Baltimore's rogue dining scene heats up
Published: October 27, 2010
It’s common to hear people who aren’t from here—and some who are—bust on Baltimore for being five years behind everywhere else, trend-wise. Although I always feel compelled to argue that, yeah, of course we lag behind San Francisco and NYC, but baby I bet we’re holding our own with Poughkeepsie, I ultimately have to agree that, yes, Baltimore is by nature remarkably slow to embrace new trends. Which, in my mind, is a good thing, because then we miss the really silly ones (molecular gastronomy, anyone?) while eventually adopting the keepers.
One of those keeper trends would definitely be rogue dining, a movement that came out of the West Coast five or so years ago wherein talented amateur chefs, or professionals currently lacking their own restaurant kitchen, cook in private homes for groups of strangers, for money. (Yes, this is illegal: State health departments typically allow cooks to sell food of any kind only when it comes from inspected and approved commercial kitchens. These DIY restaurant operations sidestep this by asking for a per-person “donation” to cover the cost of dinner, rather than the typical per-plate charge). Baltimore cooks took up the rogue dining movement in 2007; one local DIY dinner group was organized by Matt Papich, who recruited local chefs to do one-night stands in the Weedsnake space in the H&H Building.
Papich eventually co-founded sometimes dining (yes, lowercase by design), the city’s current reigning rogue dining venue, along with co-chefs Ben Turner and Phil Kerrigan, who had been independently holding their own rogue dinners. None are professional chefs, but since joining forces in June 2009 the three have been hosting monthly-ish “alternative dining events” in the backyard of a house in Waverly—or, during the coldest months, crammed into its first-floor rooms. “Outdoors is easier, but doing indoors is kind of funner for us, because then we get to be in the room with everyone while we cook,” Turner says. The events are pulled off by a large cast of volunteers who clearly work their asses off prepping the food, setting up the scene, tending bar for the optional pre-dinner cocktail hour, serving, and then cleaning up the happy wreckage afterward.
Turner credits the group’s “rotating but integral” crew of volunteer servers (anchored by Heidi Gustafson and Devon Diemler) as key to sometimes’ success.
Sometimes recruits diners through a web site and RSS feed (sometimesdining.com) and competition for the limited seats at the asymmetrically periodic events—typically serving about 36 diners—can be fierce. And for good reason: The creative menu is skillfully prepared and impeccably served, not to mention a total bargain at $20 (for food only—attendees receive an advance e-mail advising the best wines to complement the menu, should they care to BYOB). Offerings are exquisitely seasonal and always eclectic—one June 2010 menu included grilled beef heart with radish-cucumber salad, chilled summer squash, and melon soup, and ended with black pepper panna cotta with brioche and buckwheat honey.
“We work incredibly hard to pull it all together in one day, early morning until late into the evening. And there’s a conflicting element in that we don’t charge much,” says Turner, who notes that financially it’s basically a break-even enterprise. Fortunately, the sometimes crew’s motivation isn’t financial. “We can do anything we want, and because we’re not charging a bunch our clients aren’t holding us to a really high level. They’re gracious enough to commit to coming without knowing what it is they’re going to eat,” he continues. “But the real payoff is incredible. It’s the opportunity to make all that food and have all that camaraderie.”
The city’s rogue dining world continues to grow, with a small, as-yet unnamed supper club just launched in Hampden by a clutch of twentysomething foodies who made each others’ acquaintance through a local DIY food group, Baltimore Food Makers (foodmake.org). (Disclosure: the author is a member.) A recent dinner for 14 on a candlelit porch overlooking Falls Road featured all locally produced ingredients: spinach salad with Firefly Farms goat cheese and seeds from squash grown in one of the chefs’ own garden, followed by West African rabbit stew with sweet potatoes and peanuts and homemade pasta with mushroom ragout. It was an ambitious menu, exquisitely realized despite a few glitches, such as tiny Comice pears that were meant to be roasted and tossed with the spinach but, alas, somehow the oven never got turned on. Ah well, they were delicious nonetheless, sliced raw into the salad. All five giddy hosts—four chefs plus a bartender—joined their guests at the table, simultaneously drained and exhilarated by their cooking-without-a-net feat.
Glancing happily around the end-of-evening table, a wreckage of scraped-clean plates and drained wine glasses, chef/organizer Hillary Edwards sighed happily, “It was a lot of work, but I can’t imagine an evening that could be any better.”