Supper Clubs: Mine for dinner, and bring your purse

Keen cooks and those who love entertaining are inviting groups of strangers to eat in their homes, for a fee. Supper clubs are taking off everywhere, from Citywest to San Francisco

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‘Are you on your way to the supper club?” shouts a young couple from a car. We are in a labyrinthine estate in Citywest. Finally, we arrive at the apartment of art teacher Tanya O’Halloran, who has turned her two-bedroom apartment into a makeshift restaurant for the evening.

Hers is a pop-up vegan supper club; one that has drawn guests from all over Dublin. There are 16 guests in all, seated in O’Halloran’s stylish and spacious living room. The young couple I arrive with are young parents, keen to do something different of a Saturday evening. Another couple, students from Leixlip, are seasoned vegans; yet another pair of women profess to be artisan food producers, lured simply by curiosity.

I’ve made a mental note of the nearest Eddie Rockets, but my fears that a vegan supper club wouldn’t be satiating and delicious are unfounded. O’Halloran has prepared a five-course, Asian-inspired menu, priced at €25 per person: pickled kombu with sushi rice; dashi with miso and tofu, roasted butternut squash with ginger, tomatoes and a lime tahini dressing; ‘raw’ pad Thai, made of spiralised vegetables and satay sauce, and a chilli and goji berry flapjack with lemongrass ice-cream.

O’Halloran is an effortless mistress of ceremonies and she busies herself in her apartment kitchen while her guests eat. She admits that one day, she’d love to run a vegan food truck.

“I’ve always been into food,” she says. “Wanting to share this with others, I started a blog last year (thetinyvegankitchen.com). Most of the recipes on my blog are simple, but at my supper club I offer something different, something more refined. It gives me the opportunity to communicate with people through tasty food. Interestingly, a lot of my guests aren’t vegan; they’re not even vegetarian so, if by eating my food they then decide to cut out or cut down on animal products, then my night has been a true success. I once had a couple travel all the way from Wexford to attend my supper club – that was pretty amazing.

O’Halloran is one of a growing number of Irish people who are opening their homes for pop-up supper clubs. For some, there is a financial impetus, yet many others want to share their foodie enthusiasm and showcase local producers with fellow gourmands. It’s easy to see the appeal for diners: some are jaded with a populous restaurant scene, some enjoy the communal nature of supper clubs, others want to enjoy home cooking, lovingly prepared.

Kate Ryan is a food writer who started hosting supper clubs, designed for eight to 10 attendees, in her west Cork home. She joined forces with fellow foodie Marie O’Keeffe and created a number of themed supper clubs, among them Savoury Chocolate and Summer Supper (you can see more at flavour.ie). Her most recent supper club, themed as Ocean Delight, cost €40 per person to attend.

Home cooking

“Firstly, I saw it as an opportunity to meet like-minded people who were as passionate about local produce and home-cooking as I am,” Ryan says. “Secondly, I saw it as an opportunity to really push my boundaries as a cook, so I wasn’t cooking the same dinner-party food all the time. I saw a need and a want for people to move away from formal restaurant dining and look for something… different.

“I had hoped that the events would move around to other people’s houses who were members of the club. Sadly, despite having plenty of repeat guests, everyone seemed to decide they were having far too much fun at mine to host at theirs. In the end, I gave up on that and just rolled with it.

“It’s a lot of work at home. It is really important to have impeccable food hygiene standards when doing something like this. That should be the biggest concern.”

Demand has been so high that she has been occasionally forced to move her operations outside the home, to venues such as Clonakilty’s Emmet Hotel and Scannell’s Bar.

“It’s a very relaxed venue so the social dining experience still works a treat, and it strikes a good balance for those seeking something different to the standard restaurant experience,” Ryan says.

“I am turning what I do into a bigger enterprise. Over the last two years I have put in a lot of leg work establishing relationships with producers, getting to know them, and generally garnering a reputation for myself locally for doing things differently.”

For Dublin-based mum of three Barbara Keating, the idea of running a supper club was born entirely out of happenstance: “I work part-time in the family business, in property,” she says. “I adore cooking. I’m no chef, but I love to cook and experiment and entertain. My sisters and friends were constantly asking me to hold a class and show them how to cook. I took the plunge and ran a few spice evenings. I demonstrated a series of dishes and I charged them €40 for a full meal and glass of prosecco.”

In Oranmore, Galway, Mary Toomey works in the Marine Institute’s chemistry lab by day, and juggles her Mitzi’s Mezze supper clubs with an MSc in culinary innovation by night (facebook.com/mitzismezze). Her latest menu featured salad Olivieh, labneh with dukkah, kibbutz beef salad and pomegranate and rosewater white chocolate pots

“I started the supper club because I have a real passion for Middle Eastern food and I love cooking and hosting dinner parties,” she says. “I get such a buzz from start to finish, researching the menu, planning the nights, shopping and hosting it. Interest in chefs like Ottolenghi and Sabrina Ghayour has exploded and the number of Middle Eastern restaurants in Ireland is increasing all the time.

“I’m host, chef, server and cleaner,” she adds. “It’s a lot of hard work, but I look forward to it every month. I always vary the menu and trial everything I serve beforehand.”

Contribution

To date, Toomey has cooked for more than 200 guests: a “mixed bag, and generally lots of fun”. Attendees are asked to contribute what they feel is appropriate, though Toomey suggests €15 per head, if she provides a welcome drink.

“I have been really fortunate and have met many warm and interesting people,” she says. “I have only had one encounter with a guest who was disruptive and acted a bit crazy.”

In Douglas in Cork, two friends – occupational therapist Banu Balaji and Ruth Stockdale, who works at home – run the Annam supper club from Balaji’s home (Annam India Supper Club on Facebook).

Cookery classes

Balaji used to hold Indian cookery classes in her kitchen for neighbours and friends and, inspired by a Jamie Oliver show, realised that the supper club seemed like the next logical step. They charge €40 for a three-course meal and welcome cocktail, and their traditional vegan supper club, held last month, was a great success.

“Hosting supper clubs isn’t really something you’d do to make money,” says Stockdale. “There has to be a passion for the food and for people to make it work. Both of us have, in different ways, strong views on food and service that seem to come together nicely.

“There is a lot of work: shopping, chopping, peeling, cooking, taking stuff out of storage, making the house presentable, borrowing chairs and tables from neighbours, setting up the table, sorting out the kids,” she says. “But it’s worth it when everyone is in, sitting at the table, chatting and really enjoying a different eating experience.”

In the main, Annam’s clientele are women aged 25-50 with some spare income, many of whom have found the supper club through Facebook. “It takes a certain type of person to come to a stranger’s house for dinner, and that type of person is usually very outgoing and good fun,” says Stockdale.

“Our most memorable guest was Myrtle Allen, ” she says. “We had a group coming from Ballymaloe for a few months and one day they called us and booked the whole table. Who then rocks up only Myrtle, who was very magnanimous in getting her photo taken afterwards with us.”

While Ireland’s restaurant explosion continues, the supper club scene is slowly gathering pace. Perhaps not surprisingly, given the rise of the ‘sharing’ economy, there are a number of sites purporting to be much like Airbnb, but for dinner parties.

EatWith (eatwith.com) offers a number of dining experiences in homes across Ireland, for a fee, and it has been reported that Airbnb is quietly experimenting with a plan to turn homes across the globe into makeshift restaurants.

According to Reuters, the San Francisco pilot project will let diners eat at a local resident’s home for $25 for a three-course meal. The idea is to make a dining experience in big cities cheaper, healthier, and more neighbourly.

Street feast

Earlier this month Ireland held its annual street feast, encouraging amateur cooks to join forces with neighbours and host a communal dining experience.

For those who want to offer something similar without venturing into the red, Kate Ryan has valuable advice: “I’d say do yourself a favour and keep the numbers small so the quality of the food you are providing remains high and consistently so. The best thing is to be organised.

“Over-shopping kills off any profit you hope to make, so make a list, complete with quantities, and stick to it. Shopping for that many people isn’t so hard to be honest.”

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