Have you ever eaten halibut on a helipad? Grillades in a graffiti-covered warehouse? Banh mi in a banjo factory?
NOLA-based food firm Dinner Lab specializes in such unorthodox dining experiences, organizing and executing elaborate members-only dinners in ambitious settings that could never be described as restaurants.
Already active in 10 American cities, the company is announcing an expansion today, doubling down into another 10 towns — Philadelphia included.
"Philly really makes sense for us," says CEO Brian Bordainick, who co-founded the company in 2012. "There's been a huge emergence of really cool culinary stuff happening. Our headquarters is in New Orleans, so we know what that kind of attitude is like. It's a really great place for us to import and export talent."
What he's referring to is the crux of Dinner Lab's model, tapping into the nation's back-of-house network to give some shine to the next culinary generation.
In lieu of drawing established big-name chefs for events, they find ambitious up-and-comers itching to step away from their boss' burners and cook on their own.
"We've seen a disconnect between what chefs prepare on a regular basis and what they actually care about," says Bordainick. "We only ask that our chefs' food tells a compelling story."
The malleable setup grants participating chefs "a creative platform to prototype new dishes and ideas," with diners providing instant feedback on what they eat. Chefs who earn enough positive nods from attendees — their data is crunched in a hyper-analytical "Moneyball for food" manner — are recruited to visit other Dinner Lab cities.
Bordainick says Philly programming will feature a 50-50 split between local chefs and visitors. The first Dinner Lab event here, scheduled for Aug. 22 (location TBA), will be executed by an import: Kwame Onwuachi, a veteran of heralded kitchens like Per Se and Eleven Madison Park. His menu, "From Candy Bars To Michelin Stars" (below), is inspired by his humble beginnings selling sweets in the Bronx to fund his path to the Culinary Institute of America.
Dinners are typically between five and 10 courses, with two seatings of 60 heads each. To land tickets, diners must first pay an annual subscription fee of $125 to gain access to the nationwide schedule — this up-front cash allows organizers to rent the venue, hire a front-of-house staff and other immediate costs.
Tickets to individual dinners usually run around $60, which includes gratuity and alcohol but not tax. They'll start slowly in Philly, with one event every three weeks; this could eventually grow to three events a week, the current pace in New York City.
From Candy Bars To Michelin Stars
Cucumber Salad: cucumber steak | tomato marmalade | oregano vinaigrette | warm ricotta
Hamachi Rioja: beet cured hamachi | avocado puree | cilantro | charred romaine
Corn & Sage Deux Fois: corn relish | candied bacon | sage butter | sweet corn veloute
Guinea & Cherries: pan roasted guinea hen | pickled cherries | pistachio polenta | baby leeks
Dreamsicle: candied kumquats | angel food cake | milk foam