Dinner Clubs an Entertaining Way to Cook and Dine with Friends
"Dining partners, regardless of gender, social standing, or the years they've lived, should be chosen for their ability to eat – and drink! – with the right mixture of abandon and restraint. They should enjoy food, and look upon its preparation and its degustation as one of the human arts."
– M.F.K. Fisher, Serve It Forth
Not everyone would be up to the challenge of cooking an appetizer consisting of fresh sardines in eucalyptus oil demi-glace, but for Larry Lerner it became a test of his gastronomical fortitude.
As a founding member of The Epicurious Club, a Camarillobased private dinner group of four couples, it was his task to create the dish, as well as to make sure the eucalyptus component was safe for consumption. He not only harvested the eucalyptus from his neighborhood, he did the research and calculations to provide a delicious – and risk-free – experience for the group.
"Everything that night tasted remarkable," says Larry.
While not all the recipes assigned to its members have required quite that much due diligence, the group, which started in 1999, has always made it a goal to create dining experiences that cultivated their palates, stretched their culinary skills and were just plain fun.
These satisfying objectives are the ultimate achievement for private dinner clubs the world over, no matter the size, meeting place, number of courses or types of ingredients used.
The Epicurious Club's menu themes have centered around a produce item, or an ethnicity, or adventures such as a gourmet picnic, fondue party and "summer in Provence." For recipes, the group scours cookbooks, newspapers, magazines and, of course, online sites like Epicurious.com.
This dinner club generally meets quarterly, depending on its members' busy schedules, but the newer, private Supper Club based in Ojai, has been meeting once a month for over a year. Picking a date and host can be a challenge, says Supper Club founder Lisa Snider, so they use Facebook as a tool.
"Sometimes we agree on a theme – from White Trash to Mediterranean – and everyone brings a fantastic dish," she adds. "We always bring favorite wines from our home cellars, even when dining in restaurants."
For its first meeting, Lisa, a food writer, organized a group of foodie friends – including two other food writers, a former chef and sommelier, another food lover and their significant others – at Sidecar Restaurant for its closing.
Like the Supper Club, the Epicurious one began on a whim that broadened into regular events.
Larry and his wife, Patty, met two of their future dinner club mates 15 years ago at their synagogue's social group, where potlucks were the norm. Larry, who has always been an intrepid home cook, found potlucks a bit limiting, so when an equally adventurous member suggested they begin a dinner club, he was intrigued.
November 1999 marked The Epicurious Club's first meal, a harvest birthday celebration in honor of Larry's birthday, which the Lerners had previously celebrated at Charlie Trotter's two-star Michelin- rated restaurant in Chicago.
"Patty took me on a surprise trip to Chicago and we ate something that was a totally different experience," says Larry. "We ate at Charlie Trotter's and bought the cookbook."
Their first dinner included Trotter's recipe for red kuri squash soup. A club member located the thick-skinned winter squash at Underwood Family Farms for the Lerners, who replicated the recipe.
"We had to put it in a juicer," says Larry. "We were pulping those things all day long."
Undeterred by the hard work, the gatherings became a regular and much anticipated event. Typically, one-half of the couple is the more avid cook, with the other acting as sous chef. Recipes are handed out for the event usually two to three weeks in advance to give time to acquire ingredients and allow for adequate preparation.
Each dining experience is a leisurely unfolding of multiple courses, with couples taking turns in the kitchen to do finishing touches on their prepped courses. In between, the group socializes, catching up on their personal lives. As one might imagine, much has changed over a decade-and-a half for club members, now in their 50s, with children who are young adults.
The group started with four couples, but whittled down to three when one couple moved out of the area. On dinner club nights, an enthusiastic guest couple generally takes the remaining spot.
While there are no written rules, member Michelle Tingley says there is a definite process for their dinner club, which differs from other gourmet food groups.
"We take turns hosting the event in our home, and it's the hosts' responsibility to come up with the theme, and the hosts assign the dishes to the other people," says Michelle. "Usually the hosts will do what you would consider a main dish. We can have anywhere from four to six or eight courses, and the hosts create and provide the wine pairings."
For Epicurious Club members, the wine pairings – and, occasionally, the cocktail or nonalcoholic beverage pairing – is an essential part of the dining experience.
Some members have gone to the extent of taking the club's assigned recipes to a local wine shop for advice on the best pairings. While they admit there is a large workload and expense involved for both wine and food, primarily for the hosts, the members agree that once a year is doable, and the best reward is a great meal in a relaxed home environment.
"People who are not as serious or skilled can also put together these clubs where it's economically feasible," says Patty Lerner. "You don't need to have six or seven courses. There are a variety of ways to put this together to promote home cooking and to promote using good local ingredients and good local wines."
Members note that learning about wines has been a welcome and unexpected area of growth for them, as has their understanding of the types of tools required to create their dishes. Often they will share fryers, juicers and other equipment, and call or email each other to find out the best techniques to complete a recipe.
While there have been a few minor mishaps, everyone in The Epicurious Club enjoys the experimentation aspect of the recipes, utilizing unusual ingredients, the shared joy of eating and, best of all, the camaraderie of long-term, close-knit relationships.
It also makes for an entertaining evening. "It is the most fun I've had with foodies, and about as far from snooty as possible," says Lisa of the Supper Club.
"I think in a group like this, not only can you cultivate lifelong friendships, you just expand your horizons and really learn to savor the food," adds Patty. "Try things you wouldn't normally try or, if you're cooking, to try recipes that normally you wouldn't attempt – and, honestly, to get together with good friends and have good food and wine."
RECIPE FOR A DINNER CLUB
Dinner clubs can be anything you want them to be: relaxed and casual with a few couples getting together to cook, or a more formal affair where participants showcase their culinary talent. Either will provide an enjoyable evening with friends.
To get some dinner club ideas percolating, think about what type of group you're looking for, how often it will meet and how much time you can commit to planning and preparing a meal. Also think about whether the members will dine in each other's homes, in restaurants or alternate between the two.
Here are some tips to get things started.
• Pick a style: Will couples alternate hosting duties at their homes? Will the hosts do all the cooking or assign recipes to other members? Who is in charge of beverage pairings? Will meals be theme- or ingredient-based or both? How many courses? It's a good idea to establish this right away and adhere to it for each event.
• Connection: Pick a group of people with whom you share a food or cooking philosophy. If everyone enjoys food adventures and is willing to test boundaries when it comes to both tasting and cooking, it's a more enjoyable experience. If the group wants to play it safe with the menu, that's OK too – as long as everyone agrees.
• Keep it small: While it's up to each group to agree on the number of members, six to 10 people is a general rule; four couples is ideal. Many recipes serve eight, a calendar year can be divided by four for ease of planning and limiting membership makes gatherings cozy and simple.
• Communicate: Stay in frequent touch with fellow members via phone, email or Facebook messages to plan events and assist with ingredient hunting or food equipment needs.
• Figure out finances: Some dinner clubs require members to pay a meal fee when the host is preparing all or most of the dinner. If this is what you choose for your club, make sure members pay in advance so the host isn't put in the position of asking members for their share at the end of the evening.