Meat and Mrs Jones

17:00, Jul 03 2010
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Hosts Damian and Mel say secret supper clubs are a concept for the times.

Kim Knight enters the secret world of pop-up restaurants.

SHE IS called Mrs Jones. He is le petit coq rouge – the little red rooster.

I will meet them in five days time. Where? Instructions will come later, says Mrs Jones. Bring wine. And an open mind.

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I could tell you where I went for lunch last Sunday. But then I'd have to kill you.

Secret supper clubs operate from Berlin (The Shy Chef) to Buenos Aires (La Cocina Discreta). They are a barely legal dining experience that relies on word-of-mouth advertising. Patrons pay a suggested donation, bring their own alcohol and eat in suburban lounges, empty shops and private backyards. Some are run by chefs who can't afford their own restaurants. Others by enthusiastic home cooks. The concept has had so much press, that in 2006, the Wall Street Journal reported a backlash: "Kitchen not so confidential. Underground restaurants go public, lose cachet." It may be an international phenomenon, but until six weeks ago, it had not hit New Zealand. Then suddenly, one weekend in May, two unrelated secret restaurants opened for one night only.

In a living room in Auckland and an empty flat in Wellington, friends of the cooks ate (among many, many other things) slow roasted duck, Jerusalem artichoke soup with seared scallops and vanilla and honey roasted quince.

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"Good food should be accessible to everyone," declared the little red rooster. It was time to go public.

My plane plopped onto the Wellington tarmac just before lunch last Sunday. Around the waterfront, nearly 5000 people had just finished the annual Harbour Capital Marathon. In a tiny downtown flat, 14 strangers were about to begin their own endurance test. Up the stairs, down a side path, past an olive tree and a tabby cat. Is there a password? "Maybe, 'I like pork'," suggests Mrs Jones.

Four hours later, and if we are what we eat, then I am a pig.

We go in, head first. Boiled in stock for six hours, meat picked clean from the bone, mixed with herbs and white wine, and pressed for two days to re-emerge as pig's head terrine, which is then sliced, crumbed, deep fried and served with sauce gibiche.

Small talk and crostini follow in a front room that we learn, much later, is usually our host's bedroom. Damian (of the red hair and cocksure attitude) and Mel (a very French Mrs Jones) are, by day, a chef and a waitress.

"If we had the money, we'd have a restaurant," says Damian. "But we don't." In fact, they will make just $80 profit from today's three-course dinner plus canapes for 14 (suggested donation, $50). The real reward?

"Pulling a whole group of strangers together round a table is amazing. I could hear from the kitchen, people laughing and chatting and I thought, 'this is brilliant – this could really work'." There are 12,000 legitimate cafes, restaurants and other food outlets around New Zealand. The industry, which employs 80,000 people, is worth an estimated $5.5 billion to the economy, annually.

Steve Mackenzie, Restaurant Association chief executive, thinks the pop-up concept is "brilliant". But he has concerns.

"To sell food in a commercial environment, there's a bunch of food safety regulations that need to be followed." Premises need to be licensed, operators need to be certificated. Public safety is paramount, says Mackenzie.

"If you're asking people to pay for a food experience, they should expect to walk away going 'wow, that was fantastic' and not have to spend the rest of the night in the toilet." Domestic kitchens lack boiling hot water, proper food preparation surfaces and big enough fridges.

"To keep food lying out on a bench, for example, and then serve it to people... you may as well have a gun and shoot them. It's so easy to serve contaminated food." I know all this. But as I cut into pork two ways (confit belly and loin stuffed with black pudding and cepes), I just don't care.

The woman next to me confesses she never eats pig. Today, she has seconds. "Oh, what to say. That was bliss."

A nurse, curator, shop owner, student, movie projectionist, baker, secretary and others have found their way to this table via internet searches and friends of friends. They marvel at the food and the flowing conversation. Some legal advice suggests that because, technically, everybody is an invited guest and there is no compulsion to pay, this is simply a dinner party.

Mel says she was never concerned about having strangers in her home. At a certain point, says Damian, when the couches were moved and the extra washing buckets set up in the kitchen, it ceased to feel like a flat.

Inspired by a London eatery of the same name, they call their underground venture The French House, born of the belief that all things civilised and debaucherous find common ground on a dining room table.

According to their 13-point manifesto: "With the right people, the right food and the right drink, all the world is beautiful." (Also, "the only thing immoral about foie gras is how expensive it is in New Zealand", and, "if you can have one more bite, do".)

At 5.30pm, I realise I have been doing just that, for almost five hours. It got dark, and I didn't even notice.

"I think this is a concept for the times," says Damian. "We have a downturn in the economy, but people still want to go out and have a meal. For the diner, it's economically viable. For us, it's not a huge investment. You have as many plates as you have, and that's how many people you can serve."

I wonder if I can make it back to my hotel without undoing buttons. I go to sleep full. I wake up full. I walk back to The French House and find a 2mx5m kitchen with zero bench space and an ancient four gas ring oven and wonder if I dreamt the whole thing.

Mel and Damian met at a restaurant in London. "Service!" he called. "F--- off," she told him. His pear and almond tart was, apparently, not large enough for her to take to the table. They argued. They fell in love.

His affair with food started early. Aged seven, in his grandmother's living room, shelling – and eating – fresh peas from a Christchurch garden. Mel grew up in France. At five years old, she could correctly identify cuts of beef. At six, her mother told her she couldn't refuse to eat tongue until she had tasted it. By seven, she was bored with foie gras. She says she is "hooked" on hospitality – but has a masters in art history, and has worked as a curator. Eventually, the couple hope to collaborate with artists. At last Sunday's dinner, a mini-exhibition by photographer Kayla Ward adorned the dining room walls.

Mrs Jones: "If I had any religion, it would be food and art. Those two things make life much more interesting and exciting."

Google "underground dining" and any number of newspaper articles will credit the concept back to Cuba, where, according to the San Francisco Chronicle, "home-based paladares started off as illegal ventures but are now state-sanctioned businesses". In Hong Kong, they are called si fang cai, or speakeasies. And in the United Kingdom, a woman known as Ms MarmiteLover appears to be the grand mama of the movement.

Aucklander Kristina Douglas – aka PlumKitchen Supperclub – was so inspired by the Ms MarmiteLover's menus, she started searching for something similar in New Zealand. Nothing. So she opened her own secret dining room. "It could be there are loads operating, but I am just too tragically uncool to know about them."

Twelve friends gathered in May for the inaugural event. The menu included goat cheese and caramelised onion tarts, pork belly with sage and apple stuffing, potato and celeriac dauphinoise, banana pecan cheesecake and apple pie with a cheddar crust.

"When I was little, the first thing I did was try to get my hands on a wooden spoon," says Kristina. She comes from a big family. Christmas Day means dinner for 25. Cooking for strangers? Eating in a stranger's house? "I can see that's part of the appeal. I'm a nosy person. I love looking in other people's houses!"

Her next event is a work in progress. It will be timed, she says, to avoid major rugby games. "It's such a new concept. Trying to fight with the All Blacks would be a step too far.

"The hardest thing is trying to get the word out there... you're at somebody's house and you're doing something a little bit different." Supperclubs are not, says Kristina, dating agencies. But they are a unique way to meet people.

"I believe in food and community," she writes on her Plum Kitchen blogspot. "I think it is good for the soul and the stomach to sit down with others and break bread. I also realise, for a variety of reasons, be it time pressures, an inability to cook, or simply because people live alone, people don't sit down at the table and share a meal as often anymore. So that's where I come in." Entree. Main. Dessert. And you don't have to do the dishes.

"I go to restaurants, and they're lovely. But I think it's great to have an alternative. I would be so thrilled, if I could pick a different one of these to go to, in Auckland and around the country, every Saturday night."

http://plum-kitchen.blogspot.com

http://thefrenchhousenz.blogspot.com

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