“Shit. There’s no one here yet. Lets walk around the block.”
This was our first supper club experience. It was 7pm and we had accidentally arrived bang on time. We were the dreaded first guests. The bright, and more crucially, empty space was suddenly intimidating, as was the prospect of an intimate dinner with complete strangers. Why weren’t we headed to one of the trendy restaurants nearby? We could get a table at any time and have a meal all by ourselves. None of this awkward tension would be flying through our heads.
But none of that was really the point. The tickets for the evening were a gift, and it was exciting to be doing something different and out of our comfort zones. We had researched the event and read the menus; surely a six course Japanese and French inspired menu would have people queuing through the door rather than taking the slow walk. Supper clubs are something that I’ve wanted to attend for some time, having read about those hosted by the likes of Kerstin Rodgers and Selina Periampillai. They look amazing, both in terms of food and the crowd of likeminded foodies they seem to attract. They are the perfect opportunity to try something new, their very nature being that you have little choice in what you are served. I’m normally a stickler for what I like and looked forward to sampling a menu where I recognised only about half of the ingredients. But none of this was close while we were touring the backstreets of Clapton.
Some fifteen minutes passed and we were still the first there, but this time we pushed the door and stepped into the light. The term supper club often brings images of sitting in a random person’s grubby flat like unacquainted sardines. The come dine with me experience. Not in this case. This was more like an exclusive pop-up at first glance, multiple tables and a scurry of ‘staff’ behind the counter. There was a homeliness behind the professional exterior though; the warm French lady who greeted us was the mother of one of the cooks, and peering round you could see a minimal set up of a couple of portable hobs and the odd soup heater. Even in such surroundings the DIY element was still there.
We were ushered to a table set for four and offered a sugar-rimmed cocktail to start. This is where the internal panic began. There were two empty spaces on this table. They must have made a simple mathematical mistake and doubled our number. Slowly the nervous energy of sharing a compact table with two unknown others loomed. Perhaps it was the perfect time to be supping a beautiful, and dangerously drinkable, rhubarb and vodka aperitif. We joyed at the details. Each place had spindly, minutely crafted chopsticks balanced delicately on what appeared to be tiny ceramic éclairs. You could not ask for a more apt summary of the fusion of the evening. Large water jugs sparkled with citrus and mint. Most impressive was the silent synchronisation happening on the counter, where our hosts intricately positioned minute ingredients onto a raft of black slate.
People – real normal looking people – filtered in and our nerves started to dumb. Starters were delivered. A sense of triumph and disappointment washed over. We had got away with it. The ominous places beside us would stay vacant and it would just be another dinner date. Just Katie and I. But the failure and guilt was almost worse. The whole point of supper clubs is to bring new people together. A social experiment. A networking opportunity. However you want to describe it. And we had fallen at the first hurdle. Five minutes later and the door opened and the chair beside me was whipped back.
After some rushed introductions they discussed their wine options to themselves. “Yes. Fuck! What do we do now?” all sprung into my head at once. A few minutes in and the awkwardness hit hard. The table had split. In this situation though, food provided the link. We cautiously joked about how to eat larger-than-bitesize objects with chopsticks and quizzed ingredients. We spent 20 minutes discussing the labyrinth of ways that they could have travelled through central London. God that must have been boring. If bleating about weather is the most popular piece of meaningless small talk we do, then whining about transport must run a close second. But it did the job and soon we knew my neighbour’s obsession with Freecycle, and that his food vice was a packet of chocolate biscuits and a large glass of milk. The girls sneered. Man after my own heart.
The food came and came, and as a table we intrigued and marveled. Each course drew breath; the crackers that were too beautiful to break, the ingenious pipette of juice that changed the colour of the ceviche. I smiled as I pulled shot from a triumphant plump pigeon breast. Again the details shone. You hoped they had help transporting the mountain of assorted crockery that changed with every offering. Some things our taste buds weren’t quite prepared for. The delicate fishy custard that accompanied the dumplings, and the rice broth that ended the savoury courses were both challenging. But it is good to be challenged by new food sometimes, and each thing was unique to anything I have eaten before.
It’s also hard to pick holes in any event where the hosting is so fantastic. The small team took pride in what they did and were friendly and welcoming throughout. They did a great job of settling us nervous first-timers, and were always on hand to give just the right amount of information on the food in front of us. Their experience showed; it was a smooth operation and everyone looked controlled and happy for the duration.
We left with a sense of relief and contentment. We had survived. Not only had we survived but we had had a genuinely fun and memorable time. In somewhere like London where even talking on public transport is frowned upon, it was refreshing to share an evening with complete strangers. There was no number swapping or such, but it made me believe in supper clubs as a dynamic and I would definitely be up for more. And that I wouldn’t have believed at 7pm whilst walking up the Lower Clapton Road.