Dinner Lab dinner

The supper club that combines up-and-coming chefs, suspense and cool locations—Dinner Lab—launches today in Pittsburgh. It’s a unique business model that has taken off elsewhere.

“What I love about it is that you’re getting out of your element—you’re meeting new people, sitting at long communal tables and you get to be a restaurant critic,” says Zach Kupperman, chief business officer and co-founder of Dinner Lab.

This New Orleans-based company gives emerging chefs a platform in which to tell their culinary stories to members through a five-course meal.

“Our hypothesis is: people want the food that tells a story,” says Brian Bordainick, CEO and co-founder of Dinner Lab, in a promo video. People all over the country are lining up to hear, taste, smell and experience these gastronomical stories.

Since 2012, Dinner Lab has expanded to 27 cities.

Besides a cast of promising chefs, the membership-based supper club offers a compelling element.

© Dinner Lab

Dinners are never held at the same location twice—and the location is never a proper restaurant. Meals have been served in warehouses, a helipad, abandoned churches, a cotton mill, an old motorcycle factory and an art studio that builds Mardi Gras floats.

In a city rife with industrial spaces like the Carrie Furnace, shuttered factories and block-long warehouses, Pittsburgh’s got a cache of devastatingly cool potential dining locales.

To create suspense, members aren’t notified of the dining location until the day before the event.

“We kinda mess with every variable that you could possibly mess with, which basically puts chaos at the center of our business model, which is really challenging,” says Bordainick, “but also makes for a really interesting product.”

“So, the day of the event, something is going to go wrong,” he says. “There’s no doubt.”

But one thing doesn’t go wrong—and it is sweet to the soul: “We know how many people we’re preparing for, so we never waste food,” says Bordainick.

Dinner Lab puts out a calendar in advance, so members sign up for a particular menu and chef.

Pittsburgh’s inaugural dinner will feature Mario Rodriguez, a former chef at La Petite Grocery of New Orleans. “We are starting with Mario because he is literally fantastic and, of course, we need time to introduce ourselves to the local culinary scene,” says Kupperman.

“But it’s all about local chefs, and we will be using the majority of local chefs as we ramp up,” he adds.

Part of the appeal is the once-in-a lifetime aspect of an event. Because each dinner features a different chef and is held at a different location—there’s no ‘we can just go tomorrow.’ It’s now or never. Each experience is unique—and people don’t want to miss out.

“The event only lasts one night—it won’t be the same again—with the same chef, the same menu, the same location,” says Kupperman.

Some stats: Membership costs $125 per year, but each event is priced individually—somewhere in the range of $50-$80 for two tickets (though a member can invite three people). Meals are paid for online, so there’s no need to bring tickets or cash/cards. Each event has two seatings of 60 guests. When a city is going at full capacity—the more members there are, the more dinners are hosted—Dinner Lab will cook two dinners a month. Beer, wine and a cocktail paired for the meal are included. Yes. After a cocktail hour, a five-course meal is served.

But here’s where the model departs from just the run-of-the-mill, pop-up supper club: after the meal, guests are given a response card to rate the experience. They aggregate all the feedback, “and the chef that we have for the night will sit down with our resident chef and go over how to get better,” says Bordainick.

In a way, members are performing a duty to the city’s culinary scene and for these up-and-coming chefs.

“It’s a big conversational element of the night,” says Kupperman.

“Our members are actually trying to help a chef develop a menu concept that they care about,” says Bordainick. The idea is to help the chefs—often sous chefs or line cooks at major restaurants—draw upon their own background and heritage, strengthen their culinary identities and tell their own gastronomical stories.

If you are interested in experiencing the Dinner Lab super club and becoming a part of its stories, consider signing up sooner than later: in New York, the 700 memberships where snapped up quickly—and the waiting list is more than 2,000 people long.

Woods wanderer who was an an editor at New England’s regional magazine, the research director of a Colorado newspaper and a farm hand in Vermont before returning to Pittsburgh to write about and explore her hometown.