Shhh! Underground Supper Clubs
Pssst! Do you know the way to the secret pig roast?
If you know the answer, you're part of a growing food movement that's just reaching Ann Arbor, thanks to a handful of area cooks who are undeterred by the challenges of cooking outside of traditional venues. They offer underground eating events for the love of food and for fundraising.
Long a part of East and West Coast food scenes, supper clubs even have their own fan group, and how-to-guide and directory, Supper Club: Recipes and Notes from the Underground Restaurant by Kerstin Rodgers (Harper Collins.)
Ann Arbor's secret eating societies are fairly recent - two to three years at most. It doesn't hurt that a whiff of the forbidden wafts over the proceedings of two of Ann Arbor's eating clubs. Just remember to BYOB and BYO checkbook.
"In this state, food served to the public requires licensing. They're called ‘underground' for a reason," says Kristen Schweighoefer, Washtenaw County environmental health supervisor. "The health department appreciates the local food movement. We're concerned with keeping foods safe. It's one thing to cook for four or six people, quite another for 40 or 60...or 100 to 200," Schweighoefer says.
"We'd welcome the chance to work with these groups on food safety. So far, we haven't been approached."
The not-for-profit Bona Sera Dinner Club has fed dozens of Ann Arbor foodies in the past couple of years, including two well-received pig roasts last summer and in late July this year. Similarly, TT Supper Club hosts monthly dinners for eight at a "secret location," also for charity. A third group, Yellow Barn Restaurant/Cafe, hosts occasional breakfasts in Chelsea to benefit nonprofit groups in the western Washtenaw County city.
All three mystery spots provide splendid meals as well as funds for local non-profits, many of them food-related. All strive to raise the visibility of local foods with farm-to-table menus, while offering an alternative to restaurants.
Entertaining 40 people - or just eight - can be a daunting prospect. Doing it without running water or a conventional kitchen is scarier - even if the proceeds go for a good cause.
"It's gotten a lot easier to adapt to our environments. We have a great crew of volunteers. The dinner we held at a warehouse was the most difficult. The kitchen was COLD - it was a huge challenge. The diners were a football field away. We had a washing machine-ShopVac hybrid sink," recalls Bona Sera co-founder Bad Fairy.
Bad Fairy and co-founder Wonder Woman, as they prefer to be known in public, stage monthly pop-up feasts for 40 or more diners in wide-ranging locations near Tree City. Bad Fairy is a former professional chef turned web guru. Wonder Woman, a social worker by day, volunteered for a Chicago dinner club, Clandestino, before moving to Ann Arbor.
The most difficult - and the most fun and entertaining - aspect of Bona Sera is designing the menus, Bad Fairy says. They always offer vegetarian options, even at the pig roast.
"We try to figure out ways to turn things on their heads - faro-potato salad, porcetta bahn mi, ‘bleeding heart' ravioli - beet, lobster, prosecco, bergamot sauce," she says. Travel and a deep love of all sorts of food inspire the Bona Sera pair, including Bad Fairy's recent trip to Italy.
"Shopping takes about a week. Friday is our big prep night. Usually it's just the two of us but sometimes we have helpers. [At dinners,] 25 volunteers on average. A few dishwashers - we make sure their plates are piled high."
For Wonder Woman, managing the size of the guest list is really tough. Cooking for 56 guests and 25 staff at the pig roast wasn't a problem, she says - but Bona Sera only has table service for 40 people. They are considering a few new possibilities, from a flash mob sandwich to a delivery business. The most likely new venture is a food truck, but only if they can resolve the many Ann Arbor municipal checkpoints - see Concentrate's recent article on same.
"We'll continue to do underground events. We've been trying to suss out how to change food truck legislation. They could bring a lot to the city. We don't want to have a restaurant," Wonder Woman says.
"Part of the fun is that we get to change all the time. We would base it on what's available and seasonal. A food truck would be a better fit for us (than a restaurant)," Bad Fairy adds.
Is holding monthly events easier than running a restaurant?
Yes and no. Bona Sera's July 30 pig roast at a Chelsea farm featured a seven-course menu from deviled eggs and popsicles to French toast bread pudding with maple ice cream and candied bacon. In between, diners feasted on a "pre-pork pork dish", fennel spaghetti with pork and duck potsticker; summer vegetable gazpacho, pea spaetzle with pork belly; grilled shrimp and watermelon salad and roast pig with Bona Sera barbeque sauce and sides of corn bread, potato-faro salad and seasonal vegetables. Old Soul, an Ann Arbor-Detroit jazz quintet supplied the musical accompaniment.
The suggested donation for the pig roast was $65-$100 per person. Post-food cost proceeds went to Growing Hope, an Ypsilanti-based food think tank that runs the Ypsi Farmers Market and supports community food gardening efforts.
"The food is always incredible. It's a five-star dinner every time," says Bona Sera regular Barbara Kramer of Ann Arbor. "You never know where you're going. You never know who you're going to see when you get there."
"We're definitely Bona Sera groupies - I just hope they can keep doing what they're doing. People not only become aware of the venues but also the organizations being helped. It's quite amazing what they do."
Next up for Bona Sera is an October 15 dinner and drag show, location to be disclosed only to ticket holders two days before the event.
Follow Bona Sera on its website, on Twitter (@Serasupperclub) or on Facebook.
TT Supper Club offers a more intimate experience at its monthly dinners for eight people. Prepared by "enthusiastic amateur" cook and organizer Tammy Coxen, TTSC's dinners are often inspired by trendy restaurant cookbooks and benefit nonprofit groups with missions about food or education.
"I wanted an excuse to do that kind of restaurant cooking," Coxen says.
Among her favorites: The French Laundry Cookbook by Thomas Keller, Blue Ginger East Meets West Cooking by Ming Tsai, and Alinea, named after the eponymous restaurant of Chicago chef Grant Achatz.
For the uninitiated, creating many of the recipes in The French Laundry Cookbook could take three weeks of sourcing, a week of prep and three days of cooking. Coxen's depth of cooking experience trims hours off that schedule.
"The Supper Club is one very intense Saturday plus sometimes prep during the week. I ask the charity for a volunteer cook. That person also preps, serves and chats (with diners) about the group. If they can't provide someone, I have friends who are eager to help," she says.
"It's a challenge is to fill the eight seats during summer months," she relates. "Local seasonal food at its peak and yet these are the hardest seats to fill. I have no problem finding eight diners in February."
"How local can I make a local dinner in February? I don't tie myself to local. In February and March, I ask neighbors who put stuff up to share. (I don't can or preserve.) I use winter vegetables - beets, squash, potatoes. It's easy to get local with dairy: Local butter, cream, half-and-half."
Coxen is a fan of molecular gastronomy, the fussy flavored-foam and meticulously constructed miniature plates pioneered by Spanish super-chef Ferran Adrià of El Bulli restaurant.
The next Supper Club menu will start with melon caviar with prosciutto; cauliflower soup with beet chips; and Caprese salad with a twist - tofu, Asian dressing, chiso chiffonade - from the Momofuku Cookbook by Asian-fusion chef David Chang. A traditional Caprese salad is composed of tomatoes, water buffalo mozzarella and basil in balsamic vinaigrette.
It will continue with a shrimp and corn dish to be determined - maybe fresh polenta, Coxen says, followed by lamb, perhaps accompanied by tomato basil marmalade. The meal will wrap up with a cheese course and an all-tomato dessert: Honey roasted tomatoes and tomato and lemon-basil sorbets with almond streusel.
TT Supper Club generates somewhat less robust numbers than Bona Sera or Yellow Door. Diners usually pay $55 a head, sometimes more. The entire proceeds above food costs, usually around $200, go to the designated charity.
Coxen has a lot of regulars. Sometimes half the diners have attended TTSC already.
"Her presentation... is magazine-worthy. The food quality equates, if not surpasses... other fine dining experiences, at... much less than comparable restaurants. It feels good to know you are helping make a difference just by enjoying a fantastic meal. It is elegant, yet comfortable, simultaneously," TTSC regular Jennifer Clay says by email.
Coxen says, "I like it that it's one table, one conversation. I get people together who would never meet one another otherwise. I'm selling to a foodie audience. I have a house cocktail ready when people arrive. Otherwise, it's BYOB."
First-time TTSC diner Sally Oey emails, "I like the idea of meeting people and building community around food. It's such a basic, traditional way to develop friendship and community... It's a different dining experience, and I enjoy dining, so this is definitely worth checking out."
A self-styled cocktail snob, Coxen also teaches seasonal cocktail workshops. In mid-August, she wielded shakers and stirrers at The Ravens Club as guest mixologist. At her day job, she works for a nonprofit.
Chelsea's Yellow Door Restaurant/Café has raised thousands of dollars for area non-profits over the past three years. Its goal: to promote local foods while supporting groups such as the Chelsea Community Kitchen.
"What's awesome about it now - it's set up to infuse a small organization with $2,000 - that it's not a huge amount but it means a big deal to them," says Jane Pacheco, one of Yellow Door's founders. Another Yellow Door founder, Janice Ortbring, hosted the weekly breakfasts in her home for the first year.
Attendance varies from 40 people to 120.
"It isn't a huge group, but somehow we're making that effort count. It's having a big impact on the community, supporting local foods and farmers, getting people in tune with what's available," says longtime volunteer Sharon Keggereis.
Yellow Door is a victim of its own success. Weekly breakfasts became burdensome for the 30-some volunteers, despite the fundraising success, Pacheco says. Now the group hosts infrequent one-off events with food by local chefs such as Craig Common of Chelsea's Common Grill and Paul Cousins, chef/owner of the fondly remembered Cousins Heritage Inn in Dexter.
Chef Common's menu included Back Forty Acres frittata with poached Michigan shrimp, Grassfields Organic goat milk cheddar and fresh asparagus; Calder Dairy buttermilk apple praline pancakes and homemade granola with Calder Dairy milk.
Yellow Door's most recent breakfast provided relocation funds for The Mission Marketplace, a Chelsea nonprofit that sells handcrafts made by impoverished people in developing regions around the world.
To learn about upcoming events, sign up on Yellow Door's Facebook page.
Yellow Door also spawned Lunasa Market, an online storefront with twice-monthly warehouse pick-ups. Lunasa aims to connect consumers with local farmers and food producers without the ongoing commitment required by a CSA share. Currently Lunasa hosts more than 30 vendors
It's nice to know that sometimes "underground" efforts can lead to entrepreneurial efforts that operate in the light of day.
Constance Crump is Concentrate's Senior Writer. She's also an Ann Arbor-based writer whose work has appeared in Crain's Detroit Business, The Ann Arbor News, The Detroit Free Press, and Billboard Magazine
All photos by Doug CoombePhotos:
Janice Ortbring, Jane Pacheco and Sharon Keggereis of Chelsea's Yellow Door Restaurant/Cafe at Sharon's home in Chelsea
Tammy Coxen enjoys a Cable Car cocktail at Ann Arbor's Alley Bar
Some of Bona Sera's enticing offerings (photos courtesy Bona Sera)
Drunken Honey Duck (duck breast with a whisky honey sauce)
Asparagus Terrine with Boucheron Sauce
Grilled Lamb Chop, bechamal, eggplant, tomato confit and french feta