It is dinner time on a quiet Saturday. While many families and friends are out on the town, grabbing a bite to eat at local restaurants, a group of foodie friends are gathering to enjoy a home-cooked meal that they think is as good or better than dining out.
The group call themselves a dinner club, but the dinners they prepare and eat are not your average supper club meals. Participants — many of whom work at The Merc — often spend several days, if not more than a week, researching, practicing and preparing the food they will serve at their monthly themed gatherings.
On this Saturday evening, the theme is Korean food, and 20 minutes before dinner time is organized chaos in Josh Kendall’s small galley kitchen. No fewer than four people are cooking and prepping in the approximately 6-by-12-foot space.
The countertops are littered with mirin, sesame seeds, soy sauce and scallions. The cooks are chopping, sautéing, tasting and plating food at a frenetic pace. The sounds of sizzling beef and banging pots emanate to the rest of the house, along with exotic tangy and meaty aromas.
Group members relish the opportunity to sit in a quiet space and have time to discuss their culinary adventures. Sometimes they play a foodie trivia game or discuss table topic cards, but mostly they dish, well, about the dishes.
“We were all into food even before the group formed,” said Shawn Hill. “At work, we did a lot of talking about, ‘What did you make?’ And we noticed each other buying cool things in the store.”
Group members, who have been meeting for a little more than a year, all agree that they enjoy eating good food, but just as much, they enjoy the planning and cooking processes. Over time, they have devised some guidelines, like rotating to a different house each month, where the evening’s host prepares most of the entrée and sides, and others bring appetizers and beverages.
“I have always been into food; my family and relatives all cook, and food is a big part of get-togethers,” says Leah Betzen. “Being an amateur cook, I’ve learned a lot being in the group. I have to practice what I cook, so it’s good to have a reason to. We are a group of people who love talking about food and learning about food.”
November’s theme was Roman food, which included octopus prepared by one of the group’s founders, Lowen Millspaugh — a first for her. Previous themes have spanned the globe and the U.S.
“One time, I prepared a Southern meal, and I smelled like fried chicken for a week,” Betzen says. That meal included biscuits, collard greens with ham and pecan pie.
Hill played host to a West African theme, for which he made peanut chicken stew and spicy black-eyed peas called red-red, among other things.
“It is almost more fun to make stuff than to eat it. The creative aspect is what I get into,” Hill says. “You put all this energy into what you make, and it’s nice to see everyone enjoying it.”
Kendall is the last one in the kitchen as dinner time arrives. While others are finding their places among sake glasses and Asian dishes on the beautifully arranged table, Kendall tends to each individual plate of his kongnamul bap — sticky rice with bean sprouts, green onion, sautéed beef tri-tip and an over-easy fried egg.
Before tonight, he never had cooked Korean food before. Not one to use recipes, he watched numerous videos on a website about how to cook, chop and plate the food. He also prepared steamed Korean buns and a spicy seafood salad, which are served with kimchi that Millspaugh made.
Group members are quick to come to a consensus that their favorite meal so far in the club is a previous Thai meal also cooked by Kendall. He has lived in Thailand, so his colleagues say he brought flavors they hadn’t experienced.
Kendall is branding manager at The Merc and designs the co-op’s visuals and collateral materials.
“I feel most comfortable in the kitchen,” he says. “This way, I get to design with food. I love to cook, so any excuse to get together to cook is great.”
Once the food is on the table, the group toasts with their sake glasses. The salad, kimchi and buns are passed around, and then everyone digs in. A rare quiet moment arises as each person takes in the flavors. More than one person utters “oh my God” between chews — a compliment to the chef.
Millspaugh says that in this age of technological isolation, food still breeds interpersonal relationships.
“It’s fun to have conversations about food. It brings us all together. It shows a sense of friendship,” she said.