This article appears in the Pre-Fall 2014 issue of Eidé Magazine. Read it here, or click to read it in the issue below.
Story by Jaime Lin Weinstein | Photography by Charlie Watts
In these times of underground supper clubs, monthly mystery dinners and rodizio-style restaurants like Kevin Gillespie’s Gunshow, variations on the traditional edible experience have become commonplace — not just among culinary connoisseurs, but on the calendar of everyday diners. Even still, Dinner Lab, it seems, has cornered the market on today’s experimental dining. “We need to get a membership!” a woman across the table says to her husband as we (approximately 50 diners) take a seat, before the first course has even been served.
It’s springtime in Atlanta, and we’ve been sipping cocktails on the main porch of the Goat Farm Arts Center, a renovated 19th century industrial complex where artists, creative entities and small tech startups now reside — in addition to the goats. Plus a llama, two donkeys and a flock of rather vocal chickens. (Full disclosure: Eidé Magazine happens to be headquartered here, too.) This is Dinner Lab’s latest unconventional dining location in Atlanta — one of 10 current markets including Austin, Nashville, New York and L.A. Previous meals have been served in an empty warehouse, an underground art gallery, a boxing arena and even a helipad.
Aptly named, the concept does have similarities to a scientific experiment — data analysis included. It basically works like this: you buy a membership, which costs between $100 to $200 depending on your city, and that gives you access to the calendar of events across the country. Members can then purchase up to two tickets to an event in any city ($50 to $95 each, which includes at least five courses, tip and unlimited alcohol) where food is the medium for strangers to dine around common tables and share cuisine crafted by up-and-coming chefs. Here comes the laboratory part: Diners are asked to complete comment cards during the meal that rate dishes based on taste, creativity and drink pairings, allowing the chefs to tweak recipes and improve on their menu concepts. It all feels a little bit like one of those nerve-racking cooking competitions where chefs are thrown into a new environment and asked to create a meal for a room full of critics, but with more preparation and less stress. (The critics are local residents after all, not the likes of celebrity chef Tom Colicchio. And no one is kicked off at the end of the night.)
The social dining experiment has grown exponentially since its debut in New Orleans in 2012, and now they’re using their platform for a new project: the Dinner Lab Tour. Nine chefs will be bringing their menu to events — also open to non-members — in all 10 cities and at the end, those little feedback cards will be used to deduce which menu was most successful in which market, and provide one chef with the funding to open their own brick-and-mortar restaurant in that locale. “It’s the first data-driven restaurant concept,” explains Brittany Norton, New Market Development Manager. And in a world of devastating restaurant mortality rates, it appears a smart alternative to the current restaurateur-driven business model.
Chef Daniel Espinoza (The Drawing Room, Mexique, Carmichael’s Steak House, all in Chicago; Bistro des Saveurs, France; The Ausable Club, Upstate N.Y.) is the contender serving up dinner at this stop of the tour. “Welcome to my Mexican fiesta,” he says before explaining the menu he prepared, which included Tlayuda, a chicken carnitas flatbread that I couldn’t have devoured faster, and “Deep in Cider” — “Yeah, it’s a sexual pun,” Espinoza quips — apple mousse with cider cajeta gelée, walnut compote and cinnamon churros.
Espinoza was chatting with guests so sincerely throughout the meal that, but for the apron, one might not have believed he was the chef. He even offered the recipe for his requeson cheese (that came paired with purslane, beets and pepitas for the second course) when the man sitting next to me inquired about the sweet, creaminess of the dairy product that he had never tasted before. It’s all indicative of another feature of the Dinner Tour, and Dinner Lab events in general, that the modern diner has come to appreciate: intimacy.
Counter seating, open kitchens and chef’s tables may not be new to the culinary scene, but now we want our cooks even closer. No longer relegated to the kitchen, Dinner Lab chefs personally present each of their dishes to the guests themselves, and are available to talk with diners about them, offering a greater sense of connection between the artist and the consumer. In which case Espinoza gets bonus points — he provided his own playlist for our dinner, which included a mix of traditional music from Mexico and rap from Kanye West — “Hey, I was born and raised in Chicago,” he jokes, clarifying the dichotomy.
But you can’t eat the scenery, or the chef, or the music, and Dinner Lab makes sure that the food impresses as well. “If food doesn't make you smile and happy, I think you’re eating the wrong things,” Espinoza concisely reasons at one point during the night. He definitely prepared the right things for this event. At the end of the evening, after having enjoyed our meal, we were all rooting for Espinoza and hoping he would get the chance to open a restaurant in town. And the overeager diner across the table still wanted to get that membership.