The supper club has risen like a phoenix from the ashes of the dinner party. Up and down the land, people are welcoming paying strangers into their homes to dine. And with Rachel Khoo’s Little Paris Kitchen airing on BBC Two, such ventures are hotter than ever.
Supper clubs sell themselves as a grass roots, more democratic alternative to eating out, a crafty way for budding chefs to circumvent the cost, bureaucracy and risk of opening a restaurant. In pedigree, they have counter-culture roots, taking their inspiration from Cuban paladares: family-run, once illegal businesses, set up in competition to state-run restaurants. In Britain, they ought to be the Banksy of the eating out scene.
But has this radical concept been hijacked? Sign up for the latest fashionable supper club in your locality, chances are that your genial host, not necessarily the cook, welcomes you to his or her desirable kitchen with its large dining table. An aspirational living space of the type that features in weekend supplements is preferable, although a quirky, picnic-in-my-sitting-room vibe is also de rigueur. The typical ticket price is £25, not an inconsiderable sum in these hard-up times when restaurants proper offer astonishingly keen deals.
Likely candidates at the stove include chef eccentrics who have yet to demonstrate the discipline and staying power required to run, or indeed, hold down a job in a restaurant proper, and well-intentioned amateurs who dream of being on Masterchef, currying favour with Gregg and John.
While paladares showcased domestic home cooking, supper clubs too often serve up the amateur’s take on fine dining, never a dish to relish. Let’s just say that quality control is an issue, and to date, there’s no Tripadvisor or Good Food Guide for supper clubs. Under the heading ‘Qualifications for running a supper club’ one website reads: ‘None whatsoever. I love to cook, eat, feed and party. I’m hoping that this will be enough to wing it.’
If the food isn’t good enough (whisper it) to justify the price tag and make you look fondly on the makeshift nature of the operation, then what’s the etiquette? A supper club takes your money but it is only a quasi-business. Good manners dictate that when the cook emerges from the kitchen for that customary round of applause, you must join in enthusiastically, even if the pigeon was half-raw, the panna cotta had the texture of a stress ball, and the people at the top of the table had nearly finished their food by the time yours arrived. After all, it’s churlish to grumble when you are eating in someone’s home.
Whatever happened to the authentically indie supper club with its faintly anarchist roots? In its current trendy form, it seems to appeal more to those who lap up culinary novelty, bathed in a coulis of cruise ship ‘captain’s table’ banter.
But if you aren’t thrilled at the prospect of eating unreliable food and making chummy come-dine-with-me small talk with people you don’t know, and will most probably never meet again, then the supper club bears an uncanny resemblance to the old dinner party from hell, only with a bill attached.