Behind the steel gates of a converted warehouse complex in Dalston, east London, a group of strangers gathers at a large communal table. The 16 guests have paid for, well, they don’t know what, exactly: they’ve received suggestions of a menu via email, they’ve seen a short biography of the chef for the night, and they’ve been advised that the last course will be served somewhere close to midnight.
Welcome to the Loft Project, an underground supper club run by chef curators Clarise Faria and Nuno Mendes.
Since February 2010, the Loft has welcomed chefs from such far-flung places as New York, Sydney, Catalonia and Copenhagen – ‘It’s a chance to go somewhere and just cook,’ Mendes says. A chef himself – he runs Viajante, at the Town Hall Hotel, a mile or so east of the Loft – he is aware of how much time chefs have to spend out of the kitchen, running a business rather than mixing, blending, tasting and creating.
Away from the constraints of their restaurants, former El Bulli chef Samuel Miller has served crispy pork tail with Jerusalem artichokes covered in herby butter. Noma alumnus Rob Martin once slow-cooked a rump of lamb marinated in an intoxicating vadouvan spice rub. Anna Hansen, of the Modern Pantry, ended her menu with chocolate liquorice ice cream and tamarillo crisps.
Each visiting chef lives at the Loft for a limited time and hosts dinners in the expansive, open-plan space. Here, diners may wander into the kitchen to watch the chefs plate the next course, and chefs mingle with visitors, explaining their cooking techniques and influences.
‘A lot of the experience is not just the food, but the vibe,’ Mendes says. ‘It’s like a dinner party – you hang out with your friends, you go into the kitchen and cook.’
The personal experience and the chance to hobnob with the chef are key to the success of the Loft Project: today’s diners are interested not just in the flavours in a dish, but in a chef’s philosophy as well.
‘People want a strong story,’ Faria says. ‘It’s not just food for food’s sake. It’s not just a piece of fish – there’s an idea behind it, why they’ve paired that fish with something, why a dish works.’
For the mix of guests at the long table – artists, designers, bankers and food bloggers among them – the events offer an experience far removed from that at a high-end restaurant with a superstar chef in the kitchen.
‘It’s a chef’s table, in the chef’s home,’ Mendes says. ‘It doesn’t get any more intimate than that.’
Future plans for the Loft Project continue this winning mix of sophisticated cuisine and behind-the-scenes know-how. Mendes has just begun hosting a series of cooking classes, and he and Faria are working on an online video series for Loft guests who want to learn how to cook a particular dish from an event they’ve attended.
With its revolving gallery of chefs, the Loft Project proves that, sometimes, you can’t have too many cooks serving up the broth.
Our top five take-outs
1: Maintain a good mix of people at the table. ‘I think there’s something quite nice about being forced to sit next to someone you might not ordinarily speak to,’ Faria says.
2: Invite like-minded collaborators to offer customers real exposure to something new.
3: Go beyond the product and tell a story – people don’t just want food, they want the story behind the food. ‘The Loft is for chefs to showcase their philosophy, to show their vision,’ Mendes says. ‘It goes beyond the food – it’s the reasoning behind it, the emotions, everything that comes with it.’
4: Let people look behind the velvet curtain. The open kitchen welcomes guests who want to observe a professional chef at work, while the forthcoming video series will bring pro-level skills to customers’ homes.
5: Engage, and engage in conversation. ‘[At a regular restaurant], I can walk through the dining room and shake someone’s hand at the end of the night,’ Mendes says. ‘But when you bring the guests into your home and you interact through the evening, you bring them to the kitchen and chat with them, it’s different.’