I was always told that Londoners were cold. No one talks on the tube, you don’t know your neighbours, and it’s easy to make fast friends with someone only to see them pack up and leave six months later. “It’s the weather,” they said. It causes people to put up barriers.
It’s easy to feel lost in a city with over 8 million people. As a new transplant five years ago, I decided to overcome this by saying yes to every invitation to go out. I threw myself into the London food and nightlife scene and discovered that my new city was a mecca of flavours and cuisines that were unfamiliar yet enchanting. Even more surprising were the stories that I was able to uncover during mealtimes. From the chef who leaned over the counter to tell me about how he’d put a twist on an old classic from his native Jerusalem to the usually introverted colleague who decided to tell me all about her parents’ divorce, the dinner table was where I unearthed secrets, bits of gossip, and forgotten stories that would come flowing out as quickly as the dishes we were served. I quickly realised that there was something about sharing a meal with someone that persuades you to share a piece of yourself too.
After years of eating my way from one restaurant to another, I decided to venture into the world of supper clubs. I loved the idea of being welcomed into someone’s home and having them put time and care into cooking you a meal. At first, the supper club concept referred to amateur cooks putting out the fine silverware for a night and making a little extra income on the side. However, the latest trend sees top chefs who have trained at some of the best establishments in the world bringing their culinary expertise out of the restaurant and into their homes, basements, or hired out spaces.
I spoke with the team at Eatwith, a supper club platform that brings hosts and diners together, and asked them about shifts in consumers’ dining preferences. "People are used to going out. Nowadays it's all about finding that extra added value. Creating personal, social connections with people you would've never met in any other circumstance, that's a real plus in this day and age when most connections are made digitally,” says Eatwith’s Meg Ramsay. I ask about the rise of chefs making the transition to become supper club hosts. Another member of the team, Siddarth Vitaya Kumar, brings up the mass homogenisation we’re seeing on the high street and the sky-high rents that are preventing everyone but the big brands from setting up shop. “We want to support chefs who want to do things differently,” he explains.
So who are these chefs that have decided to move away from the security of well-known restaurant brands that have months-long waiting lists? What kind of individual has the tenacity to go it alone in an industry as cutthroat as that of food?
Gabriel Waterhouse, The Water House Project
“The decision was an easy one in the end. I suppose I had never considered working for others on a long-term basis and I knew I didn’t want to be just another cog in the machine,” says Gabriel Waterhouse of The Water House Project. A philosophy graduate from the University of Liverpool, Waterhouse talks fondly about how his culinary journey started one summer in a small kitchen in the French Alps. The stint saw him returning to London and turning up on the doorstep of three-time Michelin-starred chef Herbert Berger looking for a job. He still considers Berger an influence to this day and credits him for giving him a nudge in the direction of his next challenge.
Waterhouse spent perhaps some of his most formative years in the kitchen of Jeff Galvin and his fine dining restaurant Galvin La Chapelle. “I loved it, particularly the camaraderie of the kitchen there despite the long hours. There’s no better training as a chef than getting stuck in at a busy Michelin-starred kitchen like that.” It was at La Chapelle that the idea of launching his own supper club first dawned upon Waterhouse and Chef Galvin trusted his vision enough to allow him to begin working at the restaurant on a part-time basis so that he could spend the rest of his time honing his skills, developing his own repertoire, and hosting a few hungry diners of his own off of an Ikea table from his modest Bethnal Green home.
The Water House Project has now catered to thousands of diners and has moved out of Waterhouse’s flat and into tile design studio Bert and May in East London. “Our team is actually trying to get away from the supper club tag now. What we offer is an 8-course tasting menu with 5 glasses of paired wines and an aperitif. We change our menu and wines each month and so far haven’t cooked the same dish twice. Our aim has always been to make fine dining more accessible. We present warm, friendly, and relaxed service in a vibrant atmosphere, but still with the quality of a high-end restaurant.”
Alex Antonioni, EatMe Supper Club
Alex Antonioni has spent over 30 years in the restaurant business and has seen it from both the front and back of the pass. She grew up helping her parents as they ran Italian eatery Bongusto, became the general manager at Grissini at the Grand Hyatt in Hong Kong, and eventually got into the PR game for the OXO Tower Restaurant. Antonioni has always been fascinated by the art of eating and the role that food plays in interpersonal relationships and has put her thoughts down on paper by co-authoring a number of books with acclaimed chef Marco Pierre White. “The restaurant industry is tough. You have to deal with long hours, difficult customers and chefs, working whilst others have fun. But if you love it, you just can’t do anything else.”
The idea of a supper club was one that came about right after she married her husband Imi and decided that the time was finally right to put all the recipes she had in her head onto the plates of some keen diners. “The food I cook is a journey through my wanderlust. I’m Italian by birth, have a house in France as I’m a massive Francophile, and have lived in some incredible places in Asia and Europe. All of these incredible cuisines and cultures are reflected in my food and menus. Eat Me Supper Club is all about getting a restaurant experience in our home through good food shared with good people.”
Jason Seddon, Table 42
“What I've learnt from starting my supper club is never second guess yourself, and trust that what you're doing is going to be good enough. I've second guessed myself so much, but actually, sometimes I'm just slightly too hard on myself,” shares Jason Seddon. The Mancunian started off as a kitchen porter in a local restaurant in his hometown. One evening, one of the regular chefs was out sick so he was asked to fill in. He enjoyed it so much that he decided to go to catering college and spent the next few years working at a number of Manchester restaurants before eventually making the move to the capital. In London, Seddon saw himself cooking with the best of the best at a roster of top kitchens like Dinner by Heston Blumenthal, Pidgin, and The Clove Club.
Though accustomed to working with a larger team, Seddon is now joined by his girlfriend Dani, who helps him as a marketer, logistics coordinator, and host out of their North London flat. Starting off as housemates before they became a couple, it’s evident that they know each other inside out and support each other in their individual ambitions. “When Jay and I first met, we were housemates. We pretty quickly learnt each other’s habits, both good and bad. What stood out for me, even back then, was his ability to make something so simple taste truly incredible. The best thing for me about the supper club is seeing people’s faces when they try his food. I feel so lucky to be able to share that,” says Dani.
They say Londoners are cold. Maybe we have to be cold in order to survive the temperatures, the competition, and the transiency we experience as residents of this great but complicated city. But in sitting down for a meal with friends and strangers, we pour our hearts out about the loves we lost, the miles in between us and our families, and the hardships that come with finding and keeping a job in this town of ours. It is then that we realise that we find warmth in dishes made with love, in conversations filled with hope, and in the sense of community that we find when we gather around a table.
Credits & Info
Ina Yulo is a freelance food and travel writer based in London. Follow her gastronomic adventures over at @forever_munching.
Eatwith has just launched their Private Events series, which connects guests with private, independent chefs for a more intimate and personal experience.
Jason Seddon is looking to take his supper club and turn it into a more permanent residence. You can keep up with his progress through his Instagram page.