Dining From Underground! Love the Food!

A new underground dining-movement is taking London by storm and its secret chefs are experimenting with world cuisine in the privacy of their homes. With the desire to cook for others and share their food, they are happy to set up their own tables, cutlery and plates and to create a convivial atmosphere. With a new post-code falling to the trend every week, nobody knows the full count of these secret dining chefs and clubs. Just today, I heard that the movement has reached Turin, Italy.

So who are these guys and what are they up to? As luck would have it, I was invited to a rare feast to celebrate the birthday of an American lady named Shelley who is a secret chef who goes by the name of ‘Nomad Chef’. She took the initiative to get eight secret chefs together in her beautiful home in the Holland Park area, whom she had found online via social media. As fellow foodies, each brought a dish with which to impress so that there was endless fare that I lost count after the eighth course.

United by a deep love of all things culinary, the secret chefs agree that one of the reasons for going underground is that they yearn for good honest conversation, the type of which can only take place around a private dining room table with an intimate atmosphere. Even as many of them have day jobs too, they can’t stop themselves from collecting recipes and wanting to try them out on others and feeling great when they get positive feedback. Shunning restaurants is one of the things they have in common too.

Over dinner I was able to chat with the eight chefs and realised how they derive great pleasure from feeding others; and, they also all agreed that this becomes addictive and unstoppable. Like chefs in normal restaurants, they are on a mission to tap into the rich diversified history of food, cooking different cuisine and experimenting with fusion and adapting menus.

On the night, we were treated to: watermelon with feta cheese and mint salad, Moroccan tortilla with black olives, red peppers and harissa, Swedish fried meat balls with a beetroot and apple salad, Scandinavian seafood and turkey sandwich cake, Chinese pancakes with dill, tofu, egg and yellow bean sauce, Vietnamese pork patties with chili, sugar and lime juice, a lasagne with pancetta, pork sausage, parmesan, rocket and field mushrooms and a Mexican enchilada casserole. Not to be out-shown for dessert we had Mitty’s scrumptious ‘Sweet Justice’ dark chocolate cake that perfectly sealed the banquet.

Mingling With The Secret Chefs

Chatting with our gentle American hostess Shelley, she said the Nomad Chef persona was her way of healing the pain and the darkness of having lost her only son a year ago who was only 32 years old. She had shared with him an infatuation for food and mother and son had spent many days together in the kitchen cooking.

She said that her son had been a successful chef himself and had cooked private dinners for rock stars, actors and anyone who heard about his fusion food. To honour his memory, she got into secret dining and now offers amazing soul food, specialising in vegetarian dishes. With her French partner Bruno helping her in the kitchen, they take painstaking care to ensure their guests enjoy every mouthful and feel welcome.

I next spoke with Nicos who is a super confidant 28 years old who has just arrived from the United States. He boasts that he turned down a sous-chef position to work for Gordon Ramsey and that his Meridian Supper Club, based in Greenwich, offers seasonal, free range and locally sourced food that he buys from Borough’s Market.

Coming to London to change his life and travel, he said: “The restaurant business, which I have been in for fifteen years, is a tough lifestyle. You keep working for others who don’t appreciate the time and energy you put in. I would rather be poor then to give my life to 35K a year and slave for 65 hours a week.”

I then chatted to the petite Ning who is the creator of the Mama Lan Supper Club. A chartered accountant by day, her family’s history in the food business and old recipes used at home took her to the kitchen and cooking for others. Based in Cricklewood, she serves traditional Northern Chinese fare and teaches her guests a little bit about her cultural heritage.

The other secret chefs included the Somalian Ayan and her Swedish friend Pia who host the Claptonian Club in E5. Originally an Art gallery, they have turned the venue into a food venture where they rustle up a choice between East African fusion and Scandinavian recipes. Lastly, I met the hip Nigeria Shay who is a founding member of the Rebel Dining Society in EC1 where secret dinners can summon up to a hundred guests. His mission is to push the boundaries of fine dining and to also brings experimental live music and art performances too.

The Underground Dining Experience

Everyone is welcome to the supper clubs but you need to book in advance and know which cuisine is going to be served. Please note also that a financial contribution is usually made to the host or hostess with the rule to bring your own alcohol. There are on occasions also cooking workshops and demos and special brunches for families with children too.

Note: This article was first published circa May 2010