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Birmingham Chefs Test Appetite For New Flavors With Supper Clubs

Feb 9, 2016
Originally published on February 22, 2016 12:09 am

It's a Saturday night. Five couples sit sipping cocktails and beers. From the kitchen, the smell of ginger, fish oil and lime wafts into the dining room. Chef Josh Haynes is there preparing one of his signature recipes: a red curry of pumpkin and pork rib.

It could be a hip restaurant, except this is Haynes' apartment. In his small living room, with space for only two tables, 10 strangers eat his homemade Thai food.

Haynes calls it a "speakeasy supper club," a nod to the days of Prohibition. People hear about the dinners through word of mouth or a local food blog, buy tickets online, and show up to Haynes' apartment at an appointed time.

Like many mid-size cities in the U.S., Birmingham historically has had a traditional food scene. But in the past few years, locals chefs have started concepts like ramen and vegan supper clubs in houses and apartments. Like Haynes, they're testing recipes and ideas to gauge the community's response and the market for potential restaurants.

It's Fred Rowe's first time at one of these dinners, and he's blown away.

"Where else can you get a new experience with new people, people you don't even know?" Rowe says, serving himself another one of Haynes' curries, this one made with duck eggs.

Mary Jones says she and her husband have been to several speakeasy-style dinners held by other chefs in their homes.

"We just go and try to support them so that they know that yes, there is that interest for this cuisine in Birmingham," Jones says. "It's not too out there."

Haynes moved back to Birmingham with plans of opening a Thai restaurant. But until he finds the money, he's decided to open up his apartment.

"In the meantime, it's really important to me to kind of build a following and get a lot of support, as well as get people's feedback," Haynes says. "So that when I get to that brick-and-mortar stage and open the doors, I've got people who are excited, who are lined up ready to eat."

So far, it's working. All of Haynes' dinners have sold out.

Kelly Dobkin, a senior editor at Zagat, a guidebook to restaurants worldwide, says she's seen these types of restaurants succeed. In Brooklyn, the supper club Take Root morphed into a highly-reviewed and hard-to-get-into restaurant. Underground supper clubs are popping up across the country, from Los Angeles to Detroit and Atlanta.

Dobkin says this exchange of young chefs inviting diners for these exclusive meals is mutually beneficial.

"The chefs are getting this chance to be creative and free without a lot of strings," she says. "The diners are getting something that is limited-time only, which is really exciting."

Chris Hastings has been a chef in Birmingham for decades and has trained a lot of chefs, including Haynes. In 2012, Hastings won a James Beard Award, one of the most prestigious in the restaurant business.

Hastings says while things have changed a lot in the Birmingham restaurant scene, it's still difficult to open a restaurant — and even harder to stay open.

"The failure rate is pretty high," Hastings says. "It's a business, and it's very complicated and very expensive. Your margins are teeny-weeny, and you have to have equal parts chef and business person."

But, Hastings says, if these new chefs can get the business down, diners are ready and waiting for whatever's thrown at them.

Haynes' Thai dinners have gotten pretty popular, so he's started hosting them once a week.

He's even got his eye on a building downtown.

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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

It is not easy to make it in the restaurant industry. You need talent, you need money and you need people who like your food. So what do you do if you only have two of those things?

Ashley Cleek of member station WBHM has this story from Birmingham, Ala.

ASHLEY CLEEK, BYLINE: It's a Saturday night. Five couples sit sipping champagne, cocktails and beers. From the kitchen, the smell of ginger, fish oil and lime crowds into the dining room. Chef Josh Haynes carries out one of his signature recipes.

JOSH HAYNES: This is a red curry of pumpkin and pork rib.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Yum.

CLEEK: It's like a hip, ethnic restaurant, except this is Josh's apartment. His travel books are on the shelves, his shoes by the door. And in his small living room, with space for only two tables, 10 strangers eat his homemade Thai food. Haynes calls them speakeasy supper clubs, a nod to the days of prohibition. People hear about the dinners through word of mouth or a local food blog. They buy tickets online and then show up to Haynes apartment at an appointed time. It's Fred Rowe's first try.

FRED ROWE: Where else can you get just a new experience...

CLEEK: Right.

ROWE: ...With new people, people you don't even know.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Yeah.

ROWE: So that's appealing to us.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: That's what we (inaudible).

CLEEK: Mary Jones has been to several speakeasy-style dinners held by other chefs in their homes.

MARY JONES: We just jump and go and try to support them so that they will know that yes, there is that interest for that type of cuisine here in Birmingham. It's not too out there.

CLEEK: Haynes moved back to Birmingham with plans of opening a Thai restaurant. He didn't have the money, and he didn't want to deal with licensing and the health department. So he opened up his home.

HAYNES: So the idea is to open a restaurant, but in the meantime, it's really important to me to kind of build a following and get a lot of support, as well as, you know, getting people's feedback so that when I get to that brick-and-mortar stage and I open the doors I've got people who are excited, who are lined up, ready to eat.

CLEEK: So far, it's working. All his dinners have sold out. And other chefs have taken the same route as Haynes - opening up their homes to willing diners. Over the past several years, Birmingham's growing food scene has gotten national attention. Kelly Dobkin is a senior editor at Zagat, a guidebook to restaurants worldwide. She says this exchange of young chefs inviting diners for exclusive meals is mutually beneficial.

KELLY DOBKIN: The chefs are getting this chance to be creative and free without a lot of strings. The diners are getting to experience something that's limited time only, which is really exciting.

CLEEK: Dobkin says she's seen these types of restaurants succeed. In Brooklyn, the supper club Take Root morphed into a highly reviewed and hard to get into restaurant. Secretive supper clubs are popping up across the country, from Los Angeles to Detroit and Atlanta.

Chris Hastings has been a chef in Birmingham for decades. And he's won one of the most prestigious awards in the restaurant business. Hastings holds open the door to his new restaurant, Oven Bird.

CHRIS HASTINGS: How y'all doing?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Hi, how are you?

HASTINGS: Good to have you all in.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Thanks

CLEEK: Hastings has trained a lot of chefs, including Haynes. And he says while things have changed a lot in the restaurant scene, it's still difficult to open a restaurant and even harder to stay open.

HASTINGS: The failure rate's pretty high in the restaurant business. I mean, it's a business and it's very complicated and it's very expensive and your margins are teeny, teeny, teeny, weenie. And you have to have equal parts passionate chef and cook to business person.

CLEEK: But, Hastings says, if these new chefs can get the business down, diners are ready and waiting for whatever's thrown at them. Haynes' Thai dinners have gotten pretty popular, so he started hosting them once a week, and he's got his eye on a building downtown. For NPR News, I'm Ashley Cleek in Birmingham, Ala. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.