The Supper Club: Gaby Soutar delves in to the underground restaurant scene

Aoife Behan at home in Edinburgh where she hosts Supper Club events with different themes. Pic: Greg Macvean
Aoife Behan at home in Edinburgh where she hosts Supper Club events with different themes. Pic: Greg Macvean
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FANS of fine dining are eschewing fancy restaurants in a culinary revolution led bey amateur chefs and their supper clubs

Are you tired of the inflated prices, stuffy service and buttoned-up ambience of your local fine-dining establishment?

Then you sound like you’re in need of the antidote to this style of eating – the supper club, or underground restaurant.

You may be familiar with this concept already, as these DIY eateries, which are held in private homes, had their moment in the spotlight a couple of years ago, when they were cast as the Next Big Trend in food.

Since then the genre has been gently maturing, like a fine Stilton, with supper clubs burgeoning, and diners beginning to accept them as an alternative to restaurant dining.

One such addition to the scene is My Home Supper in Edinburgh, which is run by 36-year-old Aoife Behan and held its first event back in May. According to her, there was only one supper club in the capital at the beginning of 2011, but now there are around ten. These include Indian restaurant Chai Lounge, Charlie and Evelyn’s Table (probably Edinburgh’s first example of the genre), and Kitchen Porter, which is run by a local chef.

However, although Behan – who is not a trained cook – has already hosted around ten evenings, one of her latest was arguably the most hotly anticipated so far. That’s because she had a specially invited guest – supper club royalty, Kerstin Rodgers, who is a former rock photographer, blogger, hostess of The Underground Restaurant in London, author of the new book, Supper Club, and the person who claims to have kick-started this UK scene back in 2009.

Rodgers, 41, aka MsMarmiteLover (her Twitter name), regards this eating out genre as a positive force in the foodie world. “I see it as a political movement in some ways,” she explains. “I wanted to take food away from the posh Michelin star celebrity chefs and bring it back to its home-cooking roots. And, in particular, to encourage female chefs, because 90 per cent of the cooking in the world is done by women. If you look on telly, you’d never believe that. They’re mostly male – or models pretending to be cooks.”

Her book, Supper Club, is a bit like an entrepreneurial start up kit for those who’re thinking about hosting one of these events (which are usually advertised on Twitter, Facebook or by word of mouth). Albeit one with 120 recipes for theatrical-sounding dishes such as yuzu ceviche, or savoury yoghurt granita with caramelised lemons, washed down with a glass of bloody Marmitey.

Its down-to-earth tone has helped to encourage self-starters who aren’t interested in white linen tablecloths and producing nouveau cuisine-sized portions.

“I’d been thinking about starting a supper club for a long time,” says Behan. “The concept interested me, but the literature that I’d read on the subject described them as formal, which isn’t what I wanted to do. When I read Kerstin’s book I realised that they could be whatever you wanted them to be.”

When it comes to My Home Supper, Behan, who describes herself as “the sort of person who always has everyone over for Christmas dinner”, has placed a focus on the social side of dining.

Her smart living room, with its pistachio-coloured walls and twinkly chandelier, features two tables that seat six, so diners (who, according to Behan are usually thirtysomethings who visit on their own, or as part of a couple) have to sit beside others they may not have met before. Also, visitors often have to top up the water jug from the kitchen, carve their own roast, or help themselves from sharing platters (part of Behan’s granny’s china wedding service), which gives a relaxed family feel to the occasion.

“There’s always 15 minutes at the start when everyone is very polite, but once food starts being shared, that always breaks the silence,” says Behan. “Over the course of the evening, you’ll hear the laughter getting louder and find guests walking between the tables or swapping over. Although, there was one night when the chemistry didn’t seem to work and it was very sedate. You could feel that the conversation wasn’t flowing. But for the most part it’s been good and we haven’t wanted people to leave.”

It’s suggested that diners contribute a “donation” of around £25. This is because the legality of supper clubs being allowed to openly charge for food is a bit of a foggy area (as Rodgers, who encourages supper clubs to get public liability insurance, says: “One of the reasons I wanted to make this into a bigger movement is that if there was a mass of us, we were less likely to get picked off and shut down”). However, when it comes to making a profit, Behan usually only manages to cover her costs. That’s mainly because she can’t sell alcohol, and that’s how most restaurants make their money.

Apart from this, there are other important contrasts between a traditional eatery and these amateur ventures. “With the latter, you’re often allowed seconds”, explains Rodgers, who describes herself as a “5ft nothing, tubby little cook”.

Anyway, the grub at My Home Supper is generally hearty, locally-sourced, organic where possible, and, in common with most underground restaurants, there’s always a theme to the menu. For example, Behan has already held a Molecular Spectacular event, which involved her collaborating with a scientist to produce Heston Blumenthal-esque dishes, and, at the other end of the scale, there’s recently been a Pie Night. On the evening of Rodgers’ visit, Behan offered a selection of Bengali street food, with the help of her friend, Kash Bhattacharya, as well as producing a couple of recipes from the Supper Club book – Kerstin’s Twitter Curry and Jewelled Basmati.

You may wonder if it was a wise idea to serve Rodgers one of her own recipes. However, this special guest would have been the least likely person to throw a hissy fit if the food wasn’t up to her expectations. The underground restaurant scene is, after all, a comparatively supportive one in Scotland’s as yet unsaturated market.

“Coming to Edinburgh reminded me of the early days of starting my club,” says Rodgers. “In the first year there was a real sense of excitement when people came in. That’s slightly worn off in London, as they’ve become quite competitive and the trendy blogosphere feel they know about them already. I particularly enjoy the ones outside the city, because people are more enthusiastic, warmer and humorous, while London trendies can be a bit of a pain in the butt.”

My Home Supper is holding a Nose to Tail themed supper club with Sascha Grierson of Grierson’s Organic Farm, at 7.45pm tonight. To book, and for info on other events, see www.myhomesupperclub.co.uk; Supper Club: Recipes and notes from the underground restaurant by Kerstin Rodgers, £25, Harper Collins; www.marmitelover.blogspot.com

To find a supper club near you, see www.supperclubfangroup.ning.com