Going Rogue: America's Underground Chefs

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An early sign that dining at Whisk & Ladle would not be a traditional restaurant experience came in the email confirming my reservation and providing directions: "The entrance is across from a small motorboat." And so it was. Tucked into an alley in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn in a factory-cum-apartment building is an underground supper club operated by four roommates (plus the former one who started it all), who cook 5-course meals for paying guests twice each month.

There are now so many "secret" dining clubs in the country (and far beyond) that most don't merit being called underground anymore. The Whisk & Ladle has a Web site, a 8,000-member listserv, and is incorporated as a partnership. It remains "underground" only in the sense that it's technically illegal, outside the purview of city health officials, who from what I gathered in a recent conversation take a laissez-faire approach to this particular species of rogue culinarian.

Late to the supper club game, I nonetheless thought it was worth checking out the experience, which is why I volunteered to help the Whisk & Ladle crew prepare a mid-March meal, and showed up at just after one in the afternoon. I was late. Already, Mark Losinger was tending to a cannellini bisque and supervising the day's other volunteer, Brit Kleinman, who designs bags for Jack Spade and travels the world searching out street markets. Mark's two female roommates, Danielle Florio and Jessie Carter, soon returned from a coffee run with Norah, a former roommate who founded the club but later moved to Park Slope. (Norah works as a lawyer, and, as a result, I have not included her last name.) None have gone to culinary school or cooked in restaurants, and they look to their main jobs to pay the bills. (Jessica will soon begin culinary school to specialize in the pastry arts, however.)

We crowded into the kitchen—spacious by New York City standards, but no larger than a suburbanite's "chef's kitchen"—and worked off a prep list. I cored cherry tomatoes, while Danielle thought out loud about what to stuff inside: "I'm thinking of quinoa, feta, and parsley." Saturday's dinner was an all-vegetarian meal featuring sweat-pea gnocchi and other comfort food; it was less ambitious than the previous night's, which was heavy on meat and had a historic theme, pairing old recipes with contemporaneous cocktails.

As with the tomatoes, there was a lot of improvisation in the preparation of other courses. Mark threw some chopped mushrooms into a pot of olive oil and asked no one in particular, "I wonder what Thomas Keller would do with this?" Keller's French Laundry Cookbook, on a nearby shelf, had no ready answers, and Mark ended up using the flavored oil to cook the gnocchi. Later, he left for a short run, something a line cook at Per Se is unlikely to do.

"I admire professional restaurants, and it's extremely difficult to cook the same dish at a high level of quality day after day," said Michael Cirino, who runs a globetrotting supper club called A Razor, A Shiny Knife, and dropped by later that evening. "But that's not what supper clubs are about. We're about improvisation and experimentation." That doesn't mean amateur cooks are not ambitious. Last year, Cirino orchestrated a home cook's version of the 21-course meal Thomas Keller and Food Channel contributor Grant Achatz co-produced to launch their respective books. (After hearing about it, Achatz invited Cirino for a guest stint at his Chicago restaurant, Alinea.)

When guests arrived at eight, I packed away my knives and moved to the bar area, where drinks were being prepared by the apartment's fourth roommate, Nick Bennett, who bartends at The Vanderbilt in Prospect Heights. Gawker once noted derisively (as if the site had another tone) that the Whisk & Ladle "has all the ingredients of an unbearable hipster disaster inferno implosion." And sure enough, there were a few urban lumberjack types and one unapproachably pretty waif. But there were also a French-American financier who rarely strayed from Manhattan, a lesbian lawyer couple, a Norwegian visual artist and his freelance curator wife—not to mention Mark's parents, who drove down from Lake George in upstate New York. A couple of guys who worked for Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz dropped by and had earlier presented the crew with an official certificate declaring February 19, 2010 "Whisk & Ladle Day."

The meal itself, served in a dining room with three long tables, was very good, though there were some long waits between courses. "The gnocchi got stuck," Norah later apologized. But no one seemed to mind. Throughout the dinner, people kept wandering in and settling by the bar—friends of the Whisk & Ladle, including fellow amateurs like Michael.

What was their relation to professional chefs, I asked. "We hang out more with bartenders," Mark said. "Professional kitchens keep such late hours, and we have to wake up for our jobs."

But there are a few professional chefs that also participate in supper clubs. Deborah Gorman, a private chef who has worked at Blue Hill and Café Gray, collaborates with the Whisk & Ladle—here's video footage of a recent meal—and other clubs. And on Saturday, Amelia Coulter, of Brooklyn's Sugarbuilt Cookies, made the dessert course. "These clubs are a creative outlet that I don't get as often cooking for a private family," Gorman says.

The paying customers I spoke with said they'd do it again. Karen, one of the attorneys, wrote me an email on Monday that read like a promotional blurb: "A welcoming and friendly atmosphere with great drink options and phenomenal food served in a professional manner. The other guests had varied and interesting backgrounds and it was absolutely worth the price of admission."

But it's my time in the kitchen that had stuck with me. I can't imagine living with three roommates, let alone operating a business together to boot. And yet on Saturday I saw none of the shouting and contretemps that propel reality cooking shows and bedevil professional kitchens. Bonhomie may be amateurism's greatest virtue.

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Paul Wachter is a writer based in New York and the co-founder of AgainstDumb.com. He has written for The New York Times MagazineThe Nation, and Eight by Eight.

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