Years ago, or what feels like years ago, I wrote about upstart chef Mike Easton and his Santa Fe “supper club,” La Lucciola. Easton, who was on the cusp of what is begrudgingly, disparagingly and mortifyingly called “Italian Fusion,” had a respectable, full-time gig in Santa Fe, but was operating another entity more-or-less below the radar: a moveable feast in varying locations, mostly defined by spectacular menus, limited patrons and word of mouth.
Supper club is the polite term for an unsanctioned, unlicensed, irregular underground restaurant, the kind
of thing OCD food inspectors have nightmares about, and food and drink aficionados reserve for wet dreams. These days, queuing off the technological trend, such things are often more brief and less organized; the typical term is “pop-up” restaurant. Some regular businesses have capitalized on the trend by changing up the décor and menu with certain degrees of extremism and frequency, but the term generally implies a fleeting, momentary, had-to-be-there presence. It’s the food version of hacking or culture jamming: Come out of nowhere, serve up some choice material and vanish just as quickly as you appeared.
There are at least half-a-dozen regular underground restaurants operating in Santa Fe, and who knows how many other underground iterations, pop-ups and punk rock soup kitchens. That’s a small figure compared to the nation’s culinary capitals but, as usual for Santa Fe, an inordinate number per capita.Truly underground operations are only likely to be discovered through a trusted network, as the powers that be frown on such activities. Likewise, you’ll want to have your own sense of personal trust in whoever’s preparing the food. Once you’ve gotten a tip, here’s what you need to know about attending.
As far as the law is concerned, you’re pitching in to help cover the cost of a private party, right? This is not a business activity; it’s a pleasure activity. And that’s the truth. No one is making money from doing this kind of thing, so it’s really not a regulatory issue. Typically, your hosts will be kind enough to suggest an appropriate “donation” amount.
This is the kind of thing you have to feel out for yourself. Do you want to throw a little extra in the pot to make sure all costs are covered? A lot of pop-ups and affordable underground affairs appreciate a little gas money, etc. Some of the fancier supper clubs come with high price tags, and include multiple courses and beverages in the prices. Most of these are inclusive, and guests shouldn’t be burdened with calculating gratuity at the end of the night. However, it’s never unappreciated.
Keep your mouth shut
You’ve been invited because someone trusts you. Don’t blow that trust. You and I know that everyone’s a consenting adult, but there’s no reason for loose lips to divulge specifics that might find their way to a bored official’s ear.
Finding venues can be a challenge, and chefs often prepare elaborate meals with one or two burners. A toaster oven might be a bonus, a charcoal grill a luxury. I recently attended an event with multiple starters, and three luscious and well-developed courses. The “kitchen” was basically an office break room. Remember to appreciate the limitations and inventiveness of the chefs and hosts.
The chef who prepared three courses in said office break room told me that he was pursuing a full-sensory experience (there were visual and auditory elements in addition to the obvious aromatic, textile and taste components). There’s a reason for doing this stuff with more formalism than a dinner party and less structure than a restaurant. Get into it.
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