In searching out supper clubs around the country, I kept coming across articles and blogs talking about rogueApron, a culinary speakeasy based in Atlanta. I contacted the head of this project for a little Q & A. Her responses are very thoughtful and serve as a great model for anyone else out there looking to start their own supper club.
How long have you been doing rogueApron?
How long have you been doing rogueApron?
Our first rogueApron dinner was St. Patrick's Day 2008. We work with East Atlanta Brewery, pairing local beers crafted especially for our menus. Our first menu was EAB stout-cured corned beef, traditional mashed potatoes, roasted vegetables and the like. Our 30 person dinner featured half friends, and half strangers ... I still have no idea how they found out about us, since we had just a small website at the time. The tornado that ravaged downtown and East Atlanta in '08 just happened to hit the day before the dinner ... we climbed through downed power lines and felled trees in the rain to ice down our precious corned beef. We postponed the dinner a day, and all is well. Now our mailing list is over 1,500 people, and dinners book within minutes ... it's been a remarkable journey, meeting some really great people.
What was the impetus?
rogueApron is a child of the recession in many ways - like many people, we had a good idea, but never the time and space to make it happen. But when circumstances and economies change, all of a sudden a zany idea makes a lot more sense than climbing a ladder that might not exist by the time you get to the top of it.
The motivations are complex and sometimes hard to divine: a love of food and beer, the desire to connect strangers over a good meal and build community, nerdy-fun surprises and puns. Unlike many underground "restaurants" in the States, our dinners are crowdsourced and staffed entirely by volunteers, many of whom meet us for the first time when they show up at a location, knife in hand, ready to take on prep for the day. Our menus are thematic - like the Soup Line which heralded the crash of the stock market in October ... our guests met up in a public park, empty bowl in hand. We also have the privilege of working closely with Georgia farmers - our last event was a workday at a farm, where guests helped clear fields of debris before tucking into a picnic lunch.
Local food means better ingredients for our dinners, but we also hope that it can serve as an introduction to foodsystems for our guests. We truly believe in severing the commercial relationship between cook and guest; where impersonal plates are pumped out factory-style for people you never see.
The unbelievable response of the Atlanta community has lead to several spin-off projects with common threads; building local economies and changing foodsystems. We run an entrepreneur/DIY network (Lady Rogue Business Network (ladyroguebiz.ning.com), a Chef to School program where we cook local vegetables with kids in developing neighborhoods, volunteer on a Georgia Organics board (cultivateATL.tumblr.com), and get involved with fun conceptual food events, like Free Pie (free-pie.org).
What's the connection between underground supper clubs and the restaurant world?
I'm sure that the answer to this question will vary greatly depending on who you speak to. Each supperclub is unique; reflecting the ideas and passions of the organizer/chefs and the community that they live in. Cooking food for people who gather around in a communal atmosphere is ancient - it's the modern restaurant that's a relative artifice. Restaurants can be amazing places - but they can also be table-turning SYSCO factories, with bitter, harried servers, dirty, cussing line cooks just hoping to get through the rush and to their beer - guests can be demanding, petty tyrants with ridiculous demands.
Supperclubs are grassroots alternatives, whatever their motivations, and the difference between codified establishments with EBITDA margins and art forms is profound.
What are the people like who come to your events? Was it hard for people to "get" it at first?
We are lucky that the rogueApron community is uniformly awesome. Something about the process of choosing a dining adventure and being open-minded about what and where you are going to eat serves as a funnel for creatives - our guests are from all age ranges and walks of life, but all are passionate about their lives and eager for experiences.
We have a pretty comprehensive website, with a lot of information on events, and we try to keep it as up-to-date as possible whenever someone asks a question we haven't heard before. But yes, we occasionally get questions from people who are still trying to wrap their heads around the concept.
I noticed on your web site that you accept donations or people can help out? Are you trying to democratize good food?
Of course! Accessibility is a strong political tenant of rogueApron. We accept cash donations towards food costs, but we never suggest more than $20 or $30 (depending on the menu). We have folks who do not give donations as well. For people who don't have the cash, we have all kinds of volunteer opportunities ... but our volunteers tend to be food-loving folks who love to cook for others. It's our sincere hope that everyone feels like they would be welcome at a dinner.
Do you consider what you do political in a small "p" sort of way, of course?
I suppose I've hinted at this above, but yes. A shared meal is a powerful connector of people - our guests build friendships, find lovers, make business connections, have spontaneous conversations, and find themselves involved in their community in new ways. Providing a space for that is considered political in our current culture.
How many people come to each event?
The size of the event varies according to the venue; usually anywhere from 50-150 people. (Really, we cook for 150 in a noncommercial kitchen. It's significantly harder that way :)
Do you make any profit?
rogueApron is a project; no one personally profits from the dinners. Our rA piggy bank helps us to invest in things like folding tables and silverware. Here's a little more about the donations system: http://rogueapron.wordpress.
What kind of training do you have.
I do not have formal training; however I do cook for a living. I identify as a cook - not a chef.