Exploring an underground scene where meals come with a side of conversation
By Richard Foss (Richard@RichardFoss.com)
Some restaurants cultivate the air of a salon or house party, deliberately creating a space reminiscent of an interesting, eclectic person’s home. This makes sense because many of us dream of being invited to exactly that sort of environment and meeting dynamic, creative people.
Alas, it’s a rare restaurant where you and your companions talk to anyone but your server, who is too busy getting your food to discuss cosmology, interesting upcoming concerts and the contemporary arts scene.
And so an underground scene has arisen devoted to exactly that — a house party where you can share good food with random, interesting people — with chefs hosting soirees in which small groups of people share conversation and a meal in private homes. There are dozens of such groups around Greater Los Angeles and several on the west side, each typically meeting once per month.
I attended one of them: Le Secret Supper, the latest in a long-running series of six-course themed dinners hosted by a script consultant/private chef named Leslie and a film producer named Esquire. She is the chef de cuisine; he is the chef d’ambiance.
The supper was held within a few days of Mardi Gras, so the culinary and atmospheric theme was New Orleans, and when I arrived at the 110-year-old Craftsman home a few steps from the beach there were decorations in green and purple on the table in the parlor. That room was everything one could ask for when it comes to eclectic but exquisite taste — vintage posters of Venice hung by a cabinet of antique glassware, furniture that was both beautiful and comfortable. It shouldn’t be surprising that someone with years of experience in production design would have a beautiful home, but I was impressed anyway.
The evening started with glasses of wine or sparkling water and a chance to meet our fellow guests — some from various niches in the film industry, but also a pair of retired college professors, a German poet and artist who shuttles between Berlin and Venice, and a well-known oncologist. After some time to chat, we were shown into an adjacent room where we were seated around a lavishly set table and welcomed by our hosts. There were a dozen of us around the table, enough that two or three conversations were generally in progress, and we continued the ones we had started or began new ones as we found commonalities with the people around us.
Since I can’t resist going into people’s kitchens wherever I go, I excused myself and went to check out this one. It was an interesting mix of vintage and modern equipment, with a high-end stove, hood, refrigerator and espresso maker in a room that retained much of its original look. Modern and vintage cooking utensils hung along the walls, pans dangled from the ceiling on hooks, and in general it showed signs of regular use and loving care. A food stylist put the finishing touches on plates of small crab cakes and cheese straws, then turned to adding cornbread croutons to the creole shrimp salad. I might have watched a while longer and learned a lot about party planning, but had I done so I would have missed the party that was currently in progress, so I went back and joined the company around the table.
The conversations ranged from mundane to esoteric, all of them shifting as more dishes were served — a mild chicken and seafood gumbo, cheese grits with shrimp, and fish in Creole sauce — all without red meat because the hosts don’t eat it. When you are at someone’s home you eat what they prepare, though apparently some accommodations were made for people who had made their dietary needs known in advance. Menus are sent out ahead of time to those on the invite list, so everyone around the table dined on the same dishes. People who had visited New Orleans held forth amusingly on other meals in humble kitchens and grand restaurants. We were almost full by dessert, but the promise of red velvet swirl brownies and fresh espresso enticed us to linger a while in the parlor, continue conversations and share contact information.
Like most of these dining clubs, the Le Secret Suppers aren’t a profit-making enterprise: diners donate to keep the program going. Most of the money that is raised from these events is donated to a local senior center. For the organizers the principal reward is sharing good food while creating connections between all sorts of people: guests have included a jewelry designer who showed her work, a professional guitarist who shared tunes after dinner, and actors, doctors and community organizers.
The experience is very different than a meal in a restaurant, no matter that it is superficially similar. It’s as much about your companions as it is about the meal — a place where the pleasure of dining and the joy of meeting people comes together. People are coming together informally all over the city to bring back this convivial experience, and if you seek out this kind of dinner you’re likely to find one to join.
Someone who can give you more information about these Secret Suppers can likely be reached at email@example.com or facebook.com/pages/Le-Secret-Supper.