Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The company of strangers

March 17, 2009 - 12:00AM

It's the latest trend in dining out - get a text and go to a one-off event. You never know who you'll meet, writes Carli Ratcliff.

A TEXT message arrives with an address, a dress code and a request to be prompt. Dinner will be served at 10pm.

Welcome to the world of underground dining, Sydney-style.

Transient Diner is the brainchild of an apprentice chef who felt stifled working in five-star kitchens. Realising many of his colleagues felt the same, he developed the dining concept to give third- and fourth-year apprentice chefs the opportunity to run a virtual restaurant for an evening.

From finding the location and creating the menu to curating a theme and employing staff, the experience gives young chefs the freedom to experiment without the commitments and responsibilities of opening a real restaurant.

The chef behind Transient Diner refuses to be named, remaining true to the group's strict code of conduct. Explaining the motivation behind the collective, he says, "These young chefs are highly competent, they are the ones executing the signature dishes of Australia's best restaurants . . . it is our intention to bring them in from the background, to encourage, motivate and grow them."

Menus vary from hearty home-cooked fare served in a paddock to a Spanish-influenced 10-course degustation menu with matched wines.

Dinners are held monthly. Patrons log their interest via email and, if selected, receive a return email with a reservation date. No further information arrives until the day of the dinner, via text message.

Underground dining collectives were born of the speakeasy (illicit liquor outlet) tradition in the US during the Prohibition years (1920 to 1933). It is estimated there are more than 100 secret dining groups in the US and a growing number across Europe and Latin America.

Some secret dining groups are closely aligned with political and social movements. Chef Alice Waters, of California's famed Chez Panisse, began her career on the underground dining circuit in the late 1960s. Catering for fellow free-speech campaigners, Walters's community-conscious dinners became known as Alice's Restaurant.

Some groups operate as social networks for like-minded foodies, such as Casa Felix in Buenos Aires. It's a private dining club, known as a "closed door", where patrons enjoy fish and vegetable feasts in gastronomic defiance of the city's obsession with beef.

Others provide a way to meet new people, such as Sydney's Cheap Eats group, a collective of North Shore singles who love food and wine. The group has met weekly since 1982. Punters register interest via a website and, once approved, are supplied with a phone number for details of the next location. Convenor "Kingsley" believes secrecy and privacy are major drawcards.

"Secret locations intrigue people and the fact that the group changes constantly means you never know who you will meet," he says.

For many patrons, however, it's all about the allure of the unknown. Dinner might be in a field or a car park or a private home.

The underground dining trend reached Hong Kong in 1997, following the Asian economic crisis. In her memoir, Shark's Fin And Sichuan Pepper, Fuchsia Dunlop chronicles the rise of private kitchens run by families keen to supplement their income, often from their own kitchen table. Many private kitchens gained a cult following and have grown into larger underground restaurants. Some are booked out months in advance.

Michael Fantuz began his underground network, Table for 20, in Sydney in 2004. Together with other Surry Hills locals, he was keen to create a communal dining experience with a focus on simple food and interesting company.

"The underlying objective has always been conviviality," he says.

They started as informal "hood dinners" in friends' kitchens and living rooms. Everyone would bring a plate and help out in the kitchen. In 2006 Fantuz decided to rent a permanent space in Campbell Street, Surry Hills. Community-spirited dinners now run weekly. Interested patrons send a text message to a mobile service and are contacted if there is room at the table.

Fantuz welcomes diners, runs the floor and eats with his guests. Two communal tables are covered in platters of food. There is no menu. "Sharing and eating the same dishes provides a sense of communion and encourages discussion between people who may never have met otherwise," Fantuz says. "It's a shared experience."

Alison Drover, convivium leader of Slow Food Sydney, says it's no surprise underground dining is an emerging trend.

"It's all about connecting people through food and a consciousness about what you are eating," she says. "It's a move away from flashy restaurants to a more intimate, often private experience."

Savva Savas of Plated catering agrees. Savas curates bespoke secret dinners for clients and goes to great lengths to guard their privacy. "The host wants their guests to be comfortable, to be able to be themselves and to enjoy an experience that can't be had in a restaurant," he says.

Savas has designed and executed a secret dinner for 20 in a tunnel. "The client was so insistent on secrecy that all correspondence was hand-delivered and details discussed in person," he says. "Even I wasn't privy to the location until four hours prior."

On another occasion, guests were transported blindfolded in a minibus to a private home. The windows were blacked out and the guests had no idea where they were.

The style of food is dictated by the environment, Savas says. "The menu has to be designed around logistical limitations," he says. At a secret dinner in a warehouse we had no power and no gas, so we arrived with the food ready and a box of candles."

He believes the key to a successful secret dinner is an extraordinary location, appropriately matched food and a sense of freedom."In a private scenario people tend to be bolder and to mingle more broadly," he says. "The experience gives guests a common talking point, it's a great conversation starter."

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