised a hand and said, “I’m in!”
A few minutes and a couple of knife cuts later, four spoons were offered. The table squealed at their new taste adventure.
“That was a spontaneous moment I didn’t see coming,” Johnson said.
The possibility of having unique, offbeat and intimate experiences fuels the allure of supper clubs, which are growing in popularity across the country among food lovers craving more than the standard dining excursion.
Upscale restaurants are using the small-group dinners as a way of keeping current customers engaged while filling seats on nights that tend to be slow or when the business would otherwise be closed. One website catering to the small-dinners concept matches traveling foodies with meals made by supper club chefs and home cooks.
Johnson came up with the Epicurean supper club as a different way to host a cooking demonstration in the hotel’s theater. Serving a five-course dinner with appetizers and dessert, along with wine pairings and cocktails by Elevage restaurant general manager Eric Hale, was Johnson’s way of subverting the traditional classroom format.
The result was that all but a few guests at the dinner were first-time visitors to the hotel. The attendees were also significantly younger than customers who usually attend traditional wine dinners. Almost all of the plates for every course came back empty.
Part of that may have been because the menu included such exotic ingredients as roasted salmon belly, geoduck saltwater clams and five preparations of duck that included “everything except the quack.” Younger food enthusiasts are curious to try new ingredients they have seen consumed by culinary TV stars Andrew Zimmern and Anthony Bourdain, Johnson said.
“I was nervous that everyone would expect it to be like a class,” he said. “It’s not my style to stand and talk for two hours at a time. It’s really just a way to catch a buzz and have dinner together.”
Next month’s $125-per-person supper club, on Aug. 15, is “Pork Fat and Shellfish.” The hotel website’s disclaimer for ticket purchasers warns, “If you can’t/won’t eat certain things, this probably isn’t for you.”
For Palm Harbor chef Andrew Basch, hosting a monthly supper at Flight Restaurant and Lounge in Carrollwood is a way to rekindle his love of restaurant cooking. Basch left Pelagia Trattoria in Tampa in 2013 to spend more time with his growing family and start a catering company, Basch Cuisine.
Earlier this year, Tampa wine writer and social media marketer Jodi Fritch pitched him the idea of cooking a monthly wine dinner at Flight. He has since done four dinners, with a fifth scheduled for Aug. 26 that will feature such Italian-flavored dishes as charred Mediterranean octopus salad and fennel and black pepper-crusted flounder.
For that dinner, Basch is working with Urban Oasis Hydroponic Farm to grow baby greens he normally cannot get locally during the sweltering summer months when most farms are closed.
The wines for the dinner will be provided by Italian winery Casa Vinicola Zonin, which is using the supper to showcase four varietals.
At $49 per person, the dinner is a tremendous value, Basch said.
“At these events, the wines alone are worth the cost of the ticket,” he said.
Of the 30 people at each dinner, more than a third are repeat visitors. Some use the monthly suppers as an audition for hiring Basch to cater their events. One client who booked him for a wedding next year came first to check out the food at his most recent dinner.
“I didn’t know she was there,” he said. “She came up afterward to me and said, ‘You’re hired.’”
The in-home supper club trend got a boost in 2011 after New York City chef David Santos’ Um Segredo gatherings were profiled in several newspapers and magazines. Santos initially used the underground dinners in his Roosevelt Island apartment to keep a steady income while between jobs.
The secret dinners were popular enough to propel him to start Louro in Greenwich Village in early 2013 after a Kickstarter funding campaign raised $25,000.
“I had done so many private parties for people in their homes,” Santos said. “I thought, ‘Why can’t I do that in my apartment?’ If anything, it would give me momentary happiness, let me cook again and allow me to experiment in the comfort of my own home.”
After opening Louro, Santos kept the tradition alive with his Nossa Mesa supper club dinners on Mondays at the restaurant. “Game of Thrones” was the theme for one menu. This week, he hosted a Cuban, Floridian and Spanish-flavored supper in honor of Ernest Hemingway’s birthday.
“There are thousands of amazing restaurants in this world,” Santos said. “It’s up to you as a restaurateur to provide something different and change it up for your guests and for yourself as a chef.”
One company, EatWith, started in 2013 with the goal of tapping into the desire for private dining by connecting travelers with supper clubs as well as cooks around the world who host dinners in their homes.
Avi Levy — a self-taught, part-time chef who works full time as a video news producer — cooks kosher dinners for up to 10 EatWith-booked guests with his wife, Malka, at their home in Hollywood. He sees the dinners as extensions of the Avi’s Kosher Kitchen segments he showcases on YouTube.
For his next EatWith dinner, on Aug. 18, Levy will merge kosher flavors with American, Cuban, Caribbean, barbecue, Middle Eastern, organic and Turkish ingredients. Each ticket has a “suggested donation” of $51, with EatWith taking a 20 percent cut for booking the dinner. Levy is the first — and, as yet, only — EatWith cook offering dinners in Florida.
Although the majority of his visitors tend to be Jewish, the food appeals to others as well, he said.
Conversation with non-Jewish guests usually includes questions about kosher dietary regulations, or kashrut, and how the inspection processes for food differs before it heads to the grocery.
“I had one who told me, ‘It tastes so much better, for a couple bucks more, I’m buying kosher meat from now on,’” Levy said.
EatWith does Skype inspections and other due diligence before the site agrees to let hosts offer home dinners. Levy said he checks out his customers’ background as best he can before allowing them into his home. Most are friends-of-friends from South Florida’s tight-knit Jewish community.
“The biggest thing I learned is that you can’t have anyone in your house unless your wife is on board with it,” he said.