I haven’t watched it in a while, but I used to love the show Top Chef for the occasional insight it offered into the minds of creative chefs. The drawback was having to sit on my side of the TV screen and listen to the judges describe the food while all I could do was watch. Naturally, I always thought I’d make an excellent judge.
When pop-up dinner club Dinner Lab invited me to check out one of its monthly dinners, I didn’t make an association with the reality cooking show. I was more curious about how the New Orleans–based group would set up its meals. At 70 to 80 bucks a pop, the meal and the surroundings would have to be great. Then there’s the length foodies must go to partake. Dinner Lab doesn’t release the location until the day before the event, and you can’t see the date unless you sign up to be included on their mailing list. When you do, they’ll send you the name of the chef (a different one each month), along with the date and a rough idea of the menu being offered.
Since the chef always changes, we won’t get in to a review of the meal. I enjoyed most of it, but the point is I had plenty to discuss with those seated around me. The people were half the fun of the night out.
The location of this meal turned out to be a local craft brewery, which suited me fine. The tasting room had been outfitted with a few long tables, set to accommodate about 50 or 60 guests. There was an initial cocktail — or in this case beer — session, which roving groups of people interacted with awkwardly.
Since I didn’t get chatty with anyone in the early going, the open seating meant it was a crapshoot as to who my dinner companions would be. I was optimistic that only real food-loving people would attend such a thing and glad to discover one of the women sitting beside me owned a monthly membership — this was her fourth pop-up. Her verdict: two excellent meals, one pretty good, and one relative disappointment.
Better yet, the guy sitting across from me turned out to be executive chef at one of the city’s better restaurants (I won’t say which). Beside him were the parents of one of the sous chefs working back in the makeshift kitchen. Basically, our little group consisted of foodies, a chef, proud parents of a chef, and a food writer. As you might imagine, things got pretty geeky as each dish arrived.
The five-course menu was paired with house beer, and we dug in, discussing ingredients, pairings, cooking techniques, and mouth feel. Sometime around the third course I realized: we were having our own sort of Top Chef judge’s table. The chef — the one doing the cooking, that is — did his part to resemble a contestant, preparing each course to impress, showing off technique, selecting particular ingredients for effect, and choosing hanger steak as the featured protein. Dinner was fun. Playing judge, even more so.
Find Dinner Lab at dinnerlab.com.