First I got the email. Then I got the tweet. Then I got the link and raced to fill out my reservation form. Then I got the other email. And finally, I got the call.
All that just to eat Valentine’s Day dinner alone. It was worth it.
All of Clandesdine’s dinners begin this way: with the table tennis game of communication. But after that, who knows how it will end? The February dinner I attended, for example, ended with an announcement from the chef, Brook Collins, to keep an eye out for her soon-to-come grasshopper tamales food cart serving — you guessed it — grasshopper tamales.
The once-a-month gathering is like a Top Chef challenge gone terribly right. A different menu, a different chef, a different location each month. February’s dinner was the fourth so far and the first hosted outside of someone’s home. Nationally, underground dining clubs take many forms; some are for-profit, some involve artist partnerships, and some feature foraged food.
The whole thing feels a little illicit, and, in fact, its organizers are still working out the specific legality of it all. Since the events are private and donation-only (suggested donations range from $18-25 a person), they seem to skate by everyone’s best interpretations of the codes. But I can’t shake the feeling I’m doing something kind of revolutionary when I pull up to The Donut Cooperative in the Seward neighborhood of Minneapolis. There’s a small crowd outside the shop but I’m not convinced it’s the right place until I see the Clandesdine sign out front.
“I think confusing people is really important,” explains Eli. Eli is the one who calls you after you’ve made your reservation. He just wants to get to know you and confirm the details, but the conversation will feel like another round of reservations, because maybe you didn’t quite pass the first one.
Eli and Ella have known each other since high school, and Clandesdine is their collaboration. See, Eli went down to South America, his cousin has a CSA down there, and it really got him thinking about how we interact with our food. “As soon as I got home,” he says, “I texted Ella. I said, ‘I have an idea, let’s meet.’” He tells me about the three nodes: the consumer, the chef, and the producer. He tells me about creating a space, about strangers eating in another stranger’s house. “I think that’s pretty profound,” he adds.
Eli, who asked that last names be omitted just in case it turns out they do cross a line sometime, is a gentle guy but comes on strong when he gets talking about food.
All the couples have found their way inside the tiny candlelight shop. With blinking strands of lights and hanging heart decorations, we’ve become a bit of spectacle for neighbors out walking dogs on a quiet winter night. I feel terribly in the know every time someone slows down to peer in the storefront windows.
The servers, the crowd, and the chef are all fairly young. At first, it feels a little like we’re waiting on supervision, but Ella has plenty of restaurant experience, and it shows.
In fact, Ella says she didn’t realize how much she really knew until she started doing Clandesdine. “Eli worried about getting chefs to volunteer,” Ella says.” But she knew enough chefs from working in so many restaurants that it wasn’t an issue. And organizing a staff for pickup and table service was no problem. What she thought would be the biggest challenge has been relatively stress-free. “The food itself has never been an issue,” she explains. Instead, “Communication is the main thing we’re working on.”
The one-night-only approach also guarantees a captive, excited audience, which makes a difference when, because of space or time limitations, things don’t run entirely smoothly. Nobody minds too much.
Collins later admitted her vegetables suffered a little waiting for the second seating to begin, but everybody still left the meal happy.
That’s not to say it was a perfect meal. The first course, a crostini with duck, pickled onions, tarragon mustard, and a cherry chutney, was so pungent it went down like a hit of wasabi. Good flavors, but a little too much. And the second course salad seemed overwhelmed by both bacon and truffle oil. But a creative polenta crouton won points. Collins recaptured my admittedly begrudging heart (seriously, why did I think Valentine’s was the night to eat alone?) with her Moroccan lamb in a pomegranate glaze and less tantalizing potatoes and radicchio. The meat was perfectly tender, the spices were so deliciously sweet that I started sucking each piece. I forgot all about the other diners analyzing each other’s dreams and discussing their ambiguous relationship statuses. Collins cites her time working with Spoonriver’s Brenda Langton as particularly influential, and it seems less than coincidence that a Moroccan lamb burger appears on the menu there.
There’s a break and Eli and Ella finally take the floor. The Donut Coop and Clandesdine trade appreciative toasts before they head back to prepare our very own Donut Coop dessert. Collins gets a chance to thank the crowd and announce her food cart plans. “My tamales are much better than my radicchio,” she jokes.
Collins, like Eli and Ella, is gentle but fiercely committed to food. She has glasses, a baby face, and a heartbreaking story she’s not shy to share. Her cooking isn’t bound by any burdens of heritage; she’s a self-proclaimed mutt. She’s taken pastry classes and worked at fish markets and in kitchens all over the Twin Cities. But her relationship with food is tricky. Her parents divorced when she was two, her brother was diagnosed with cancer when she was on the verge of adolescence, and cooking and eating became her coping mechanisms. Not surprisingly, Collins became obese. Now healthy, she credits Langton: “Brenda really taught me about moderation.”
Collins currently works at a catering company but jumped at the chance to cook her own menu. Ella says this is what attracts most of the chefs, who give up their one free night to cook for Clandesdine. “We even had one who immediately quit his job afterward,” says Ella, because he realized it wasn’t satisfying him.
After the exhausting night is through, Collins admits, “It could’ve run smoother with better communication,” but feels it was a good experience. She has big ideas about water tables, sustainability, and composting. “This is what I think about at night,” she admits.
As for Eli and Ella’s future plans, Ella says, “Eli is the dreamer.” But a 10-minute conversation with either of them leads into big plans. “We’ve talked about going to community gardens,” says Ella. They’ve also thought about offering up their collection of pop-up restaurant materials to others: “We don’t want to just be an event anymore, we want to be a resource.” Ella says she’s worked forever to get her Saturdays free, and now this is how she spends them, dreaming up even more elaborate ideas. Both Eli and Ella seem incapable of sitting still.
Next month’s dinner will take place on March in Eli’s home and will feature Chef Darla Kashian cooking ramen. That means another round of emails, tweets, and phone calls all over again. And the magic goes on. “No one’s profiting,” says Eli, “everyone’s here because they want to be here.” Even alone on Valentine’s Day, people want to be part of something a little secret and a lot selfless.