I tend to prefer the relaxed environment of dinner parties to the transactional formality of restaurants. But they're random affairs: conducted by friends, and hard to plan. What if you want the relaxed nature and sociability of a dinner party, but at a time that suits you?
Supper Clubs have revolutionised London's dining scene: rather than cooking in a restaurant, enterprising chefs host in their homes, where, without the risks and overheads of a restaurant, they tend toward the experimental, with food that you'd be hard-pressed to find elsewhere. A quick local search on Google, and I was presented with options. Thus it was that, last Saturday, I found myself in the East London flat of Barrie Gunning, having dinner with seven strangers.
The smell of chopped chilli and turmeric pervaded the kitchen-dining room, as I sat down with the other guests, some of whom know each other, but mostly not. The central theme to Barrie's cooking is top-quality, natural ingredients, and he finds them from the best suppliers: he heads to Billingsgate Fish Market at 3am to ensure his seafood is as fresh as can be (he first visited it after joining a chef at the end of a night out); his meat comes from The Ginger Pig or Meat N16; and many of the herbs that flavour his dishes come from Ridley Road Market, nearby.
We were hosted in Barrie's lovely flat behind Dalston Junction. My favourite element of Supper Clubs is the personal interaction between diners and chef: before and between courses, Barrie explained the dishes and told us his story.
His background is accounting, but he gave up a career in numbers to pursue his love of flavours. "I have a strong passion for cooking," he begins, "It started when I was very young, learning from my mum and grandmum. I moved to London from Barbados, and couldn't find a true representation of what I think of as Caribbean food. So I created Pop Up Barbados."
Barrie's cooking reflects his heritage: a fusion of Caribbean and South American. We start with a Jamaican dish of shredded fresh cod, cucumber, parsley and lime; served with aki and salt fish. It was like a Caribbean ceviche, with a lovely balance of fresh and creamy, shot through with delicate spices and a crackling of caviar to add textural depth. Next came meaty scallops, with bacon and a twist of fresh melon, pineapple and pumpkin. The melange of sweet, sour, meaty and fruity, worked together surprisingly well.
Mahi Mahi - a meaty game fish that regularly pops up in Caribbean cuisine - led the main course. It was good, but in a rare turn of events for this protein-focused contributor, I was much more interested in the vegetable half of the dish: a basmati rice combination that had a mix of fresh turmeric, coconut milk, and more that I couldn't identify. Dessert was a pumpkin muffin, shot through with sugar and spices, served with fresh cream.
At the end of the evening, we sat down with Barrie to finish off the wine we'd brought with us. It was relaxed and unrushed: a meal cooked to perfection, served with a backstory and at a pace that matched the theme. We'd got to know our dining partners, and shared new stories, and I'd eaten food that I wouldn't know where to find elsewhere.
I'm now a convert to Supper Clubs, and would highly recommend them. Whilst I'm sure there's the odd occasion that you might find someone more of a cook than chef, going by recommendations and reviews makes it less of a lottery.
For my part, I can heartily recommend Pop-Up Barbados, but the website London Pop-Ups is a good resource to find one closer to home. Just don't come to mine - you'll only get stir-fry in front of the telly.
Photos by Ash Bhardwaj