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Monday, 6 July 2015
After years of running my Japanese and Nikkei Supper Club, I still find a large number of guests who are complete newbies to the concept. I often receive e-mails from diners asking what the seating arrangements will be, whether the events are BYO or not, and even what they should wear among other enquiries.
Here, I will try to explain the do’s and don’ts of supper club dining, but far from being a rule book, the points below are largely a matter of common sense. Always bear in mind that a supper club is generally held in the host’s home, so treat it as you would expect a guest visiting your own home to do.
Supper clubs are a great way to meet new people, to sample foods and cuisines about which the host will usually be both passionate and well informed. They differ from restaurants in many ways, and you will get the most out of your supper club experience if you approach it in the optimal frame of mind. Below are a few points to consider when attending a supper club.
A Supper Club is not a restaurant
Remember that you are in someone’s home, and not a commercial restaurant with an army of chefs and professional waiting staff. This has implications – you will probably need to keep your cutlery between courses, and the same wine glass throughout the meal. In addition, food may arrive at intervals so don’t expect each course to arrive for the whole table simultaneously, eat your food while it’s hot. In most supper clubs, there is set menu and you will get what you are given, so if you are picky, this is probably not the right dining experience for you. On the other hand, if you are open to novelty and surprise when dining, you’ll have a fantastic time.
Your waiter tonight is perhaps my best friend
Unlike in restaurants, it is very unlikely that you will be served by a professional waiter. People serving your food will probably be friends or relatives of your host, or volunteers who are highly qualified in their own professional sphere. I’ve had lawyers, bankers and doctors volunteer as serving staff in my supper club, so snapping your fingers, not thanking them for their help or treating them as if they were your servant will not go down too well. You should expect to behave towards those serving you as you would towards a friend or relative if you were invited to their dinner party. Don’t expect silver service - you will be expected to hand your plate for collection as well as reach out for your plate when it is offered to you.
Like at a dinner party, it is important to arrive on time, but do not be early! This is rather important - the 5 or so minutes before you are welcomed are perhaps some of the most pressured of the entire evening, a lot will be happening in those final few moments. So always remember to arrive “from” the starting time. On the other hand, it is also important not to be late – you will interrupt the natural flow of the dinner, disturb your host and fellow guests and probably delay the meal for everyone else, it is just really bad form.
Most home-based supper clubs are BYO, so make the most of it
Most supper clubs should provide tap water to your hearts content. Make sure the supper club you are attending is BYO (mine is), and if so, bring anything else you expect to drink – be that sparkling water, fruit juice, soft drinks, beer or wine. There are a few things you should consider when it comes to drinking – quality, quantity, sharing and chilling.
Each supper club is different – at mine I serve 10 dishes, this is an 8-course tasting menu which takes about 3 hours. It is a long dinner and you should plan accordingly. So take enough drink for the length and complexity of the menu. This will vary from one supper club to another. There’s nothing worse than running out half-way through a meal.
Take the opportunity that you can bring your own wine to purchase something of good quality – you would normally pay at least £20 in a restaurant for a basic house wine, but for the same amount you can buy a very special bottle at a wine shop! It is also likely that a lot of effort was put into the meal you are about to enjoy, so it would be sad to ruin it with bad wine.
If you wish, it is ok to offer your wine to other guests at your table, but if you are the one accepting the wine, it is polite to reciprocate. It is not ok however to help yourself to other guests’ wines. If you bring white wine or Champagne, do try to bring it chilled or bring a wine cooler jacket with you because it is unlikely your host will have facilities for the rapid chilling of many bottles.
Sharing a table – strangers today, friends tomorrow…
One of the greatest things about supper clubs is the social interaction and the opportunity to sit with and get to know new people. And this is what makes supper clubs so different to restaurants, where striking up a conversation with a nearby table would be considered rather eccentric. So come prepared and in the right frame of mind – if someone you have never met before offers you his or her hand and strikes up a conversation with you, it is ok.
You will get so much more out of the evening if you approach it in an open-minded way, and demonstrate curiosity about other diners. Many people have met future friends, partners and even spouses at supper clubs, so it’s in your interest to be super-friendly! I personally have met some of my dearest friends in London supper clubs.
Do not cancel but if you have to, find a replacement!
Many supper clubs charge a deposit, partly in an attempt to reduce cancellations. Unlike restaurants, which are open to the general public and can sell food to others if a given guest does not turn up, supper clubs cannot open their doors to walk -in guests. You would be surprised to know how little money there is in cooking so cancellations hurt the host significantly. Hosts will have bought food and supplies in anticipation of your arrival and if you cancel, the food will go to waste. Furthermore, your non-attendance will leave gaps in the seating plan, which will detract from the experience of other guests. If you must cancel, try and find a replacement for your seat and inform your host as soon as possible. At my supper club, I expect diners to find replacements for their seats or honour their booking in full if a replacement is not found. I think this is fair play – since my events are fully booked I will probably have turned people away from the evening. Hosts may have a waiting list for the event and be able to help you find a replacement if the cancellation is not too last minute.
As much as your host would like to cater for all types of dietary requirements, remember that the supper club food you will be eating comes from a domestic kitchen and so please consider all the limitations that this imposes. The host may have one or two helpers in the kitchen, but unlike a restaurant there isn’t an army of sous-chefs to whip up “specials” at every course. So if you have a genuine dietary requirement, let your host know at the time of booking so that he or she has enough time to plan ahead.
Supper clubs generally offer a set menu, so you eat what you are given. There are no choices between courses, so don’t ask for the fish option on the night! Food waste is unacceptable, so if you do not eat something like pork for instance because of religion reasons, do let your host know. Personally I find “faketarians” annoying – more often than not I get requests from vegetarians who eat cooked chicken!
If you are a picky eater, supper clubs may not be the right dining option for you.
Tipping – paying fair
With such small margins in cooking, tipping is a significant element in the event’s cash takings. Whatever the advertised cost of the meal, your hosts will be anticipating a tip. If they have sous chefs, kitchen porters or waiting staff, they will probably be paid out of your tips, so it is uncharitable not to pay service unless you have had a truly dreadful experience. Remember that no money is being made from alcohol consumption, but most hosts are still offering you a complimentary welcome cocktail (that alone would cost around £10 in any London bar) and supplying you with glasses, washing them, replacing them when they are broken (most of the times by the guests themselves), and this is costly. In my experience, most guests are remarkably generous, paying much more than the expected 12.5% tip.
Do dress up!
Do dress up, most people do. Remember a supper club event is a public dinner party and you are likely to meet some very interesting people - you will want to be looking your best!
Do your homework before booking or attending a supper club
The quality of food and the overall experience vary tremendously from one supper club to another. Hosts can be complete amateurs (but still excellent cooks) or highly trained professional chefs, which by they way will not guarantee a better overall experience.
Each supper club is unique so approach them with an open mind – it is not because last month’s host offered you a G&T at their supper club as a welcome drink that your next host will follow suit this month at a different venue. It is important that you and any guests you have invited read any supper club information provided by the host, their website or blog and any third party reviews, so that everyone knows what to expect and comes prepared. In my experience, the person making the booking is well aware of the ins & outs of supper club dining, but sometimes I see invited guests snapping their fingers at waiting staff and volunteers, asking for the pescatarian option or being rudely late with no apologies, which is completely unacceptable in my opinion. Most guests though are so nice and appreciative and in the years I have been hosting my supper club I have been lucky enough to make some very close friendships.
The above points are just a few important things to bear in mind when attending any supper club. This is not a comprehensive list by any means or a rule book one should follow by the letter. Everyone wants to have a good time (and that includes the host!) so come prepared, be nice and considerate to others and I am sure you will have a fantastic time!