Birmingham Chefs Test Appetite For New Flavors With Supper Clubs

Ashley Cleek for NPR

A recent supper club in Josh Haynes' apartment in Birmingham, Ala.

It’s a Saturday night. Five couples sit sipping cocktails and beers. From the kitchen, the smell of ginger, fish oil and lime wafts into the dining room. Chef Josh Haynes is there preparing one of his signature recipes: a red curry of pumpkin and pork rib.

It could be a hip restaurant, except this is Haynes’ apartment. In his small living room, with space for only two tables, 10 strangers eat his homemade Thai food.

Haynes calls it a “speakeasy supper club,” a nod to the days of Prohibition. People hear about the dinners through word of mouth or a local food blog, buy tickets online, and show up to Haynes’ apartment at an appointed time.

Like many mid-size cities in the U.S., Birmingham historically has had a traditional food scene. But in the past few years, locals chefs have started concepts like ramen and vegan supper clubs in houses and apartments. Like Haynes, they’re testing recipes and ideas to gauge the community’s response and the market for potential restaurants.

It’s Fred Rowe’s first time at one of these dinners, and he’s blown away.

“Where else can you get a new experience with new people, people you don’t even know?” Rowe says, serving himself another one of Haynes’ curries, this one made with duck eggs.

Mary Jones says she and her husband have been to several speakeasy-style dinners held by other chefs in their homes.

“We just go and try to support them so that they know that yes, there is that interest for this cuisine in Birmingham,” Jones says. “It’s not too out there.”

Haynes moved back to Birmingham with plans of opening a Thai restaurant. But until he finds the money, he’s decided to open up his apartment.

“In the meantime, it’s really important to me to kind of build a following and get a lot of support, as well as get people’s feedback,” Haynes says. “So that when I get to that brick-and-mortar stage and open the doors, I’ve got people who are excited, who are lined up ready to eat.”

So far, it’s working. All of Haynes’ dinners have sold out.

Kelly Dobkin, a senior editor at Zagat, a guidebook to restaurants worldwide, says she’s seen these types of restaurants succeed. In Brooklyn, the supper club Take Root morphed into a highly-reviewed and hard-to-get-into restaurant. Underground supper clubs are popping up across the country, from Los Angeles to Detroit and Atlanta.

Dobkin says this exchange of young chefs inviting diners for these exclusive meals is mutually beneficial.

“The chefs are getting this chance to be creative and free without a lot of strings,” she says. “The diners are getting something that is limited-time only, which is really exciting.”

Chris Hastings has been a chef in Birmingham for decades and has trained a lot of chefs, including Haynes. In 2012, Hastings won a James Beard Award, one of the most prestigious in the restaurant business.

Hastings says while things have changed a lot in the Birmingham restaurant scene, it’s still difficult to open a restaurant — and even harder to stay open.

“The failure rate is pretty high,” Hastings says. “It’s a business, and it’s very complicated and very expensive. Your margins are teeny-weeny, and you have to have equal parts chef and business person.”

But, Hastings says, if these new chefs can get the business down, diners are ready and waiting for whatever’s thrown at them.

Haynes’ Thai dinners have gotten pretty popular, so he’s started hosting them once a week.

He’s even got his eye on a building downtown.

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