Food Fight: Battle Supper Club

Categories: Food Fight

Photo by Groovehouse
Dessert at a Reality Dinner / Click here for a slideshow
Other cities have had them for years, but -- as with many concepts -- Houston is a bit behind the curve. We're talking about chef-driven, intimate, fiercely modern, multi-course dinners that allow a culinary wild man (or woman) to experiment on a willing audience, while at the same time showcasing new techniques or ingredients.

Houston's first series of these modern supper clubs had a short existence: Ad Hoc, a dinner series hosted by DiverseWorks in the summer of 2008 at a now-demolished Victorian home on Alabama and Alameda, which had been partially taken over by graffiti artists Aerosol Warfare. The dinners were conceived primarily as supper clubs for artists, journalists and other such folk to convene. David Grossman, formerly of Gravitas and now at Branch Water Tavern, was the chef at these $50-per-person dinners, but food wasn't necessarily the main star.

Around that same time, Randy Rucker began hosting his long-running and popular tenacity supper clubs. Formerly the chef at Rainbow Lodge and chef-owner at the short-lived but impactful laidback manor, Rucker started tenacity as an offshoot of private dinners that he was catering. In a June 2008 interview, Rucker said that the thing he enjoyed most about throwing these private dinners was "...the personal level. The ability to really know where the food is coming from. Not to say that this project doesn't have responsibilities, but operating a full-service restaurant for lunch and dinner with full staffing is an unbelievable task."

These supper clubs ran anywhere from $50 to $75 per person and were announced on Rucker's blog, feeding curiosity. Reservations always went quickly -- no dinner could really accomodate more than 20 hungry people at at time. But times change, and so did tenacity.

These days, Rucker no longer hosts the supper clubs in his own home, but in facilities with commercial kitchens and more room. And what's more, there's a new game in town: Reality Dinners, hosted by Chef L.J. Wiley at up-and-coming Mexican restaurant Yelapa. So how are things shaking out for the supper club scene now that there's competition?

Photo by Katharine Shilcutt
Tilefish tiradito in kimchee consomme at tenacity
tenacity, various locations
Check out our slideshow of dishes from a recent tenacity dinner.

Rucker's supper clubs have evolved over time from small, almost clandestine affairs with a like-minded group of food lovers with one or two people in the kitchen to all-out events held in large spaces with -- at times -- a crew of ten sous chefs working the line. Although tenacity went on hiatus while Rucker was heading up the kitchen at Rainbow Lodge, his departure from the restaurant meant that the private dinners started up again to a crowd of still-eager diners.

An average tenacity dinner usually runs around $75, with wine pairings extra (as was the recent case at 13 Celsius). The dinners are normally themed in some offbeat but alluring manner. Take, for example, the recent New Year's Eve tenacity at Paulie's, where Rucker sought input from his Twitter followers on what traditional NYE dishes he could deconstruct and present in a new light for the evening. The result was a menu that included items such as caldo verde with collard greens, grated chorizo, smoked potato and goat's milk (alas, no black-eyed peas).

And for another recent supper at 13 Celsuis, the night's theme was all raw, all the time. Every one of the seven courses presented was a raw seafood item such as giant squid sliced into linguine-like ribbons and coated with Japanese mayo to mimic alfredo sauce, and icefish marinated in vodka with spices and pea shoots. Talking with Rucker afterward, we commented on the veritable army of sous chefs from various area restaurants he had working on the fish that night. His response was prescient: "I'm training them up," he said. Apparently, it's Rucker's intention to act as a Johnny Appleseed of modern cuisine in Houston, teaching younger chefs how to source local ingredients and prepare them in brand-new ways.

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