Judging by the look of things, an eternity has passed since Frank Sinatra proclaimed Grotta Azzurra his favorite restaurant. A now tired and touristy joint on the outskirts of New York’s ever shrinking Little Italy, Grotta long ago traded in the Rat Pack for lumpy Chicken Française and a website that boasts a visit by the Gastineau girls. And yet! On a recent temperate evening, stylish twenty- and thirtysomethings were gathered outside, making their way past a girl with a clipboard guarding the entrance to Grotta’s private dining room. The space had been rented for the week by nightlife impresario Alan Philips and former Top Chef contestant Camille Becerra for the opening of the Hunger, their pop-up supper club. Inside, Spotted Pig co-owner Ken Friedman and superstar chef Tom Colicchio, nightlife chroniclers Steve Lewis and Michael Musto, and club king David Rabin sipped the pickled ramp–infused martinis that Becerra had concocted to pair with her “urban cuisine bourgeois,” which she would serve family-style to the crowd. As the first course of fluke crudo with hemp seeds arrived, Todd English, a chef known for a slew of restaurants in shopping centers and resorts across America, looked around at the sleek crowd framed by soft lighting and exposed brick. “I gotta do something like this,” he announced.
The supper club, or “intimate engagement,” as one top restaurant publicist likes to call it, has emerged as a chef’s best tool for boosting or recasting his image. In the age of the celebrity chef, these buzzy, exclusive dinners are like growth hormone for one’s personal brand. Becerra, for instance, had considered various head chef opportunities since her own Brooklyn restaurant, Paloma, perished in a fire in 2008, but she ultimately realized that she could exchange anonymity and long hours for freedom and a high profile. At the Hunger’s debut, Becerra and Philips had plans to bring their supper club to Miami, the Hamptons, and various other hot spots. “We’ve got four or five major production companies that already want to put us on TV,” Philips reported.
Up-and-coming chefs around the globe, from Paris and Berlin to Atlanta, are employing the supper club strategy, but veterans are also taking advantage. Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo, of the Los Angeles carnivore mecca Animal, are cultivating an East Coast following with pop-ups in Montauk, and Marco Canora, the chef and co-owner of the popular New York restaurant Hearth and the booming wine bar Terroir, is thinking of launching a bimonthly four-person, 11-course dinner this fall. At Hearth, he says, he reveals only a sliver of his abilities, which is frustrating. “With a 90-seat restaurant, you’re limited by the demands of service and price,” says the Colicchio disciple. “I can’t use foie gras because a $25 appetizer doesn’t work on my menu. If I did these dinners, I could cook with foie, with caviar, Kobe beef. It would show people who I am as a chef.”