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Fringe benefits

(article, Twilight Greenaway)

The small apartment flickers with candlelight. Chairs cluster around the table in the dining room, while two long, low tables crowd the living room. At 6:30 p.m., guests begin to arrive, carrying bottles of wine and their own floor cushions. After a few minutes of mingling and introductions, each claims a place to sit and the evening begins.

[%image stilts float=left caption="Serving on stilts at a Ghetto Gourmet dinner." credit="Photo courtesy Vera Devera"]

This Saturday-night event, held in Oakland, California, might be just another dinner party, with a bohemian, homey feel. But the meal — staged by the Ghetto Gourmet, a self-styled “wandering supperclub” — includes 30 diners, two cooks, five volunteer servers and a mid-course comedian, all crammed into a single apartment. And the four-course menu features sweet-potato tortellini, seared ahi tuna, shrimp consommé with homemade seafood sausage, and braised grass-fed beef short ribs. 

Only a handful of the guests here tonight actually know the woman in whose home they’re dining. Most are here — in one way or another — because of the Internet. 

The Ghetto Gourmet crew hosts regular, rotating events that pair enterprising chefs with urban foodies inside unconventional dining venues, such as living rooms, galleries and warehouses. They do several dinners a month in the Bay Area and in the last year have branched out into serving meals in a number of additional cities, including Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, and Miami. They call what they do “pirate dining,” and their logo features a twist on the Jolly Roger: a skull sporting a toque crossed with a spoon and fork instead of bones. 

Jeremy Townsend, one of the founders of the Ghetto Gourmet, avoids the term “underground restaurant,” but that’s what many of tonight’s participants will call it on Monday, when they report back to friends and coworkers on what they did over the weekend. 

Nearly four years ago, Townsend began hosting small dinners in order to create a venue for his brother, then a budding Bay Area chef. They charged only $20 a plate and served 12 people at a time (mostly friends and mutual acquaintances) in their basement apartment. 

Within the first few months, Townsend started using the popular online community Craigslist to promote the dinners. Soon he set up an account on Tribe.net, a similar community-oriented website, and got mentioned on Flavorpill, a popular online events list. 

[%image dinner2 float=left width=400 caption="A Ghetto Gourmet dinner held in an art gallery." credit="Photo courtesy Vera Devera"]

Bloggers began to check out the Townsend brothers’ activities, and eventually the San Francisco Chronicle wrote them up in January of 2006 as a "culinary speakeasy." All along, those in the know had been visiting the Ghetto Gourmet website to sign up for the email newsletter that keeps members abreast of upcoming meals. 

What began as a fun, casual project had morphed, unintentionally, into a thriving business. The Ghetto Gourmet isn’t the only pirate-dining endeavor out there; others include Seattle’s infamous Gypsy, Portland’s now-defunct Ripe and New York’s Coach Peaches. They’re all part of a larger social trend: grouping ourselves according to our interests in communities that bridge the online and offline worlds. 

h3. More than a mailing list

“We use the Internet’s ability to group people based on their curiosities and their interests,” says Townsend. “But we do something that not a lot of people do, and that’s we take that community and make it happen in the real world.”

The Ghetto Gourmet doesn’t just offer aspirational dining in offbeat settings. Along with the food, festivity, and frisson of not-quite-legal restauranting, the Ghet serves to bring people together who might not otherwise have ever met. That fluid social network is essentially based on a growing mailing list, which Townsend says makes for “an incredibly nimble medium.” 

“I can throw a dinner with 24 hours’ notice,” says Townsend. The GG mailing list includes more than 7,000 people, which means that its frequent dinner events, generally planned for 30 to 40 guests, never take long to sell out. 

Townsend sees the Ghet as part of a larger movement. On the Ghet's website, he lists a number of similar projects, including Sacramento's Hidden Kitchen, Austin's Supper Underground, and Santa Cruz's Outstanding in the Field.

[%image papaya float=right caption="Miniature papaya salads served at a Ghetto Gourmet dinner." credit="Photo courtesy Vera Devera"]

Townsend enumerates what he sees as the four big forces contributing to the alternative-dining trend: “One, from the environment to nutrition to culture, there's a growing interest and respect for all things "food”; two, today, our world is very divided, and the need for community is great; three, increasingly, people are working for themselves, starting their own thing, recycling, getting off the grid and doing it themselves; and four, the Internet, (which) makes it easy to find and communicate with like-minded people."

In some cases, Townsend says, he has been approached by folks looking to start similar projects. He has taken an open-source, non-competitive approach to this, and has used the Ghet’s mailing list to promote outside events. And his team is working on a site meant for networking between alternative diners and those who organize them. 

For volunteer event coordinator and resident photographer Vera Devera, the Ghetto Gourmet is a living, breathing community. Devera says she was more or less pushed into attending her first GG dinner; now, she gets a little misty when speaking about “the early days.”

“My best friend found it on Craigslist,” Devera recalls. “She asked me if I wanted to go to a pirate restaurant and I said, ‘No, that sounds gross!’ All she knew was that it was somewhere in Oakland, and she’d get a free dinner if she brought five people.”

[%image d&t float=right caption="Ghetto Gourmet founder Jeremy Townsend and event coordinator Vera Devera." credit="Photo courtesy Vera Devera"]

Eventually Devera’s curiosity got the best of her. And she can still describe the food. “It was a salad with raspberry dressing, and prosciutto-wrapped hearts of palm in a balsamic reduction. Then they brought out a huge platter of drunken goat cheese with honey and nuts. It was all so delicious, and it was only 20 bucks.” 

Devera was hooked, and became a regular. The then-weekly dinners became central to building a community based on a love for art and food. She invited musicians she knew to start performing between courses, and watched it grow into what it is today. 

Now, as Devera helps Townsend develop a business plan for the Ghet that includes a social-networking site and the possibility of a nonprofit, education-based arm, she occasionally longs for the early days. 

“My heart is really in the grassroots, in the community building,” she says.  “Now, it’s become more of a job. Before, it was more like, ‘This is just really fun.’ I love prospecting (for chefs and performers), finding people and helping them get exposure.”

h3. Coming together to be fed

That Saturday in Oakland, diners had mixed feelings about the portions (small) and the seating (or lack thereof), but they tended to agree on the “laidback vibe,” and most were eager to meet their tablemates. Despite the evening’s daunting sticker price (Ghetto Gourmet dinners now run $40 to $60 dollars per person), many guests commented approvingly on the crowd’s diversity. 

[%image feature-image float=left width=400 caption="An outdoor Ghetto Gourmet dinner held in July 2006." credit="Photo courtesy Vera Devera"]

Kia Brice, a Ghet regular, says she’s drawn to these events partly because of the wide range of diners. “Singles, couples, young, old, gay, straight, they all gather over one of our most primal needs: to be fed,” she says.

In an urban environment, where many 20- and 30-somethings often live away from their families, Brice says that “having a ‘home-cooked’ meal or gathering in a celebration of food provides a homey, comforting feeling.” And she admits to planning to meet up with friends based on the Ghet’s calendar of upcoming dinners.
 
On Yelp.com, a new peer-to-peer review site that has become an overnight trend in the Bay Area, 16 people have posted about the Ghetto Gourmet, giving it a combined four-and-a-half stars out of five. Liz G., a regular reviewer on the site, wrote the following observation about the community-building factor: 

bq. I didn't realize how uniquely Californian this experience was until Jeremy made a toast about how wonderful it was to break down the barrier between chef and diner and really feel like you were being cooked for. And how amazing it was to be a group of strangers gathering in peace to share a meal.

bq. A year ago, before I moved here, I would have said to myself "Shut up, hippie man! I'm hungry!" Now that I've been in California for 10 months, I said to myself, "Wow. He's so right."

The largest group of friends to show up that night in Oakland had been brought by a young woman who was quick to volunteer that she’d heard about the Ghetto Gourmet on Yelp. She said she’d read that, while the food was good, the seating was uncomfortable, so her crew showed up with a set of collapsible chairs they had bought at Target especially for the occasion. 

[%image dinner3 float=right width=400 caption="At Ghetto Gourmet events, dinner is a vehicle for socializing." credit="Photo courtesy Vera Devera"]

Like many successful online phenomena, the Ghetto Gourmet’s success might be based as much on transparency as it is on mystery. Diners are willing to pay online, in advance, to reserve seats in a space they have never seen, take a risk on a chef they have seldom heard of, and eat in intimate proximity with people they have never met. 

As Townsend sees it, this adventurous spirit is at least in part the product of  “a new kind of trust, one that is specific to the Internet.” We’ve gotten used to the idea of shopping online, getting set up on a date online, even (via Couchsurfing.com) planning to crash at a stranger’s pad online. Why not set up a time and place to eat with strangers online?

“In the next couple of years, what we do is not going to be that big of a deal, and extra-restaurant dining is going to be a viable alternative,” says Townsend. “You’ll go to OpenTable.com (a popular restaurant-reservations site), and there’ll be chefs on the one side of the page and spaces on the other. And you can either follow the chef to all the places where he cooks, or you can just go to this one space because they always get great chefs.” 

As Townsend sees it, the democratization of cuisine is the natural next step, in an age when commercial efforts and the organic, peer-to-peer growth of the Web appear to be locked in a constant push-pull dynamic. On the other hand, it’s difficult to maintain that “underground” quality when you become popular and therefore too much like the very establishment you’re trying to subvert. 

h3. Pleasing everyone

Until recently, the lifespan of the underground restaurant tended toward the exciting and brief. Most either folded or went legit. In the last year, the Ghetto Gourmet has begun to follow suit, climbing out of the underground by catering private events on top of its regular dinners and — despite its lack of a legal, fixed-in-one-place kitchen — taking calls from chefs wanting to be part of this thing everyone’s talking about. 

[[block(sidebar).

h1. Under the table

The Ghetto Gourmet is based in the Bay Area, but has offshoots around the country.

Kill The Restaurant keeps tabs on underground dining ventures nationwide.

Created by the Ghetto Gourmet, the Curious Fork is a networking site for alternative dining options.

And if you happen to be in Paris, the underground-restaurant scene has arrived there in the form of Hidden Kitchen.

]]

Take the executive pastry chef who contacted the Ghet recently when she heard it was planning a series of dinners in Chicago. “She’s worked for 15 years in the best restaurants,” says Townsend, “and she was like, ‘I really want to do this — it sounds like so much fun.’” 

Or take that Saturday’s cook, Peter Jackson. Jackson once owned his own restaurant and now cooks for a small Italian chain, but he wanted the opportunity to shape an eclectic menu based on sustainable meat and produce. 

As Devera sees it, the opportunity is a conundrum of sorts. “A lot of what we’ve struggled with in the past year is the question, ‘Do we keep it underground?’” she says. “People expect it to be illegal and exciting. But then they want us to cater their wedding.” 

For now, it appears that the Ghetto Gourmet will most likely try to please both constituencies for as long as possible. Townsend plans to relocate to New York and spend much of next year on the road; Devera will stay in the Bay Area, and they’ll set up two additional “base” operations in Chicago and Los Angeles. 

They might remain pirate. They might go mainstream. But it’s clear that, along with their fellow adventurers in restauranting, they’ll continue to toss traditional ideas of eating, cooking, and community out the Internet window. 

p(bio). Twilight Greenaway is a writer based in the Bay Area.


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