Conviviality at the Table – How to Start Your Own Gourmet Club
by Rachael Levine
Up until mid-March of 2020 life was clipping along at normal or near neck-breaking speeds. Enter stage left…a world-wide pandemic. Suddenly cooking at home every night was the only thing on the calendar. The heart of the home – the kitchen table – had previously been left somewhat unoccupied as we morphed daily into the White Rabbit from Alice in Wonderland exclaiming, “Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be too late!”. Family members came and went but always in a hurried fashion, no time to talk or break bread together. If you were like us, you saw friends in passing for a quick drink, occasionally visited with the family, and spent hardly any time at home at all. When I reflect on our previous lifestyle, I have to say of the many changes that came with the emergence of COVID-19, finding ourselves thrust back around the dinner table is the most positive one. Musing on this turned my thoughts to the conviviality of the table and one version that I have come to thoroughly enjoy.
A couple of years ago I became a member of a gourmet dinner club based in Seattle, WA that has been dining together for close to fourteen years. The club meets every other month, rotating from house to house on a schedule that is worked out at the beginning of each year. Starting out as six couples they have seen members come and go, by today’s count the group is a hale and hearty seventeen. Our face-to-face gatherings have been on hiatus but will commence again as soon as it feels sensible and safe. For now, we meet on an evening that would have been dinner night over platforms such as Zoom or WebEx to share a cocktail and catch up.
In the near or distant future, the idea of entertaining at home will be comfortable once more. I hope you gather a group of your own and form a dinner club like ours. The simple tips and rules of engagement discussed below will aid the process and perhaps help you avoid some challenges.
Since it is your club, you will be responsible for communicating and managing the calendar. Decide who you would like to have in this group and be sure they are able to commit to nearly full participation throughout the year. Set a schedule! It works best to email the group with a year or so worth of dates and let folks pick the one they want to host. The host is generally responsible for choosing a theme (be it food from a favorite cookbook, a beloved Holiday, a fascination with things on sticks, etc.), preparing the main course and providing wine for the evening. The host of the next dinner presents their menu and recipe packet at the current dinner. Sharing the next menu adds a fun element to each gathering and is often done just before dessert is served. It also gives everyone plenty of time to organize around their assigned task.
I spoke to the Seattle club’s co-founder Evelyn Zabo and she shared some pro-tips on forming a club, starting with Who? What? Why? When? And Where?
- Who? People you enjoy spending time with that have some common ground, whether it is work, an appreciation of art, social networks, etc. It does not have to be strictly couples! No one needs to be a trained chef, but everyone should have an adventuresome spirit in the kitchen AND enjoy entertaining. Be mindful of dietary choices and health restrictions such as allergies.
- What? A dinner club of eight to twelve people that gathers on a consistent basis with chosen themes and assigned recipes. Having themes lends to complimentary flavor profiles and styles.
- Where? Rotating between member homes. Hosts should be able accommodate the entire group around a common table, inside or outdoors as well as have plate ware and glassware for serving the meal.
- When? Agree on a schedule. For example, every other month or quarterly and always on the second Saturday of the designated month (or something to that effect).
- Why? To gather with like-minded friends celebrating food, wine, and conviviality at the table.
Long-time Seattle club member Mitch Murri strongly encourages the group to agree in advance on some basic rules and structure. Here is quick list of helpful things to discuss and decide upon:
- Is your club formal? Decide how food will be served at each dinner – will each course be plated, or will food be served family-style? There are benefits to both and perhaps you will want to allow each host to choose how their menu will be served. Get loose – cocktails and appetizers can be counted as courses too!
- Will members be allowed to practice their assigned dishes in advance? The Seattle club highly discourages this however rules are occasionally broken especially when someone has been assigned a particularly technical dish.
- During the meal, each member should present and discuss the recipe they have prepared. An oft asked question is, “Would you make it again?”.
- Should some members drop out, think about how you would go about bringing new people in. While it seems straightforward, major life changes do occur (think divorce or break-up), and everyone should be clear on how you envision the group will manage those challenges.
- Keep in mind that clean-up is usually left to the host house. Oof, that could be A LOT of dishes! Soften the blow a little bit by asking the other members to give small, delightful little gifts to the host upon arrival or, rotate volunteers among the group to stay and help clean up the first round.
- After each dinner, get the group in the habit of sending thank you cards the old-fashioned way through the USPS. Everyone loves a handwritten note!
As you look forward to the coming year, forming a Dinner Club will be a great way to get back to entertaining and because dates are scheduled well in advance, will be much easier to gather consistently. You will discover a new sense of conviviality with the dinner club, celebrating each other’s company in a way that only eating and drinking together around a common space can accomplish.