Apetite for delectation: The underground food movement

WITH everything from pop-up restaurants to guerilla dining and secret supper clubs, a new cult of eating as an ‘experience’ has been born. 
But what makes this underground food movement so moreish?

There’s a group of web designers, artists, entrepreneurs and PRs – let’s call them creatives – gathered in a room that feels like the kind of place dreams and nightmares fight it out for a place in our heads: there are rails of dusty clothing, ancient ventriloquists’ dummies, a carousel horse, glassware and crockery, worn-out velvet thrones ... it’s a bit like Sebastian’s house in Bladerunner, all creepy dolls and tin hats.

As the group poses for a photograph, one of them observes, “We look like some kind of cult.” And perhaps they are.

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Perhaps this is the cult of food. The cult of dining. For, though there is nothing to eat in sight, no chef or farmer or market gardener among their number, they represent a growing trend in eating as an experience. Scottish food is breaking out of the restaurant scene this summer and coming over all creative. How else can you explain the popularity of pop-up restaurants and food festivals, secret supper clubs and gourmet stalls at live events?

This weekend has seen the return of the annual Taste festival in Edinburgh, while chefs and farmers’ market foodies Edward Murray and Dale Mailley finally opened up Gardener’s Cottage in the capital to great fanfare.

There have been slow-food celebrations, baking clubs, pop-up afternoon teas and guerilla dining around Scotland, with the gospel mainly spread through the medium of social networking. Your cosy dinner à deux will never feel quite the same again.

But last month there was the Disconsolate Dandie, a magical mystery tour to a Scottish country house (which turned out to be the Haining, a slightly crumbling, gloriously atmospheric old building in Selkirk), where the chef, the menu and the guests were all an intriguing secret until the night itself – taking Scottish event dining to a whole new level.

Just don’t mention Come Dine With Me. “I’ve heard that so many times it makes me want to slap people,” laughs Aoife Behan, a food entrepreneur who started out running a home supper club in Edinburgh, moved on to Burgher Burger (take an established chef out of their comfort zone and get them to create the perfect burger in a greasy spoon café) and following the Disconsolate Dandie event is now focusing on something altogether more ambitious for later this year. It’s called Create:Eat. The ultimate dining event. “I love going to restaurants but I think people are a lot more sophisticated now,” she says.

“There is a group of people who want their evenings to be a bit more challenging. Maybe they’re a bit too old to go to a nightclub but they don’t want to do boring stuff, and I think that’s where the whole underground dining movement fulfils a need.

“People are being more careful about how they spend their money these days too,” she says, “and there’s a lot more thinking that goes into planning a night out. The whole experiential dining thing has become a lot more important as a result. People want an awful lot more out of that experience than just sitting at a table. There is always a role for that but there is an increasing role for something that gives you an experience and also taps into community. I think people are more interested in community now than they were when there was lots of money floating around. It was very individualistic and now it’s a bit more ‘let’s work together and let’s engage with the person I’m sitting next to’.”

And so, it seems, the kind of people who are interested in the avant garde underground dining scene are not so interested in four oddballs getting together in a stranger’s dining room to mark their food out of ten and slag off the contents of their bedside cabinets. “Actually, the type of people who come to these events are not people who watch those programmes,” says Behan.

“They are people who are interested in speaking to someone they haven’t met before. Most people are interesting for at least two or three hours. There are very few people who are annoying for that brief period of time so it forces you to engage with people and be a bit more open, then sometimes your preconceptions are challenged and broken down.”

Her partner in dine is Carol Soutar, creative director of the project. “It is very ambitious but the fact so many people have already volunteered to get involved shows there’s a real appetite for this sort of thing. There have been lots of trends in food and social events,” she adds. “Things seem to be shifting up a gear.”

The pair, inspired by projects in the US such as Kinfolk (which connects artisans and small business) and Outstanding in the Field (which is all about local farmers and producers), put their idea for an ultimate dining event on to social networking sites and the results surprised even these infectiously optimistic foodies. “We got a response of 150 people,” says Soutar. “We felt then that the project was viable. We put together this creative team – the people gathered in this room – and what we want to do is create a brand that will tell all the collaborators’ stories. We’ll build an amazing website so that when people come on board they’ll see the benefit to being involved.

“We have had people who have volunteered to screenprint tablecloths, and we’re hoping to get some other people on board to create decoration-type things. Depending on the space, it could be something really quite large-scale, or it could be quite small. There will be all the things you might need for a dining event – things like flowers, napkins, the table settings, maybe lighting – we have lots of ideas.”

And, of course, there is the food. “We’ve had interest from chefs in Ireland and in London,” says Behan. “Rather than going to people and asking them to give us something, we would ask people to come to us and tell us what they could give.

“We want dynamic people and decision-makers; artisan food-makers who are ploughing their own furrow and making brilliant produce, people who are freelancing, celebrating the entrepreneurial spirit; extremely talented amateurs or professionals who will create an environment where people can exchange ideas and possibly forge working relationships.

“There’s nothing like this happening in the UK,” she says. “I think it will be really difficult but it is achievable and there’s a huge amount of enthusiasm. There are a lot of people out there working in food and the creative industries who have got to the stage in their careers where they are not as collaborative as they would have been when they were younger, and this is offering those people the opportunity to do something like that.

“We’re getting our collaborators to build a story of people coming together and the fact that it’s a dining event breaks down barriers. It’s an opportunity to meet new people, it fosters creative relationships and partnerships, so it’s not just about the dining, it’s about the whole process.”

They will be looking for 25 collaborators in total – the closing date to register your interest is 31 July – and 25 paying customers, but those on board so far are clearly excited to be involved from the start. “It’s the openness of the brief,” says artist Cristina Spiteri. “Usually you have tight guidelines and restrictions and this is completely open. On top of that, you’re collaborating with really talented people. Coming in right at the beginning of the story, I’ll see how it all takes shape. I just had to e-mail and say I want to be part of it; it sounds really exciting.”

“I work with a lot of very experimental technology all day,” says Alex Cole, a web designer, “and this is a good opportunity to put that to the really human, straightforward use of bringing everybody together around a table. It’s a great opportunity to humanise the otherwise dry world of technology.”

Right now, they don’t know what sort of shape the event will take, but by the end of the month they should be on track for a dining event to take place in October. “We hope by then we’ll have enough offers of skills or produce or products so we can pull it off,” says Behan. “We’ve been quite clear from the start that if we can’t do it by then, we won’t do it. Given the level of feedback we’ve had so far, I don’t think will be a problem, but what we really need is an amazing space.”

Which is why we are gathered here – a theatrical costumier in Granton, Edinburgh, a building that demonstrates the kind of scale and interest and spectacular oddness they have in mind. But they’ll need money too, surely? This sort of ambitious project doesn’t come cheap. “The finance is not a barrier for me,” says Behan. “I have to say, I don’t think about it. What we’re doing is bringing together skills and talents and, in the long run, the people who pay for the tickets are the people who are funding the project. If we need money before that we’ll just make it happen.

“This is about making something out of nothing,” she adds.

Global Feast

During the Olympics, there will be a series of 20 exclusive supper clubs at Stratford Old Town Hall, featuring a 20m table based on the contours of the world and each night representing the cuisine of a country. A combined Scotland and Ireland evening is takeing place on 27 July.


The Barn

Scot Philip Dundas is cooking up a storm in his concept restaurant and farm shop in a converted Citroën garage in Islington, London. “I think people are fed up of paying for fancy décor, indifferent service and expensive wine,” he says. “At the same table as good-value and honest, creative cooking, we want conviviality, the gathering of people round a table, strangers and friends, who see the importance of sharing that time together.”


Le Petit Paris

Aberdeen’s first pop-up restaurant appeared in April in the form of three Le Petit Paris nights, multi-award-winning chef Chris Tonner. The experiences aimed to recreate the ‘joie de vivre’ of Paris in the roaring 1920s in food and atmosphere.


Queen of Tarts

Who doesn’t love high tea? Angela Dolan reckons not many of us can resist a slap-up treat in the afternoon, which is why she launched Queen of Tarts. The pop-up takes place once a month in her front room and assorted secret venues, with pristine white linen, silver cutlery and vintage teacups.


Slow-food barbecue

Sustainable fish is the theme, while chef Roy Brett of Ondine will be manning the grill at this summer’s slow-food summer barbecue, on 11 August at Earthy Food Market, Edinburgh., Expect hand-dived scallops, organic wine and artisanal bread.


Supper in the Suburbs

At Glasgow’s first pop-up, Gill Cowan, Emma Frame and Alison Halley cook for guests. For a minimum £25 donation, you can eat dishes like black pudding and goat’s cheese galette and herb-crusted trout.


Honey Wild Supper club

Run by local GP Karen Kennedy from her home in Innerleithen. Bring your own bottle and be prepared to be sociable.


The capital has a burgeoning supper club scene, from Charlie and Evelyn’s Table (www.charlieandevelynstable.blogspot.co.uk) to Crescent Dining (crescent
dining.tumblr.com), Kitchen Porter’s ([email protected]) and Table for Ten (tablefortenedinburgh.blogspot.co.uk). See supperclubfangroup.ning.com.

See www.createeat.com; if you want to get involved, contact Aoife Behan ([email protected])