A couple of years ago, Brian Bordainick and his friends Drew Barrett, Francisco “Paco” Robert, Ravi Prakash, Bryson Aust, and Zach Kupperman lamented the lack of late-night dining options in New Orleans. “You can drink until the sun comes up,” he says. “But the city has the worst late-night options in the world.” Spying opportunity, the pals began exploring a late-night pop-up, choosing random locations in high-traffic neighborhoods from which to provide a unique dining experience in the wee hours of the morning. It wasn’t long, though, until the partners realized they’d need to pivot into dinner to make their concept sustainable. And that’s how Dinner Lab was born.
Fast forward to 2013, and the members-only supper club has grown into three different cities–and it’s gearing up to launch in NYC later this month.
Dinner Lab’s goals, Bordainick explains, are threefold. First, the guys work to showcase emerging talent, focusing especially on rising star sous chefs and chefs de cuisine that really make the magic happen in the kitchens where they’re employed but may have reached the ceiling in terms of advancement. Dinner Lab, says Bordainick, gives those men and women the chance to cook the food they’re passionate about rather than execute a menu put together by someone else. “I want to know what the chef cooks for her friends on Sunday,” he says. “We ask them to cook a meal that tells a story. We had the pastry cook from Marea create seven courses of tragically flawed desserts to represent guys she’d dated.” And while Dinner Lab welcomes chefs from around the country, the guys really focus on the talent within the local market–75 percent of the dinners they throw come from people located in that city.
And that’s because the second goal of Dinner Lab is to give chefs a platform to experiment and test out restaurant concepts with real diners before they strike out on their own and secure hefty investment and expensive leases. “We’re applying a lean start-up mentality to opening a restaurant,” Bordainick explains. “We ask our members for feedback, and they’re honest.” The Dinner Lab team also compiles that feedback, and if chefs get enough positive re-enforcement, the company flies them to another market for more testing. All of that tells a chef whether his or her idea has legs to succeed, and it gives each would-be restaurateur a chance to fine-tune problems before paying rent. (And eventually, says Bordainick, Dinner Lab would like to invest in restaurants it helps create.)
And the combination of those two lead to goal number three: Providing diners with unique experiences in quirky locations all over town. To that end, Bordainick says, his team spends days combing neighborhoods, knocking on doors, and examining warehouses, garages, rooftops, and galleries. They never send out location details until the night before both because they want to keep the address a surprise, but also because they occasionally have to scramble to change venues just days before they throw a dinner. “We have a commissary and mobile kitchen in each city,” Bordainick explains. “We never use the same space twice, and we’re never in event spaces. But sometimes that means a space can’t get the water on, and then we can’t use it.”
Dinner Lab also brings on a local back of house manager to help with the heavy lifting, and here in New York City, the group named Zachary Dworsky, who’s leaving his post as executive sous chef at Aquavit to come aboard. He’ll help with the supper club’s first dinner on September 26, which will showcase Mario Rodriguez, who worked at Fatty Crab and Gramercy Tavern before decamping to New Orleans to cook under Justin Devillier at La Petite Grocery. Rodriguez’s Dinner Lab meal will traipse through South American flavors, focusing on Colombia, since that’s where the chef’s father is from.
How do you get access? The group throws two dinners per market per week, and in the interest of culling a close-knit community, it keeps its membership capped–there are just 2,000 spots in each city. Members pay $175 per year for access, and then they’re invited to sign up for dinners that cost about $70 each; that price includes five to eight courses, beverage pairings, tax, and tip. But in New York, memberships are already completely sold out–except for 150 places reserved exclusively for Voice readers. Want to join?
Page through for an exclusive access link and a few more photos of Dinner Lab events.