, an underground, members-only dinner club that unites diners with emerging culinary talent in unexpected places – aka a pop-up – is expanding into the Cleveland market. Cleveland will be the 33rd market for this fast-growing culinary organization, which launched in New Orleans in 2012.
Dinner Lab works differently from other pop-up dining events in a number of ways. For starters, participants must be members or guests of members. An annual fee of $125 per person earns the member advance access to the events, for which they can purchase up to four spots. Events in Cleveland will cost around $55-$60.
Also unique is the fact that a large portion of the talent will originate outside of Cleveland.
“About 40 to 50 percent of the chefs will be from outside Cleveland,” explains co-founder Zach Kupperman. “We’re telling the story of the chefs and letting them bring their cuisines to other markets.”
These “culinary road shows” allow chefs to explore other markets, test drive their menus and cuisine, and fine tune their cooking skills in advance of opening their own place.
“In terms of the chefs, we typically try to take the second in command, like the sous chef or really talented line cook at a top restaurant, who is looking to showcase their own menu,” adds Hallie Dietsch, Director of Human Resources.
The chefs – whether local or visiting – are given free rein when it comes to the menu.
“We don’t dictate anything from the culinary perspective,” says Kupperman. “We’re just the facilitators.”
The five-course meals include featured cocktails and unlimited beer and wine. While some markets support up to two events per week, Cleveland likely will maintain a pace of one per month, say staffers.
Also distinctive is the range of event spaces that the organization utilizes.
“Our settings have run the gamut from abandoned churches, an old YMCA, a helipad, to the top floor of parking garages,” says Dietsch. “They might be abandoned spaces right before they are getting refurbished, which serves to introduce our members to that neighborhood and the revitalization taking place there and to introduce those people to our members.”
A local, rented kitchen plus a fully equipped mobile kitchen help make these events more elaborate than typical catered events.
Of course, there is a lot of advance work in a new market, which takes time, says Kupperman. That’s why Cleveland’s first event will not take place until July 24th.
“Part of the job involves a lot of legwork like finding chefs, finding locations, tracking down the landlords, connecting with experts like you. We don't just roll into a city, host an event and leave; we actually open an office, set up a kitchen, and establish roots there.”
Dinner Lab eventually will hire two to five fulltime staffers in addition to 25 to 30 part-timers.
Another key feature of these events is the feedback that is collected from diners and delivered to the chef, says Kupperman.
“Every diner rates the chef on everything from taste, quality, presentation – can the chef cut it in the real world. We take that feedback and give it to the chef to help them improve from event to event. People love being the restaurant critic.”
The chef for the first event will be Daniel Espinoza, who has been hosting Dinner Lab events for the past year. Before that he was a chef at the award-winning Chicago restaurant Mexique. He will be preparing a menu of modern Mexican food. The location will not be announced until immediately preceding the event.
To join or read more about the organization, click here
Our social media handles are @Dinnerlab and #dinnerlab.