Free for dinner? That'll be 50 bucks.
When guests pay for a home-cooked meal, it puts a new level of pressure on the host
ANNE KINGSTON | Mar 06, 2006
Two months before Clement Lo's back-to-back dinner parties on Feb. 5 and 6, planning commenced that would rival that of a military invasion. The 26-year-old technology consultant created a spreadsheet that listed, for each of the eight courses, its provenance, richness, flavours, temperature, textures, à la minute timelines and necessary serving dishes.
Two weeks in advance, Lo ran culinary "trials" in the kitchen of his downtown Toronto condo. Crabmeat was weighed to determine the precise amounts for a crab-and-avocado ravioli inspired by the signature dish at Paris's L'Astrance. He determined the temperature to cook the fish for the pan-fried striped bass with lemongrass cream and fried leeks. He finessed the preparation of poached foie gras au torchon with pickled cherries and brioche croutons, tasting the cherries every day to decide on the perfect sweet-sour calibration.
The week before was even more hectic. Lo, who chronicles his culinary adventures on his popular blog A La Cuisine!, shopped and cooked every day. Monday was sorbet day -- coconut and pineapple. Tuesday he made ginger ice cream to accompany apple frangipane and baked the pineapple chips to garnish the sorbets. Foie gras was soaked and red-wine marinade composed on Wednesday. By Thursday, all was ticking along as per plan. The foie gras was deveined and a pistachio emulsion was prepared for the white chocolate and rice-milk flan with white-chocolate-pistachio emulsion. The coconut sorbet and crème anglaise were redone after Lo deemed the textures off. Then, out of the blue, came the braised beef short ribs with root vegetables and sautéed bone marrow debacle. The trial for the ribs dish had been flawless. Shopping for the actual dinner, however, Lo was dissatisfied with the quality of the ribs. After visiting eight butchers, he had settled for ribs with mediocre marbling. Only half turned out after braising, forcing him to the city's most expensive butcher, where he paid twice as much as he had budgeted. The results were succulent -- and a lesson in buying ribs close to the rib-eye section of the cow. Friday and Saturday were a blur of preparation -- court bouillon, almond cream, chopped vegetables, butter-poached lobster, reduced veal stock, cleanup and then packing chocolate cookies from a recipe adapted from the food blog eGullet for his guests to take home.
By the standards of even the most manic foodie, Lo's routine might seem a tad obsessive. But the stakes were high for the London, Ont., native. He was asking each of his guests(five on Saturday; six on Sunday)to pay $50 to cover the cost of ingredients. He would supply wine. If all went well, he'd make it a regular event.
In Miss Manners' orbit, asking guests to pay for their dinner is a decided breach of etiquette. In culinary circles, however, paid dinner parties, also known as supper clubs or underground restaurants, are all the rage -- popping up from Berlin to Brooklyn. For diners, cachet is conferred by being enough in the know to gain entry. For chefs, dining clubs provide an arena in which they can experiment while mitigating some of the cost. The most elite of these clubs, Aux Chiens Lunatiques(At the Crazy Dog's Place), meets in a 17th-century Paris apartment owned by David Tanis, a chef who cooks at Berkeley's Chez Panisse. Attendees include humorist David Sedaris and the novelist Diane Johnson.
Lo is farther back on the learning curve. He is self-taught, his only culinary training a knife-skills course. Nor is he a denizen of high-end restaurants possessing first-hand familiarity with their rarefied tastes and textures; his budget doesn't allow it. Rather, Lo is the beneficiary of the democratization of cuisine, a chicken-cordon-bleu-in-every-pot made possible by celebrity-chef cookbooks, The Food Network and food blogs. Such exposure has made the home cook familiar with confits, pot-au-feu and emulsions, formerly the purview of culinary-school graduates. The mainstreaming of upscale cuisine has also permitted those unable to shell out US$300-plus per person to dine at Thomas Keller's acclaimed French Laundry in the Napa Valley to gain access to Keller's artistry via his $70 cookbook. Actually cooking from it, however, as Lo's example makes clear, requires rigour, trial and error, and considerable expense.
Lo, a soft-spoken, modest man, is food-obsessed. He fantasizes about restaurant equipment the way some guys do Ferraris. But he's less interested in showing off than mastering techniques and sharing the results. His first food memory, or "meme" in food-blogging parlance, was baking Pillsbury crescent rolls as a child. He speaks fondly of the Chinese meals his father, Theodore, prepares for the family. But it wasn't until he began reading cookbooks while studying computer engineering at Queen's University that his fascination with haute cuisine took hold. Alan Wong's New Wave Luau introduced him to the notion of multiple approaches to the same dish. In residence, he prepared portions of recipes from the French Laundry Cookbook. After graduation in 2003, he moved to Toronto. The next year he took a food-writing course at George Brown College, which inspired him to launch his blog.
Lo's expertise and confidence has been bolstered to the point he's comfortable asking guests, all long-time friends, to cover ingredient costs. They were happy to comply. "It's a treat," says Vivik Metha. "I enjoy going out to eat anyway. This way you get a lot more for your money." Others saw it as a way to support Lo. "It's great to be able to help a friend do what he wants," says Jin-Yi McMillan, Lo's friend since high school. Lo's wedding gift to her last summer was an eight-course dinner that included Dungeness crab salad with green apple gelée and macadamia-coconut-crusted rack of lamb with star anise sauce.
Still, paying for a home-cooked meal can't help but change the dinner-party dynamic. The chef is bound to feel pressure to provide a return on investment. Guests might feel obliged to turn conversation to the food, yet won't be as candid as they would be in a restaurant. Nor is anyone about to send food back to the kitchen. And at a normal dinner party, a culinary disaster can provide a bonding experience. At a supper club, it'll have the chef reaching for his chequebook.
Lo says he feels pressure whether he's footing the bill or not. The night before his Saturday $50 dinner, he managed to get in three hours' rest. A friend arrived to help him plate and serve. On Sunday, Lo didn't eat with his guests; he managed to shave half an hour off the Saturday night serving time. Both nights, guests gathered around while he plated, asking questions. Lo shies away from too much scrutiny. "I think the food should speak for itself," he says.
The two dinners combined went $40 over their $570 budget due to the short-rib mishap. Lo has shared the lessons learned from the evenings on his blog, where he has posted cookbook-worthy photographs of each course. The next paid dinner party is in the works. On the menu: slow-cooked pork belly with truffle macaroni, pork rillette and cabbage, and roast foie gras with almond, cherry and camomile from England's three-starred Fat Duck restaurant. For Clement Lo, newbie food savant, it's just another day of home cooking.
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