The Gourmet Guerilla: Adventures in Stealth Dining
What is it?
Half the time, my guests think I run ‘gorilla dining’ events and laugh at the ludicrousness of such a thought. Most times, I don’t have the heart to correct them more than once, lest the struggle to grasp this concept deter them from attending future events or, worse, from spreading the word. It did not make it easier that I decided upon introducing guerilla dining to Copenhagen and conjuring up a market out of thin air. Looking back on it, how naïve I was. Let’s just chalk that up to ingenuity, for now. Thanks to this leap of faith, I’ve had a stubborn, “I think I can, I think I can” choo-choo train approach this past year that’s led to countless adventures.
The concept of guerilla dining is without an official definition. Each orchestrator has his or her own understanding of what constitutes a true event. Many do not even use the term guerilla dining, opting rather for pop-up restaurant or supper club. In my view, the aim of each project is the same: we are looking to provide our guests with a completely different dining experience – one that will imprint itself permanently into your memory. How it is executed and what elements are brought into it to create the experience is what sets each apart. In this range are supper clubs consisting of only a few people and the host in a private home serving homemade food as well as professional exhibitions reaching upwards of fifty guests with hired chefs, musicians, and mobile kitchens. I like to think of mine as art installations that revolve around the central theme of food. Some have been intimate gatherings of fifteen guests, and others well over a hundred.
So how did I – a native San Franciscan transplanted in Copenhagen of all places -- get involved in this sub-culture, you ask?
Flashback: it was August 2009 in San Francisco, and I had decided to catch up with some old high school friends over dinner. For no other reason than intrigue – perhaps partially because the others were not given a choice – we booked a table at an heirloom tomato themed pop-up restaurant inside Coffee Bar on Bryant St. When the evening arrived, we entered with some apprehension. Let’s be honest. What good restaurant would choose to only operate once every few months if it was food worth having? This could not be good news. The cheap price tag - $35 for a 5-course menu and $15 for the pairing – did not help to ease that feeling of dread.
After settling in, the amuse bouche came out. Amuse bouche…at some unheard of ‘restaurant’? It was around this point when I thought, “Things are going to get interesting tonight.” Little did I know that “interesting” would mean taking me down the path of pursuing a very expensive hobby.
The magical turn came when the main dish arrived – perfectly prepared lamb morsels from New Zealand arranged on a playful arrangement of fingerling potatoes, heirloom tomatoes, and baby frisee lettuce with a heavenly sauce. It was delicious – the dish that launched a thousand schemes.
My mind started to race. The constant vibe of gastronomic life I had known when growing up in San Francisco was noticeably absent in Copenhagen, my adopted home. Aside from weekend revelry, the city is quiet – ghostly, even – save for the hubbub of some tourist-filled areas. A pop dining experience like this, I thought, could be a much-needed boost for the Copenhagen scene. While it would initially be off the beaten path, for which Danes luckily have some uncanny expertise, I thought it could grow into the next big trend.
Fast forward to the time between the end of that first dinner at Coffee Bar and the next seating.
The chef behind the pop-up dinner had come out to greet guests. (These events are quite a bit more personal than the typical restaurant visit, allowing for direct interaction with the chefs, organizers,and guests.)
Having concluded already that Copenhagen should get a taste of this dining subculture –and that I might as well be the one to pull it off -- I boldly approached the chef.
“I loved your lamb dish! What are your kitchen facilities back there? How did you prepare it?” I asked.
“Hehe, it’s a café. There is no kitchen. Most things were prepped out of house and we only cooked the meat and put on the finishing touches here. The lamb – panini presses,” he responded with a wink.
My jaw hit the ground at that point. I knew there was something special about that dish. I had followed my gut feelings into this dinner, and now they were telling me I was going to host my own event. I smartly picked my slack jaw back up and launched into my proposal.
The aim at the beginning of this conversation was to pick his brain and launch a dinner of my own in Copenhagen. After that revelation, though, I somehow needed to get him across the pond. Conveniently, he was to be in San Sebastian doing some work in October, so that the gears of hope began turning, double time. Even better, he had actually agreed to add a Copenhagen event as the last stop for his trip to Europe. We exchanged information and agreed to be in contact in the coming weeks.
At this point, really nothing had been finalized, even slightly. We both continued on our respective journeys to the East Coast and Europe, fitting in a handful of emails and a couple of early morning Skype calls on my part. A very carefully planned, though completely inaccurate in retrospect, budget was created and we agreed to power ahead for October.
Fast forward to the end of September/beginning of October.
Despite all the diligent planning we had, I had managed to begin my masters program in Copenhagen just about two weeks before the event was to take place. Let’s just say such an undertaking isn’t recommended.
There had been no specific end goal when I decided to launch into this project, aside from actually realizing the event and coming out on the other end unscathed and with a still-intact bank account. Then, unlike now, there was no overarching theme guiding the planning or preparations. Admittedly, as a result of the lack of a preconceived idea (aside from the fact that a chef from San Francisco would serve Californian cuisine), it felt more like a series of frantic grabs at thin air rather than the calm(er), calculated execution I have now grown used to.
In the couple weeks since coming back, I had managed to get a hold of the Red Cross’ café & lounge, Zusammen, in a less popular – in terms of dining and nightlife – part of town. We could fit about thirty guests a night if we packed them in cozily. The grand plan was to serve fifty per night with two seatings each night, totaling one hundred diners. Even now, that amounts to quite an undertaking from a guerilla dining perspective. Funny enough, at the time the number seemed not only reasonable but an undershot of both our capabilities and the expected market response.
The business week leading up to the dinner made me a nervous wreck. Potential guests, a good fifty of who were friends and had personally promised to attend, suddenly backed out with less than original excuses. (What has been realized throughout the years in Denmark is that, despite saying they are adventurous when it comes to new concepts, especially with food, Danes are in fact quite conservative.) The chef, however, was already settled into my apartment and making his rounds to contact purveyors, wine suppliers, etc. We were lucky that the café had all the necessary logistical equipment. Nevertheless, handling the food and alcohol alone, alongside the service, was more than either of us had bargained for.
The actual two nights of the event were somewhat of a blur. Standing post-setup at 17.30 the first night with the bookings in my hand, it finally hit me that this would not be as easy as envisioned. Not. Even. Close. We were at twenty-five booked for the first night and a paltry twelve the second. Media had been contacted, multiple times. Friends and acquaintances had been notified. The almighty Facebook and the rest of the social networking sites had been used and abused. What were we doing wrong? But at that point – the calm before the storm – there really was not much that could be done about the situation. As I told myself then and I tell myself now, have some fun and get a good laugh out of the experience, regardless of the outcome.
Hopefully the guests those nights felt the energy and passion, because it was my first time either serving or managing a service team, and I had given it my all. Luckily, the chef was a good sport throughout. At the end of the day, when the lights had been shut off and the leftover food – there was plenty – and equipment was hauled home, positive thinking, admittedly, was not at the top of the list.
Before undertaking this endeavor, I had told myself any future guerilla dinners would be dependent upon how this one went. If it had turned into a wild success, there could be room for further planning. If we had failed miserably, I would have to rethink this ‘brilliant’ plan of mine.
As you can probably tell, things could have gone better. Few people knew about us, the learning curve was steep, and money was lost. But it was fun. Really fun. Even now, with a number of events under my belt, I can still distinctly recall the thrill of those first two nights. There was no way I was going to let trying circumstances overshadow the burning desire to do it all again, even if it meant another epic fail. As they say, you can’t learn to run before you can walk, and I had just taken my first baby steps.
So against my better judgment, I chose to put on a heavy duty set of blinders and plow ahead as if I had just landed my first Gault Millau nomination.
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