Dining Club Class

Exclusive dining clubs are bringing together total strangers with the promise of gourmet meals and scintillating company, says Saimi Sattar

  • Published 31.01.16
Photo: Rupinder Sharma

(Top to bottom) Among the Delhi Secret Supper Club events are pre-opening dinners at restaurants like this one at Dirty Apron, a Eurasian restaurant in New Delhi; Food Talk India organises between three and six events every month and constantly varies its formats; Prashant Kalra’s Primo Privilege Club started by guiding Delhi’s expatriate community to the best food places in town and it’s the only club that charges a membership fee
Photo: Rupinder Sharma

It’s called the Delhi Secret Supper Club (DSSC) and its founders insist on strict anonymity. On this particular evening, the club has assembled some 20 food-loving members at a pre-opening event for Dirty Apron, a Eurasian restaurant in Delhi’s Safdarjung Enclave.

The clinking glasses and buzzing chatter are proof that the dinner’s already a success.  And it’s no wonder — looking at what the menu has in store. The dishes on offer include a chicken laksa risotto and a taste-bud sating dessert of Red Velvet Roulade with Cream Cheese Frosting.

Still, the mystery that’s impossible to crack is: who among the 20 diners is one of the organisers. They opt to remain secret and inform the invitees via Facebook or email where the venue is. Diners interested in taking part can also email the organisers on their Facebook page, which describes the group as “experiential food and epic conversation connoisseurs”.

Kindly Cook does it slightly differently and usually teams up with celebrity or highly talented home chefs who create a special meal for its members

All around India, similar secret dining clubs are springing up which take the formality out of the dining experience and inject a new sociable element. They offer an enticing combination of superlative food that you aren’t likely to make at home, combined with wine and the company of interesting — and carefully chosen — people.

“These are exclusive, invite-only events where  the guests are carefully screened,” says Anjali Batra of Food Talk India, a Gurgaon-based supper club. She adds: “Whenever someone adds a friend, our team goes through the profile, vets it and adds them only after that.”

Kindly Cook, another supper club does it slightly differently. On one evening recently they got Priti Bali, a
MasterChef India contestant, to throw open her home and serve up several courses of her delectable Greek food creations to 20 complete strangers. The club seeks out celebrity and highly- talented home chefs for its events.

Shift the scene to Mumbai and the tables of Silverspoon Gourmet. It was launched by Neha Manekia, who began by running a catering company spe-cialising in gourmet European food. Silverspoon now holds dinners for 20-to-40 people and organises everything from dinners where celebrity chefs show off their skills to cook-offs which involve a contest between two or more chefs with the diners as the judges.

Says Manekia: “We have different formats and the number of people we invite depends on the format.” Diners are charged between Rs 2,500 and Rs 4,000 for the celebrity-chef dinners.

Chefs at Dubious Dinners experiment around a particular theme and the events serve as a testing ground for Riyaaz Amlani’s 42 restaurants
Photo: The Pockets Factory

You could call these clubs an extension of the pop-up concept, where the binding factors are good food and even better company. Being choosy about the company is obviously an important aspect since the entire exercise
is about bringing together a group of strangers and ensuring that they socialise and get on like a house on fire by the second or third courses.

Exclusivity is certainly the name of the game at Prashant Kalra’s Primo Privilege Club. It started out as a club for expats to bond in Delhi but now it’s expanded far beyond that and Kalra does extensive checks on anyone who applies to be a member. He says: “We not only ask basic questions like the name of company that they work for and designation, but also throw in slightly quirky questions and see how they respond.”

Kalra and his wife, Ayesha, first launched an organisation called Delhi Food Tours in 2012 which showcased local food hotspots to visitors. Gradually the duo developed links with the city’s large diplomatic community which laid the foundation for the Primo Privilege Club. “In October 2013, we decided to institutionalise the concept of showcasing the best venues of the city to an international audience and went door-to-door to embassies, high commissions and expat groups asking them to recommend us officially,” he says.

His recruitment efforts paid off. The group has grown to 1,200 members and that includes a large number of
Indians too. It’s the only one of the supper clubs which charges a membership fee of Rs 8,000 per year but that fetches members discounts at selected places and a bottle of Fratelli wine.

Several of the supper clubs started out in different food-oriented avatars. Kindly Cook, which is one of the latest to join the foodie party, was started by friends Rajdeep Khurana, Jasjit Singh and Simran Kochhar Dhingra less than a year ago after the three got together to think up ways to expand Dhingra’s food blog, Cooking Planet.

Swine Dine is a club for foodies who love pork in all its incarnations like Everything Haleem and (bellow) Fatwash Bacon Bourbon
Photos: Shobita Kadan

“People really throw open their houses to us and we want to make sure that everyone has a pleasant experience,” says Khurana. In fact, Kindly Cook, held its first outstation event in Calcutta and the host for the evening was Sneha Singhi, the Cordon Bleu chef who runs the city’s Paris Café.

To ensure that their foodie gatherings don’t get dull and jaded, the clubs also vary the formats regularly. Food Talk India occasionally holds what it calls Mystery Meals where diners have to guess the ingredients of the dishes they’re tucking into. Or, on an entirely different note, there’s the Liquid Studio which — as the name suggests — is a cocktail night out.

That’s not all. For singles who are keen on meeting members of the opposite sex, DSSC has a speed dating-style format to which an equal number of men and women are invited. Food Talk also holds its Dinner with Strangers — where, you meet strangers. In fact, It kicked off with this format  at Delhi’s Monkey Bar  in 2015.

“The aim was to create a platform where people get to meet other new interesting people,” says Shuchir Suri, who founded Food Talk India. Suri initially started Food Talk as a virtual platform in January 2013 where he suggested where people could go to try out different kinds of dishes. Batra joined him the next year and they expanded the concept and now have 12 people working with them.

Other clubs also play around with formats. DSSC gives a hint about the menu but doesn’t disclose the actual venue till the day of the meal. Food Talk India, too, keeps up a degree of secrecy about its meals and venues. Every month, DSSC does about two to three events, Food Talk India four to six, and Kindly Cook around four.

On a different note, Dubious Dinners was started by chef Gresham Fernandes, group executive chef of Impresario Entertainment and Hospitality in 2013. It’s run out of  the now defunct Jude’s Bakery at Waroda Road in Mumbai and serves as a fun testing-ground for restaurateur Riyaaz Amlani’s 42 restaurants. Says Fernandes: “The idea was born when we realised that chefs often get tired of regular cooking and this is essentially the place where they experiment.”

So, during a Dubious Dinner, the chefs will try out all types of new concepts — milk might be replaced with smoked almond milk, for instance, and at one meal the dessert was made with potatoes, seaweed and parsnips. “We always tell our guests that they are free to feel uncomfortable,” says Fernandes.

At a Dubious Dinner one could be rubbing shoulders with an eclectic set of 12 people ranging from film directors and actors to poets, writers and painters. The 12-14 course meals are priced between Rs 3,500 and Rs 4,000.
There’s another even more specialised club run by the Impresario group called Swine Dine where everything from starters to mains to sometimes even the dessert centres on pork.

Says Impresario marketing director Shobita Kadan: “I love pork and decided to do a dinner centred around
it. The news spread through word-of-mouth and there are about 800-900 people in the community.” Priced at about Rs 2,000, these dinners are held once a month.

But it’s not only about food at some clubs. For those worried that they may be overindulging, DSSC  has held its first boot camp where about 20 to 30 of its members were advised about how to stay in shape by fit- ness consultants.

Many of these clubs are looking at up-scaling rapidly and laying their tables in different parts of the country. So, Swine Dine meals can be had in Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore and Food Talk India is expanding to Bangalore and Pune. Kindly Cook, thanks to their particular format, can organise events in any city — in India and abroad. Says Khurana: “If you want to do an event in Dubai or in Kanpur, we will initiate it, put it on the page, mobilise people but then it’s the efforts of the community which will actually make the difference.”

And yes, sometimes these dinners lead to a lot more. “One person got hired, a couple who met at one of the dinners got engaged, two people began a start up — and all this in an year,” says Batra.

So, you can make new friends, pile up your plate and tuck into a great time.