by Nicola Tudor
Imagine booking a table at one of Wales’ most exclusive restaurants. So exclusive that nobody knows where it actually is, only 12 people can eat there at any one sitting, it’s only open once a month and where, for £30 a head, you’ll be able to enjoy a locally sourced, seasonal gourmet menu. Sound too good to be true? Maybe. Now imagine if I said this took place in someone’s home.
Secret Supper Clubs have been around for a few years since springing up in parlours and dining rooms in homes across Paris and London. The surroundings, usually someone’s home (though not always), and service may not be as plush as you’re used to but the appeal lies in informal, unfussy dining for a dramatically lower price than you’d expect to pay at a normal restaurant.
An added bonus is that as private homes aren’t licensed to sell alcohol, it’s often BYOB. Given that the mark-up on even the cheapest bottle of wine can be astronomical, this is another way to dine out well on budget. Keen amateur chefs in Wales are now roping in an army of friends and family to assist them as they turn their front room into the hottest ticket in town.
Denise Baker McClearn began the Moel Faban Supper Club – named after the mountain where she lives – in 2009 after being made redundant. “On my way back from my 14th interview I picked up a discarded Grazia magazine. There was an article about supper clubs in London.” Denise explains, “I already knew about Jim Haynes in Paris but hadn’t realised they were popping up in the UK. I decided there and then that I had to do something to make me happy while looking for a job and this was it!”
Buoyed by the success of London supper clubs such as Ms Marmitelover’s Underground Restaurant and the limited number of good affordable restaurants in her native North Wales, Denise decided to invest the last of her redundancy money at the local car boot sale, picking up plates, glasses and cutlery for her new fledgling business.
Originally she thought it might last a year as she wasn’t sure how the concept would translate in Wales, “The main challenge of setting up a supper club in Wales was “will it work”?. Rural area, rural economy, not as much disposable income…all were big unknowns.”
But what started as a hobby quickly grew and by the following year Moel Faban was doing so well that Denise knew she couldn’t stop it there. In 2011 she expanded the company to include Moel Faban suppers, cooking at festivals, weddings and private parties plus a monthly pop-up restaurant at Ogwen market.
Pop-up restaurants are also getting in on the supper club act and springing up at venues across Wales. From award-winning Keralan chef Anand George’s “Poppupadom” to Deri Reed’s travelling supper-club under the Ethical Chef banner, it seems everyone is trying their hand at this dining sensation.
In 2012, Welsh chef Emma Evans launched the Secret Supper Clwb, bringing a new twist to the dinner club scene, “I had seen how increasingly fashionable and unique these foodie events were in other parts of the country. As a personal chef and private caterer in the Monmouthshire area, I loved the idea of a ‘pop up’ restaurant for the night, a place to come to meet other foodie people, enjoy wine, food and entertainment all under one roof!”
Emma has taken a different approach and taken the supper club away from the home and into some unusual venues across South East Wales, “Locations are chosen to give our guests a unique dining experience. We wanted to steer away from pub/hotel/cafe venues and go for unusual little known venues such as the Magistrates Court in Usk, or the Officers Mess in Newport. Places that provide a talking point.”
Secret Supper Clwb takes the idea one step further with a little light entertainment, “We like to think SSC is an eating experience with theatre thrown in. Our last event in a court house was themed around law and justice and the comedy operatic entertainer tailored his set around this, it was hilarious! Our pop-up prom night is a 50’s American themed event with music, dancing, food wine and gimmicks throughout the night to make it a fun night out. The menu is fast food diner with a fine food twist. We set a dress code and we always expect our guests to dress for dinner, just like in the old days!”
Emma also sticks with a local, seasonal menu which is only released, along with the venue, a week prior to the event taking place. “The menu is planned around the event theme, taking the seasons into account, and where possible using local produce.”
Menu planning is at the core of the supper club, “My reputation is built on my commitment to using local produce and suppliers. Most of my food is seasonal and sourced within a 30 mile radius. Fresh is best!” says Denise, “Consideration for what is in season, what is available at the time plus any dishes I fancy cooking, new recipes I’ve seen and want to try, or new recipes I’ve come up with myself. Sometimes I do research on the internet for ideas, sometimes I look at three or four different recipes and combine elements of all of them!”
So what do Denise and Emma think is the secret to their success? Denise thinks the success of Moel Faban is clear, “Quality food, quality produce plus I think people like my attitude. I’m upfront, friendly and try to make sure everyone has a lovely time. Its cosy, relaxed and laid back. It is a family home and sometimes my nine year old likes to help out…and that’s why people like coming and keep coming back.” She adds proudly, “My last two supper clubs the diners actually said that it was the best meal they’d ever had!! I put lots of love into my food and that shines through and keeps people coming back.”
Emma is a little more cautious, “We have no secret to success yet as we are only 4 months old! We just want to put out consistently great food and accompany it with amazing entertainment, service and bags of fun. The staging is vital to the success of each of our events because of what we offer as an all-round theatre dinner experience.”
Fancy trying it for yourself but not sure where to start? The ladies have one clear tip – social networking. Twitter and Facebook have become the new word-of-mouth when it comes to sniffing out a good meal and tracking down supper clubs is no exception. There are also dedicated websites such as supperclubfangroup.ning.com to help you narrow in on those exclusive dinner spots.
From laid back dining in comfortable sitting rooms to dressing for dinner at the officer’s mess, there really is something to tickle all taste buds!