The most generic hallway in the world opens to a raffish loft converted into a private dining room.
A pop up restaurant is a culinary one-night stand.
Somewhere between the barren, generic apartment building facade and the first glass of tangy 2010 Soave, it hit me.
A fleeting, no-strings-attached encounter with strangers? Check. Unfamiliar linens? Check. Lusty, escapist and ham-handed in equal parts? Check, check, check.
This particular tryst was orchestrated by CENA Supper Club, an upstart curator of “fine-dining experiences” launched in March by event producer-turned-entrepreneur Naomi Santos. Each month CENA brings strangers together over a menu conceived, sourced, and cooked by a rotating crew of pro and semi-pro chefs.
“We’re creating an intimate moment around the table,” Santos explained. CENA provides the ambiance – a sleek open-kitchened loft in Tribeca, modish and understated place settings, velvety live Bossa Nova – and hands the reigns to the culinary team tasked with putting food on plates.
Our skipper for the evening was Chef Ken Connors, former Executive Chef of Enoteca, classically trained at the French Culinary Institute, et cetera.
He now presides over the non-profit Educational Alliance’s Kosher-certified kitchen.
“It’s a big difference from what I was doing before: a lot of pork, a lot of shellfish.”
Connors jumped at the opportunity to cook the treif, hedonistic dishes of his past. Mussels from Canada’s seafood-happy Prince Edward Island were fortified with bacon and, though they lost some verve between the kitchen and table, showed the Chef’s knack for classics done right.
Pop up-style, no holds barred cooking allures chefs weighed down by the monotony and cramped infernos of restaurant kitchens. My CENA dinner was at Suite ThreeOhSix (the location changes monthly), a space that puts the pro kitchens I’ve seen to shame.
It also, literally, has glass walls. Connors and his sous chef mingled with diners, fielded questions about dishes, and watched us react to their handiwork; immediate feedback (and some shine) for cooks usually relegated to back-of-house.
The dinners attract a swath of adventurous late millennials and early thirty-somethings willing and able to shell out for an ephemeral professional dinner party. Our meal was $120 per person; firmly in Michelin-star territory, but without a Maitre d’ looking down his nose at me when I spilled tarted-up hummus in my lap.
Guests come to the Supper Club solo, on dates, and in little Instagram-snapping teams. Ostensibly they come for the food, but each person I spoke to alighted on other reasons first.
“I love undiscovered spaces.”
“It’s a unique, one-time experience.”
“The chef is my son-in-law.”
Family duties aside, most attendees were there looking for adventure. Psychologists call this trait “novelty seeking” and associate it with extraversion and dopamine release.
I’ll stop short of saying supper clubs get you high, but monkeys with artificially high dopamine levels in this study consistently made risky, novel choices compared to their sober counterparts.
Like, say, wandering down an abandoned sidestreet in search of a secret dinner.
Chef Connors (the arm) and Sous Chef Carlos plate braised oxtail with walnut gremolata and raisins.
And it’s not just novelty that appeals to our most basic instincts. Think back to that psychology class you took in college and Mr. Abraham Maslow, whose “Hierarchy of Needs” you probably had to memorize.
The third of those needs is “belongingness.” It’s our need to feel included, to participate in groups and, I’m convinced, to sign up for social outings with strangers. A supper club is the ultimate group – exclusive and secret(ish) – created instantly by strangers clicking a PayPal button.
And it feels good. The shared opinions, tastes, and preferences that define groups create social identity and allow “pre-approved” members to bond easily with each other — seconds after arriving I was deep into a discussion of the best reasonably-priced tasting menus in New York.
A really nice vanilla panna cotta, cut with pear, almonds and dainty fried rosemary leaves.
We diners are acolytes, brought together by mutual appreciation for food and novel social dynamics. Our ingrained need to connect with each other does the rest.
“I lost my wife a while ago. I came to this event to meet someone. That didn’t happen, but I got a great meal out of it.”
The most gregarious member of our hodgepodge team confessed this to me over a delicate, trembling vanilla panna cotta with almond granola. We were fiveish glasses of wine in and softened by full stomachs, but the sentiment was real.
After coffee and a collective sigh of surrender, our dinner party settled into a hazy postprandial debate, mostly on the state of eating in America. We discussed beer vs. wine and the relative merits of drunken White Castle runs. One guest announced that he didn’t care about climate change, since he’d be dead.
He was serious, but we all laughed.
At that moment the eat dinner with strangers concept made sense. A motley and awkward crew of diners, chefs and musicians sat down around a table and emerged as something else.
Not friends exactly, but connected in our appreciation for experimental cooking, seasonal vegetables, and the third rung on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.
CENA Supper Club’s next event is Sunday, December 14. Tickets are available here.
“Openness to experience,” one of the Big Five personality traits, is also mildly correlated with high intelligence. Pat yourself on the back if you’re a supper club and pop up restaurante devotee. But lightly, novelty seeking personalities also lack in conscientiousness and tend towards “psychoticism” in the controversial Eysenck model.
 If this sounds cultish, that’s because it is. Cults push their members to adopt the group’s social identity until it overtakes the individual’s. Our dinner didn’t go quite that far.