At the beginning of the last decade, supper clubs and temporary dining were ramping up to be a hot restaurant trend. James Lowe and Isaac McHale’s The Young Turks at The Ten Bells in Shoreditch was at the heart of it all — two chefs with serious pedigree taking over a pub room and going on to open Michelin-starred restaurants down the road from their residency. This route has spawned many more acclaimed restaurants over the course of the decade: Asma Khan’s Darjeeling Express; Mandy Yin’s Sambal Shiok; Ana Gonçalves and Zijun Meng’s TaTa Eatery; and Mark Dobbie, Andy Oliver and Tom George’s Som Saa.
The supper club, pop-up, and restaurant residency circuit remains a key part of London’s dining scene in 2020. These spaces are invaluable in perfecting cooking: to experiment, to try, to fail, to grow, to learn. It is also a way to gather a loyal following who want to be part of the process and understand that it is a work in progress, whether or not the end goal is opening a restaurant, or honing a service in a cook’s home kitchen. Supper clubs are also historically a space of intimacy, rebellion, and secrecy, an opportunity for cooks to present their cuisine and culture in opposition to its possibly inaccurate “mainstream” representation.
Looking back across the decade, there is still a clear line on what a successful supper club should look like: the assumed end goal is invariably “graduating” to a permanent restaurant, language which unfairly devalues the supper club and puts a focus on high-profile, central London residencies. This often translates into what London diners view as valuable and worth spending their money on; whose cooking is deemed worthy; and who is legitimately allowed to be creative with food. While one-off residencies from already acclaimed chefs sell out and get influencer hype, the BAME community that values supper clubs and residencies as loci of community and feeding often struggle to sell tickets; struggle to get recognition and coverage; struggle to get consistent support, and struggle to reach new audiences — the exceptional exceptions proving the rule.
But while the temporary dinner remains a cornerstone of dining out, there is a growing awareness of a cultural shift around culinary conversation: the entering into the mainstream of cultural appropriation; a respect for food’s inextricability from history and politics. As academic Dr Krishendu Ray writes: “The quarrel over cultural appropriation is a sign of the entry of a professional middle class of color that has the capacity to talk back to traditional gourmandism. Social media reduces the cost and broadens the opportunity for talking back.” So too, does the flexibility and self-direction of the supper club, with first, second, and third-generation people looking to research and find ways to connect with their heritage and explore those relationships through food, without the attendant pressures of “graduating” to, or even seeking a “next level.”
From these conversations comes incredibly exciting food, and the intimacy and flexibility of supper clubs are proving to be spaces where these conversations can be had. Supper clubs have also shifted and provided spaces to explore food beyond the desire to open permanent spaces. Food businesses doesn’t need to fit into prescribed structures, such as restaurants, to be influential in a city’s food culture.
For the food world to develop it is important to support, investigate and try the food of those who are asking the questions around identity and heritage. Food is a story, and it is vital to be present to hear the stories of others.
Here are seven supper clubs to try in 2020, that are exploring food in exciting ways.
Zoe Adjonyoh made a name with Zoe’s Ghana Kitchen, which led to a cookbook in 2017 and roved the city serving her version of Ghanaian cuisine. Sankofa is a new chapter.
Sankofa allows Adjonyoh far more dexterity, not just promoting Ghanaian food and ingredients but encompassing a celebration of the whole of West and wider Africa — there’s more room to play. “Sankofa loosely translated means ‘go back and fetch it’ — my grandmother was always saying to me on every visit, ‘go and come back,’ so Sankofa is a symbol of my cooking ethos: To look back to West Africa’s culinary traditions and indigenous ingredients and flavours and to bring them forward.” Adjonyoh has worked “alongside some amazing world-class chefs in the last couple of years from whom I’ve learnt so much,” and will bring this to bear on her cooking as Ghana makes 2020 “‘the year of return’ — Sankofa has even more significance as the diaspora are looking back to West Africa for inspiration and grounding.”
Where: At Adjonyoh’s home in Hackney Wick
When: The first series starts in March and is called Obenem, which means March in Twi. Each month the menu will reflect the season, there will be only 12 guests for the 12 months of the year. Dates for March are 13 March; 20 March; 27 March.
How: Visit Adjonyoh’s website.
Parsi Café Special
Farokh Talati is the head chef at essential London restaurant St. John Bread & Wine, and is of Parsi heritage, which is a Zoroastrian community that migrated from Persia to South Asia between the 8th and 10th century. A later group of Zoroastrian migrants come to South Asia in the 19th century and are known as Irani, and were famous for setting up cafes that broke down cultural and class divides and also served a number of Parsi dishes.
On a trip back to India recently Talati visited a number of these cafes, and spoke to the owners including the renowned Merwan Kohinoor of Britannia & Co, who sadly died this year. “I was eating this amazing food and wishing other people could experience it. It was flavours from my childhood and I remembered my family cooking all these dishes. And I realised that I could share this with people, and started this supper club.” Talati explained. “The nights are a celebration of delicious Parsi cuisine.” Talati explores what Paris food means and what it can be; he also talks about how it has evolved over the years to include various British elements, marked by the centuries of colonialism.
The East African - Indian Supper Club
Abbas Asaria’s family are of Indian descent, but migrated to East Africa in the late 1800s before moving to the U.K. in the 1960s. This supper club explores the relationship between migration, identity, and food, which Asaria reflects on his menu “by having a mix of traditional Indian dishes (e.g., channa chaat, kulfi, my grandma’s tandoori chicken), traditional East African dishes (e.g., Swahili style pilau, cassava chips) — but also the really interesting and unique ‘fusion’ dishes that developed from the presence of Indian communities in East Africa - e.g., matoke stewed in a spicy coconut sauce.”
Part of the story of migration and identity is the impact of colonial history on Asaria’s community, and he wants to share these stories through the supper club — from the construction of the Uganda Railway that led to the first wave of migration to East Africa, Idi Amin’s British-backed coup in 1971, and the expulsion of the Indian community in 1972. Asaria is also a documentary maker and has been investigating food and identity through his YouTube project Let’s Talk Food With Abbas.
The supper club is communal with family feasting style service, and “I’m also trying to have as little food waste as possible, so I encourage guests to bring tupperware to take leftovers.”
Where: The London Cooking Project in Battersea, 1 Ethelburga Street, SW11 4AG
When: 5 March 2020 and 6 March 2020.
How: Book via Asaria’s website.
MiMi Aye hosts supper clubs exploring the Burmese food of her heritage. Born in the U.K., Aye is second-generation Burmese, and her parents instilled in her very Burmese traditions, food being central. Her book, Mandalay: recipes and tales from a Burmese kitchen, was published in 2019, and shares her family story, her trips back to Myanmar and recipes.
Aye’s supper clubs are charity events and her first supper club in 2020 will be held on February 23. For the first time, Aye will be supporting a U.K. charity: Lewisham Refugee & Migrant Network. “I am choosing a UK charity for this event because I’m so horrified by this government and feel like I need to help people on my own doorstep this time,” she said, normally supporting projects in Myanmar. Keep an eye out for the next.
Founded by Munira Mahmoud, Kinamama — which means “the mothers” in Swahili — is run by a collective of women. Their aim is to provide food services to mothers in particular, but also those in their community who are vulnerable. Their supper clubs are a way to bring in financial support and visibility to those wider projects.
The menus change and adapt from event to event, but are often rooted in East African cooking, which Mahmoud describes as “influenced by Arabic and Indian cooking; the food is motivated by the authentic fusion of traditional and modern East Africa.”
Where: Various locations; the first is at London Cooking Project, 1 Ethelburga Street, SW11 4AG
When: 27 March, 7p.m. — 10p.m.
How: Book tickets for the first Kinamama of 2020 here..
“Serai” is a Malay word for lemongrass, an essential ingredient in many Malaysian dishes. This supper club celebrates the diversity of Malaysian food, run by husband and wife team Yolanda Augustin and Sharif Assan as well as Yolanda’s aunty, Mary Augustin.
The team has held supper clubs celebrating Assan’s Iban heritage, and are known for their Malaysian “Chill Crab” events. The crab is served with a sauce made with lemongrass, galangal, lime leaves, birds eye chilli, torch ginger, and laksa leaves, with soft, deep-fried mantou buns alongside. Augustin explains that “this dish was born out of pure homesickness and nostalgia. When we first moved to London as students and lived near Billingsgate market we would buy the crab and I would cook feasts for my friends.” They still buy crabs from Billingsgate for all their events.
Where: Various locations.
When: 26 January and throughout 2020.
Alicia Peters bases this vegan supper club on her childhood, growing up on a rubber, cocoa, and oil plantations throughout Malaysia. Her heritage is mixed, her father is Indian Malaysian and her mother is Kadazan, an indigenous community of Sabah in East Malaysia, all of which contributes to her outlook on food. “My parents would host fabulous parties and Sunday curry lunches, my mother was very well known for flaky, melt-in-your-mouth curry puffs,” Peters says, crediting her inspiration for hosting supper clubs. She recreates her mother’s curry puffs as well as interpreting classic Malaysian flavour combinations into vegan dishes.
Where: Peters’ home in Richmond, and other locations.
When: From February 2020.
How: Follow Peters on Instagram for updates.