It’s like a scene out of a classic thriller movie: We walk down the dark, smelly streets of Chinatown, the neighbourhood growing darker and darker, before we finally arrive to a small garage underneath the Manhattan Bridge.
But when we get there, it’s not a tragic fate that greets us, but rather a setup of long tables shrouded in pink and purple lighting.
The tucked-away garage is the setting for an evening with Dinner Lab, a supper club that’s currently hosting a series of pop-up dinners in 31 cities across the US.
Dinner Lab was started by four friends who were living in New Orleans in 2012. They were growing frustrated at how difficult it was to get a quality dining experience after 9 p.m. Their original business plan was to host dinner parties that started at midnight, but that plan flopped when they realised their guests had become too inebriated by that time of the night.
Even though their initial concept failed, in the process they became acquainted with many New Orleans-based chefs who were looking to do something beyond their usual routine.
Today, Dinner Lab serves as a testing ground for chefs on the rise. As diners arrive, they’re given comment cards asking them to rate the taste and creativity of each course, as well as the quality of the service and the alcohol pairings.
That data is helpful to the chefs, as they can see what went well and what they can improve on. It’s also used to make sure Dinner Lab is being thoughtful about the experience as a whole.
“The whole point is to provide a platform for up-and-coming chefs, and to get them out there,” CEO and co-founder Brian Bordainick told Business Insider. “We get them cooking what they want to cook, and they can have it served to an eager audience.”
The night we attend, Dinner Lab co-founder Francisco “Paco” Robert is cooking up dishes inspired by his Puerto Rican upbringing. A small book explaining his background and inspiration is left on the table for each guest.
“This is personal stuff. We’re not hiring someone to execute a meal,” Bordainick said. “We’re hiring people to tell their story, to tell an important story through their food. It should always remind you of family dinner.”
On the menu is a salted cod fritter, chicken escabeche, plantain soup, braised beef tongue, and a pumpkin rice pudding for dessert.
Dinner Lab currently has 20,000 nationwide members who pay annual dues of between $US125 and $US175 to access dinner events, which usually cost between $US50 and $US60 each.
Today, however, the company announces a new, free membership that grants access to any of Dinner Lab’s core events, though members will still have to purchase tickets to each individual dinner.
They’re also announcing a Select membership, which, like the previous basic membership, costs between $US125 and $US175 a year. A Select membership guarantees advance notice of upcoming dinners, as well as access to special Dinner Lab events, like happy hours and meet and greets with elite chefs.
“We’re going to be able to offer more variety for people,” Bordainick said. “If you’re into food and trying new things, there’s really no reason not to join our community.”
“Once we get people to come out to our events and experience our events, opting in to a Select membership will make sense for a lot of people. It won’t for other people, but that’s why we’ll have both options.”
Dinner Lab is in its first three years, but a community has already already grown around it. As we took our seats at one of the long tables in the garage, our neighbours immediately introduced themselves. One worked in fashion, while another was a food photographer with more than 22,000 followers on Instagram.
We compared notes on the courses we loved — the plantain soup and rum-based vudu punch were winners — and the ones we didn’t like so much — the braised beef tongue was delicious, but difficult to handle texture-wise.
“I feel like a real food critic,” one of my table neighbours said as we wrote down our comments.
As for the strange location, it’s typical for a Dinner Lab event. Dinners have taken place on helipads, piers, and in factories, just to name a few.
The venue isn’t even announced to members until the day before the event — it’s secretive, but the co-founders insist that wasn’t their intention.
“We’re curious human beings, and we’re constantly scouring the nation for cool spaces. But since we’re using these really interesting spaces, sometimes things happen, and we have to change locations at the last minute,” Bordainick said. “We weren’t trying to be mysterious.”
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