Why These Chefs Are Creating an ‘Alternative to the Restaurant’
23-year-old “dorm room chef” Jonah Reider thinks dinner should always feel like a dinner party, so Reider—and chefs around the country—are popularizing alternatives to restaurants.
The experience of eating at one of chef Jonah Reider’s events—which range from private dinners at his infamous supper club, Pith, to raucous food parties around the world—is not typical. For one, if you are eating his food, you are probably in his home.
Rider, who is 23, started Pith in his dorm room at Columbia University where he earned critical acclaim from the New York Times. His rapid ascent continued as he opened pop-ups in Chicago, Los Angeles and New York to critical fanfare, including a three-star review from the Chicago Tribune—he even served sorbet to Stephen Colbert on The Late Show. Now, two years after his cooking gained national attention, Pith has graduated from a cramped dorm in Morningside Heights to a chic Brooklyn townhouse and Reider’s vision for the space has evolved with it.
“I see what I do as creating an alternative to the restaurant,” Reider said, pausing to carefully choose his next words, rare for the frenetic chef. “Going out to eat can be something that goes way beyond just being hungry and then going to a restaurant, ordering food, being satiated and then leaving.”
The restaurant industry is changing, and Reider hopes to capitalize on the moment. Fast casual food has grown by 550 percent since 1999, according to a report by the Washington Post. Pop-ups have become so ubiquitous that established chefs like Wolfgang Puck are even dabbling in the space. Across the globe, spots like Grain Harajuku are opening to house experimental dining events; Reider is doing an event with them later this month. Non-restaurant dining set-ups aren’t just growing in number—they’re succeeding.
The quiet residential street that houses Pith provides an unassuming atmosphere for Reider to engineer an experience. He’s filled the space as one fills a home; pottery and art by his friends hang on the walls and litter the countertops, an herb garden grows in the backyard, nooks and crannies are filled with couches and chairs. His events feel more like a dinner party at your friend’s house than a fine-dining experience, and that’s the point.
“If you’re going to a restaurant, you’re not really meeting people who are there, even if the restaurant owner or chef has thought really carefully about the design or art or music playing; it’s not usually communicated to guests,” Reider said. “The home is centric to what I’m doing. What I do structurally doesn’t feel very different from a house party or a dinner party.”
At Pith’s “Sausage Fest” (yes, really), traditional brats sat on the grill next to orange and fennel pork sausages, “banh mi sausage,” duck and venison. A five-piece brass band blared in the backyard. Accoutrements included sweet onion with bay leaf chopped finely to mimic sauerkraut, a bean and mint salad and shaved purple cabbage. Guests included musicians and models but also close friends and neighbors with their children.
The supper clubs began as a way for Reider to relive his favorite food memories cooking and eating with friends and family. “What makes eating amazing is sharing the experience with people that you like and being in an environment that is stimulating,” Reider said, adding that he hopes “to open up some sort of dining space in a townhouse somewhere in the city that would feel almost like a social club with really delicious food—not just something you would go for at dinner and most definitely not something you would go for ‘cause you were hungry.”
This vision for an artful experience driven by food and community is popularized by Reider but not exclusive to his work. Other young chefs like theoryKitchen’s Theo Friedman and Wolvesmouth’s Craig Thornton are just as focused on cultivating a specific social environment, handpicking the people who come eat their meals. “It’s not a restaurant. It's a dinner party…. No menus. No dress code. No pretense,” the Wolvesmouth website reads. This genre of dining has the potential to disrupt the restaurant industry, perhaps not unintentionally led by the very millennials responsible for the decline of chain restaurants.
And yet, while these chefs intend to create novel social experiences, the small scale of the events limits who can go. Is it truly a community of friends if the only people who can attend are the ones who want to shell out $95 for dinner—the price of a tasting menu at Pith—or fill out an extensive application to be considered good or interesting enough to dine at Wolvesmouth? And if participants aren’t chosen, how do they break through the social restraints that keep restaurants isolating?
For now, Reider struggles with these questions as he considers his next moves. “I think in the long term, one of my main goals is to figure out how this really intimate communal mode of dining can exist in a lot of other places and for a lot of other people,” he said. Behind his youthful exuberance is a more coherent philosophy: As he embarks on a series of pop-ups and speeches around Asia in the coming months, Reider will continue pushing his unorthodox approach to dining but with thoughtfulness about what he’s creating—“artful and social dining experiences that exist in contrast to restaurants or bars.”