Gourmets Go Underground

A group of young chefs recently spent a day on the roof of a Brooklyn loft, roasting a goat and a dozen legs of lamb on two gigantic spits. To attend this "culinary collective," guests had to register on a Web site, be deemed worthy, get the password to buy admittance and wait for a treasure map to show the way. It led past a wine store, and suggested pair-ings for the evening's appetizer of asparagus, morels and leafy greens with candied pork, and the roast-meat entrae.

The adventure was hosted by a roving, monthly supper club, Studiofeast (studiofeast .com), named after the first dinner held by founder Mike Lee. He hosted the meal in his 800-square-foot studio, even using his dresser to carve a 25-pound suckling pig.
Underground supper clubs, with names like the Ghetto Gourmet (theghet.com) and One Pot (onepotblog.blogspot .com), started making an appearance on the foodie scene a few years ago. They were based at first on the principle that without the economic demands of running a restaurant, organizers would be free to take chances like promoting new chefs and demanding high-quality ingredients. But with a surging interest in eating locally, green groups are the rebel food community's taste du jour.

Jeremy Townsend, who founded Ghetto Gourmet more than four years ago, tracks these groups on his Web site. Of the 40 listed, he said 20 have sprung up in the past year. Almost all the newbies play up their service of local, organic eats.

"A lot of it is about shortening the gap between the farm and the table," says Townsend, who is based in Oakland, Calif. "We are a bit more nimble then a restaurant. It's harder for them to do an alternative dinner or a green dinner."

Supper clubs run the risk of being closed by local health departments if they are viewed as "restaurants" operating without a license. But Townsend says that clubs dodge this because they are private events with guests who "chip in" to pay for ingredients and usually bring alcohol with them.

Alicia and Daniel--who refuse to give their last names because they want to avoid any chance of being shut down--started the New York Bite Club (nybiteclub.com) about two and a half years ago. The inspiration was going to restaurants and thinking they could do it better.

"We weren't happy with the produce being used," says Alicia, 29. "We started re-creating a dish using more sustainable meats and greenmarket produce."

The idea came to create a Web site. Almost immediately, a three-month waiting list grew for their eight-course weekly dinners, she says. Without the need to turn a profit or pay salaries, the $150 to $200 fee that diners pay goes to ingre-dients.

Diners who want to get even closer to the source can attend Plate & Pitchfork in Portland, Ore. (plateandpitch fork.com), which is among a handful of groups across the country that host traveling dinners at local farms. At Plate & Pitchfork, about 100 people meet to take a tour of a farm, then sit down to eat in an outside "dining room," usually placed on tractor paths, says Emily Berreth, 30, one of the founders. During the meal, diners have a chance to chat with local wine makers and artisan food producers.

As the interest in local food grows, Plate & Pitchfork has become popular. Tickets to this year's series of 14 dinners sold out in four hours.

So how do diners find out about clubs in their area? Sometimes a simple Google search ("underground dining Boston") can do the trick. Mike Caprio, 33, discovered Light Bulb Oven (lightbulb oven.com), a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based "culinary speakeasy" run by cookbook editor Sara Newberry that focuses on what's available at the nearby greenmarket, through an Internet search. After securing a spot at his first dinner, Caprio has returned for two more.

Some clubs, such as New York City's Homeslice West (homeslicewest.com), have created their own Facebook fan pag-es. Townsend, of Ghetto Gourmet, has created a social-networking site where foodies can find each other to host their own events, as well as share recipes.

The Hidden Kitchen in Sacramento, Calif. (thehidden kitchen.net), shows how the idea has spread. Dennis Kercher, 55, read about Ghetto Gourmet in the San Francisco Chronicle, and told his wife he wanted to do the same thing.

"We had no idea if people would be interested in coming to someone's house that they didn't know and have someone serve a meal and leave some money behind," says Kercher. "Now it's taken on a life of its own. We have a waiting list of over 400 people we send e-mails to. We just enjoy meeting people who have the common interest of food."