"Food: Science, Art, Passion, Pleasure, Adventure & Exploration"

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The "Secret" Society of Closed-Door Restaurants

Picture dining at a cozy restaurant that takes place in the comfort and luxury of a chef's home -- where menus are forbidden and surprises are law, where guests are limited and invites are exclusive, and culinary themes can be as wacky and intriguing as the imagination will allow.

This is said to be the typical dining experience in a closed-door restaurant. Other names for closed-door restaurants are "underground diners", "secret restaurants", "pirate restaurants", "puertas cerradas" (meaning "closed doors" in Spanish), "hidden kitchens" and "supper clubs".

These restaurants operate a few days a week and guest list numbers can range between 15-20 people. Because the dining events are so special, custom, and quaint, guests often pay between 100-200 dollars per visit. Some events even offer special entertainment such as spoken word poetry, wine tasting, live living room or outdoor patio music performances, and amusing food demonstrations that come with or lead into the meals that are served. Closed-door restaurants also offer unique opportunities for diners to meet others who are food and drink enthusiasts. Visitors can come from all over the world or from various parts of a particular country, province or state. Many guests who show up regularly eventually make friends or create connections with the chefs themselves.

The trend of closed-door restaurants is especially popular in South American cities such as Buenos Aires, Lima, and São Paulo. Several South American restaurants leading in this trend are: Casa Felix, Casa Saltshaker and Casa Sunae, to name a few.

My awareness of and interest in closed-door restaurants developed while viewing a CIA video podcast on the origins of ceviche, a delicious, citrus-marinated, seafood dish with roots in Peru.  A restaurant in Peru, Chez Wong, was featured in this episode. The chef of Chez Wong serves food only to friends and invited guests, and never offers a selection menu, because he believes menus restrain spontaneous culinary innovation.

According to sources like the blog of Cafe Saltshaker, closed-door restaurants are now all over the globe with secret and exclusive eateries in France, the U.S., Canada, England, and various parts of Asia. The trend has been growing outside of South America, and it started as an alternative to traditional, overpriced, high-end restaurants with static menus and customary dining arrangements. Some are even calling the trend "anti-restaurant". Foodies are basically looking into original ways to experience food and dining. They want inventive, personalized, and quaint dining spaces to indulge in, that offer high quality gourmet cooking outside of the usual restaurant setting.

Some closed-door restaurants take place in a variety of locations, preferring to switch up their dining sites on a regular basis. This form of closed-door dining is referred to as guerrilla dining. Guests can never be sure where the next dining location will be, which makes the culinary experience all the more alluring and adventurous. This kind of sensation is truly for the foodie with an intense passion for exploration and full-course living. Advertising is often done through word of mouth, friends of friends, or in various dining culture circles. Some hosts even use social sites such as Twitter and Facebook for spreading the word.

These are some videos I found featuring some of the closed-door cafes mentioned.

These types of ideas are utterly fascinating. It's like discovering a world within a world or peeping into portholes that reveal the mysterious goings-on of secret food societies. I can easily see how a foodie club could organically turn into a closed-door restaurant if the hosts of such a club had the place, skills and resources to establish the closed-door restaurant concept and transition.

I'd personally would love a chance to dine in any of these restaurants, whether they are local, abroad or somewhere else in North America. Apparently, there are some closed-door eating clubs happening in and around Los Angeles. I'll have to do more research and find out how I can eventually join in. The experience would also be wonderful to document by video, not just through photos.

I would recommend taking a look at the Saltshaker blog link I posted and finding out whether your local area offers any of these opportunities.

I do wonder how this all works legally. Should chefs be licensed to serve food at home to a variety of guests and strangers? Afterall, these chef hosts do make a profit from patrons, and they also must consider any health liabilities should a diner happen to become sick from eating any of the gourmet but home-prepared food. Guests should also have the security of knowing that the homes are well-prepped and outfitted for serving quality food to guests.

I've read that closed-door restaurants often have higher sanitation and preparatory standards than the common restaurant. Although that might be the case, I would imagine that chefs must cover themselves legally and also expect to pay taxes on any of their earnings. CYA always has to be considered.

In certain states, it's not even legal for a baker to run a bakery out of his or her home (I think California is one of these states), unless the kitchen used for the baking and cooking is completely separate from domestic dealings (as a dedicated baking business space) and has been approved by health inspectors and insurance companies. Most bakers can not afford such a luxury -- having not only two kitchens, but just the space to accommodate such an undertaking.

Regardless of whether one looks to eventually become a guest at a closed-door restaurant or is interested in started their own someday, it's all a alluring look into another facet of culinary escapading.

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