Alone in London with a day to kill, Jon Martin was hungry for an off-the-cuff adventure when he decided to show up for a meal at a stranger’s home.
A writer from North Carolina, Mr. Martin, 36, was finishing up a trip to Europe and had just parted ways with a friend. Sick of restaurant-hopping, he was browsing the event site DesignMyNight when he stumbled across the Fengzhen supper club, a twice-a-month event promising a home-cooked Chinese and Southeast Asian feast.
He found himself taking a southbound train to the end of the line and knocking on the door of a terrace house, where he joined 11 strangers to eat a 10-course meal prepared by Jay Zhang. The host, a hairstylist by trade, was leaning into another passion that evening: taking strangers through an indulgent culinary experience.
Many supper club hosts are part-time chefs. Jay Zhang, a hairstylist, began inviting strangers into his home for a 10-course feast he calls the Fengzhen supper club. Credit…Lauren Fleishman for The New York Times
The experience, for which Mr. Martin prepaid about £65, or $80, was “absolutely worth it,” and left him feeling more connected to “the real, everyday people that live there and make the place what it is,” he said. “You get things at a supperclub that you do not get at a restaurant.”
Before the pandemic, London’s supper clubs had become a popular alternative to the restaurant scene, offering a more familial alternative for a night out. The events, usually held in the homes of amateur chefs, rode a wave of popularity in the 2000s, until lockdowns forced them to stop.
Now, as communal eating has returned, the trend has evolved, with chefs old and new preparing meals. With a little sleuthing, visitors can eat Indian street food in a chef’s home, Malaysian cuisine at a local community center or Sri Lankan dishes at a neighborhood cafe.
Finding the events and lining one up can take a degree of research: Many local supper clubs, shared through word of mouth or social media, are the passion projects of self-taught cooks wanting to test their skills on beloved cuisines. Those wanting to attract broader clientele post their clubs on sites like Eventbrite and DesignMyNight or offer bookings on food experience sites like Eatwith and WeFiFo. Some clubs go viral with the help of TikTokers and food influencers. Visitors searching for a particular theme can even find supper clubs for singles looking to date, lovers of comedy or listeners of Motown music.
Ticket prices for the events also vary, from £30 to as high as £150, which rivals the cost of high-end dining experiences.
What separates a supper club from a pop-up, aficionados say, involves distinct markers: a venue that, if not at someone’s home, is an intimate space rather than a restaurant. Diners tend to pay for the meal before they arrive, which observers say makes the experience feel less transactional. The menu is fixed (though dietary requests can sometimes be taken into account) and tends to involve a unifying story or theme, often drawing on the chef’s background. And diners, solo or in groups, are heavily encouraged to socialize.
To achieve this, some supper club hosts make use of name-tags and icebreakers like pre-dinner quizzes. Others hope shared tables, or a setting odd enough to be a conversation starter, will do the trick.
Dining on a Tube car
On a recent Saturday evening in East London, I sat with eight strangers in a repurposed 1970s Underground train carriage as part of the three-times-a-week Tube Train supper club. As we squeezed into the carriage’s seats, and waited for the first course to arrive, we exchanged introductions and cracked transport-related jokes. By the time the third course arrived — a Peruvian-Japanese dish of cured hake — two Swedish tourists to my right and a group from Kent to my left had covered Brexit, NATO and the city’s noisiest train lines. By the final course — a sponge cake soaked in amaretto — someone had ordered a round of Negronis for the table and the conversation had turned to sibling rivalries and bad dates.
“You can get to meet all kinds of people you might not meet otherwise, and just sit there for hours and talk this and that,” said Karin Kragenskjold, a psychologist from Stockholm who brought her sister to the dinner after spotting it on social media. “I really, really liked it.” She paid £67 for the night’s dinner, though drinks were separately charged.
The Tube Supper Club is held three times a week at a museum in East London where the carriage, which once ran on the Victoria Line, is parked. Credit…Lauren Fleishman for The New York Times
Supper clubs became widespread in Britain’s capital at a buzzy time in the London food scene. Their popularity was pushed by food bloggers and critics who hailed them as a more authentic alternative to the flashy restaurant scene.
“There is something quite intimate, anarchic and unusual going to someone’s home that you’ve never met before,” said Kerstin Rodgers, the author of “Supper Club,” a cookbook and how-to, and an early adopter of the trend who began hosting grass-roots events in 2009 at her home. “It’s an extreme sport.” (In July, she hosted a “Barbie and Ken” themed food club.) Supper clubs have “fundamentally changed” the way Londoners eat out, she said.
For chefs who felt shut out from traditional pathways to food careers, the events offered a route to success in the industry. “It gave me the confidence to get work and start my own business,” Ms. Rodgers said.
Among the high profile success stories is the British restaurateur Asma Khan, whose journey from supper club chef to Soho restaurant owner was profiled on an Emmy-awarding winning season of the Netflix show “Chef’s Table.”
Inspired by lockdowns
Until lockdown, Akshi Shah Farrelly, 28, had not considered herself much of a cook. She started cooking to quell her cravings for her favorite Indian foods, “and it actually turned out edible,” she said, laughing. “I thought — let me keep working on it.”
An English teacher by profession, she started hosting a monthly Jamanvar supper club — the name means “feast” in Gujarati — at her home this year, posting tickets on Eventbrite.
At one seating this year, 10 guests who had paid about £35, were gathered family-style around the Farrelly family’s dining table. They were deep in conversation when Ms. Farrelly popped her head out from the kitchen to introduce the next dish: pav bhaji skewers, part of a six-course menu that she had spent weeks preparing.
Her husband bustled around the table in an apron, serving the food. Her teenage nephew politely topped up everyone’s glasses. Though they had never met Ms. Farrelly, some guests had driven almost an hour to attend the dinner at her home. After dessert was served, she poured herself a drink and joined the revelry.
But even professionally trained chefs have found success in the format. After culinary training in Argentina and working in London restaurants, Beatriz Maldonado Carreño, 46, had been looking for a venue for her growing supper club. She and a colleague decided to lease a decommissioned Victoria line train that is parked at an East London museum.
“It can’t be more London than that,” said Ms. Maldonado Carreño who added that the Latin-inspired menu was a nod to the city’s rising Latin population.
Chefs aspiring and established hosting supper clubs say they are driven less by monetary gain than by a desire to feed people and create connections.
“What people look for in a supper club is a certain degree of authenticity,” said Alice Whittington, 41, who runs a Malaysian-themed club under the name Eastern Platters. At her dinners, hosted at neighborhood bars and community centers, Ms. Whittington makes shareable courses that are meant to be passed around, and curates a playlist of Southeast Asian music.
She was surprised, but delighted, when a meal last November drew a group of New Yorkers, who said they discovered it on social media. “I built this supper club around my London community. I’m very happy to show outsiders what it’s like,” she said, adding that she wanted to challenge the “stiff upper lip” idea of British people. “You’re going to meet interesting, new people that are going to change your preconceptions about London.”
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