(Co-written with Shalini Singh)
Mayawati is a babe and a half” is the ‘Open Sesame’ password at the entrance to a niche Italian restaurant tucked away in a South Delhi market. The manager lets you in and puts a quick tick on the guest list. The bar is open. A dozen or so young people clutching the welcome drink (orange sangria) and munching on breadsticks are into a polite conversation. Along with the evening, wine and food progresses. So does the tempo of camaraderie. Today, it is a five-course Italian meal paired with wines. At the end of the dinner, a waiter gives each member a white envelope to put in their share—Rs 3,000 in this case.
This is a monthly event of the Delhi Secret Supper Club (DSSC) started by a group of anonymous people who wanted to “change how the city dines and socialises”. A few weeks of informal email interaction helps spot a prospective member, usually recommended by an existing one.
Once you are in, details of the next gathering trickle down in code. The venue and password are revealed just a few hours before the event. Based on what one tells them about themselves, the DSSC puts the information on a personalised name card, with a few witty lines about each member at the dinner table. It obviously acts as an ice-breaker.
“All diners are personally screened on the parameters of wit, intelligence, passion and experiences,” the DSSC emails THE WEEK via email. “We screen people from different walks of life, those who will add value to the table. Past suppers have had fashions designers, hoteliers, chefs, entrepreneurs, PR heads, journalists, stand-up comedians and authors. These people are culture-influencers and are making an impact through their wit, work and thoughts.” Within a year and a half of its inception, the DSSC has over 2,500 likes on its Facebook page and dozens of active members.
The monthly secret events showcase a different cuisine at each supper; or make one ingredient the focal point; or focus on learning the technique behind a meal. “We are a bunch of explorers, and food constitutes a huge part of our travels,” says the DSSC. “On a beach vacation, we all were grumbling why the Delhi social scene is so typical and hyper-marketed. We love experimental food experiences and are conversation connoisseurs (or hope we are!) and came up with a small mission: make Delhi experience a new form of dining, engaging, socialising. All done in a mysterious way.”
The concept of supper clubs, or informal dining groups, emerged from the underground restaurants that came up in the US and the UK in the 1940s, and is now seeing a revival. In India, too, the trend is slowly catching up.
“All underground concepts have a common thread—challenge public culture and norms, and bring back some elements of forbidden secrecy,” explains the DSSC. “We put in a twist through personalisation, cheeky humour and anonymity. We have had several people question why we are so hush, but we have a larger set tell us they love the fact that it’s all done anonymously. We are hush because we feel everything in the city is just so hyped up and that is what we want to challenge.”
At every event, there are several first-timers. Ritnika Nayan, a music company owner in her thirties, who attended the last event in September, says, “The idea of meeting 15 new people and enjoying good food is fantastic, given that I usually do not have the time or opportunity to meet a lot of interesting people.” What worked for her was the curation. “The Delhi social scene is small, in the sense that people tend to stick to their cliques and don’t really get an opportunity to meet new like-minded people in a safe environment,” she says. “A supper clubprovides this opportunity. Plus you end up discovering new restaurants.”
An introverted member, Aviral Virk, 27, gave it a shot to break out of her shell. “I rarely make the first move to start a conversation. But some wine and genuinely interesting people helped change that,” says the broadcast journalist.
Mumbai, too, is discovering the joy of sharing a table with strangers and bonding over a custom-made meal. The online invite sent out by the Secret SupperProject of Mumbai (SSPM), with its parchment paper backdrop, has a mysterious air to it. An email address is the only point of contact, and the suspense, like in the case of the DSSP, is held until hours before the meal.
“There is a surprise element and people come in not knowing what to expect,” says ‘TC’, an educator and foodie, who co-founded this initiative. Mumbai-based businessman Nisarg Doshi, who has attended four meals hosted by the SSPM, says there is a “feel-good factor” in being associated with an underground initiative. “And the level of secrecy maintained is quite intriguing,” he says. The idea of community dining is being promoted in this format. “When you go to a regular restaurant, you go with the people you know and do not interact much with others,” says Doshi. “In these events, the tables are set up in such a way that you have to interact with other people, as the RSVP is limited to two or three people per invitation.”
Although not as hushed as the SSPM, Mumbai’s Swine Dine Series, hosted by Salt Water Cafe, is an underground dining space in terms of the invite-only guest list and surprise menu. As the name suggests, the food is centred on pork, and everything, from cocktails to desserts, has a generous serving of bacon in it. “The idea is to bring together people who have similar tastes in food and let them bond over it,” says Swine Dine founder Shobita Kadan. In the end, it all boils down to introducing new culinary experiences and opening people’s minds and palates to new flavours.