Photo Credit Flickr user Samantha Bell
By Brian Spencer
I have no idea where I am, what I’ll be eating, or how much it will cost, but it doesn’t matter.
Tonight, I’ll go anywhere. I’ll eat anything. I’ll gladly foot the bill, payable only in Bitcoin, quoted as “the equivalent of around US $999, excluding compulsory donations to the chefs’ charities of choice.” For to land a much-coveted seat at this chef’s table — one which by the way is fashioned from gorgeous antique wood reclaimed from a burned-down Zimbabwean orphanage — is to pluck the proverbial needle out of the haystack .
It’s worth noting that there is an actual haystack in this pop-up dining room; in fact, it’s on fire. “Charcoal and wood are completely unsustainable and so 2009,” says chef Balthazar de Paolo, 31, a stocky, heavily tattooed lug with a Bam Bam Bigelow disposition. “I mean, wood-fired pizzas? Are you kidding me? Fuck that. My foods are fired with hay sourced from an organic farm owned by the same family for four generations.”
de Paolo is one of five renegade chefs involved in tonight’s intimate, guerilla-style dinner; by the looks of it we’re on the ground floor of a long-abandoned manufacturing plant. There are piles of guano on the floor, the windows are mostly shattered, and rats scurry here and there out of the dark shadows of rusted-out machinery. I’m freezing, warmed only by the blazing embers of the haystack. The air smells of moldy horse blanket and asbestos.
Of course, I can’t be sure where I am. Like my four fellow diners — that’s right, five chefs and five diners per seating — I was blindfolded and thrown into the back of a flatbed truck upon arrival at the pre-ordained meeting point. Bored with the trendy concept of “secret dinners,” de Paolo and company are pushing the culinary envelope by going completely guerilla.
“It’s not enough to be surprised about the dinner’s location,” says de Paolo. “You need to literally feel a sense of place and real connection not just with your meal, but with the journey. You need to, in a sense, be kidnapped, so that’s what we’re trying to recreate here. We want our guests to feel like they’ve been kidnapped by, you know, terrorists or something. We want an element of fear. We want discomfort. We want you to wonder whether what’s happening to you is part of the dining experience, or if you’re actually in danger of being murdered or raped.”
The journey and venue changes with each of these guerilla-style events. The first event, for example, was held in a banquet hall at a homeless shelter, with each chef using ladles to scoop their foods out of large silver chafing dishes. “We wanted to do something really, like, kind of crazy, something to really throw our guests for a loop,” says de Paolo. “And it just came to me: homeless shelter! There was this really cool connection, you know? It was like ‘Yeah, you can afford this, and you can enjoy this, but don’t forget that some people can’t. Appreciate what you have.’ It was just really awesome for all of us, and plus the shelter got our leftovers.”
Chefs Going Native
Our truck stops, and still blindfolded we’re told to get up, walk forward, and put our hands on the wall, like a criminal about to get frisked and cuffed. The mystery is exhilarating; I’m honestly a little turned on, and to my embarassment it shows. And it’s here, blindfolded with hands on wall, that we’re surprised with an amuse bouche, a spoonful of warm, bloody bone marrow topped with a sour, slightly acidic dollop of congealed goat cum and sliver of white truffle.
Photo Credit Flickr user Carl Wycoff
We’re led indoors, where the soundtrack is a bracing post-EDM mashup of No Age and Death Grips pressed on vinyl and played on an original Victor Talking Machine Company phonograph. Chef Michael David, 27, says the vinyl was custom-mixed and hand-pressed by a Bhutanese DJ that there’s “no f’ing way you’d know.” David’s arms and neck are covered in tattoos of rolling pins, cleavers, butter knives, and other culinary implements, each one administered sak yant style in remote Laotian and Cambodian villages.
Tattoos aren’t the only thing David picked up during his five-year journey through the poorest and most secluded parts of Asia and Africa. After escaping a lucrative but unfulfilling career in the corporate world, David decided to pursue his life’s true passion — artisanal foods — and set out to meet remote villagers and share in their culinary secrets.
“I make what I call tribal food,” says David. “Tribal in that most of my recipes come from small, often nomadic tribes with very little to eat. They have to make due with very few ingredients because, really, they don’t have a choice. So I just felt that really tied into my personal philosophy of using minimal ingredients to make simple, authentic, totally avant-garde cuisine.”
David’s dedication to what you might call “tribal simplicity” shows in our dinner’s sublime first course, a frothy emulsion of puréed earthworm, Thai bird’s eye chilis, and galangal root served with skewered maggots rubbed in lemongrass oil and smoked over the haystack. It’s an ethereal balance of contrasting textures, flavors, and even temperatures, though it’s not for everyone.
A woman seated next to me — she has a swollen cut on her left calf from being bounced around in the truck — spits out the maggots. “Everybody thinks they’re a foodie these days, don’t they?” snickers a mustachioed thirtysomething wearing a t-shirt that says “Eat Me.”
Photo Credit Flickr user Meraj Chhaya
Chef Ezekiel Manfred Pope Jr. takes his authentic cuisine one step further than David. A reformed corporate lawyer who left the biz to pursue his passion for travel and food (“Yeah, I made hundreds of thousands of dollars, but it wasn’t for me.”), Pope says that while he respects Chef David’s tribal food, David has only scratched the surface of what “authentic” can really mean. For three years, Pope traveled by foot with refugees, living among them in camps located in places like Thailand, Chad, Sri Lanka, and Iran.
“The conditions in some of these camps are just horrible; you can’t believe that people are forced to live like this,” says Pope. “That’s what makes their just fantastic cuisine that much more remarkable. I’m sitting there, eating this amazing dish I’ve never heard of, and it’s made with locally sourced ingredients, and I’m just totally blown away and thinking that Bourdain needs to try this.”
Pope insists that you can’t find his dishes anywhere else in the world beyond the camps — if you can still get them there at all. “My recipes are totally authentic, and passed down to me by refugees who, honestly, may no longer be with us. I mean they might be dead,” he says. “So I just think it’s this really neat, cross-cultural connection I was able to make, because if you think about it, I have literally been chosen to be the keeper of these people’s native foods. If it wasn’t for me, you might never have a chance to eat this wonderful, wonderful food.”
All Good Things…
It was a magical evening filled with good food, good conversation, and of course good craft beers. After dessert and mignardises of deep-fried, foie gras-stuffed pork jellies (“Bourdain inspired this one, man,” says de Paolo), we’re ushered out of the dining room and into the cold, black night. The sky is speckled with the twinkle lights of billions of stars. The see-saw of crickets is our departing serenade. Oh, what a night.
And then, just as it was hours ago, out come the blindfolds and back into the truck bed we go. And at that moment, I’m overwhelmed by the transcendent experience in which I’ve just participated. The stories, the mystery, the tattoos, the food, the chefs, the rats; yes, at that moment, it doesn’t matter who it is or what they look like. I’ll bang anybody.
By design, this dining experience does not have a name, contact information, schedule, or set pricing. Reservations are nevertheless fully booked through the end of 2015, though you can visit their website to join the mailing list.