jamie’s america – New York – interview with tamara and zora

How long has your supper club been running?
Tamara: We started cooking dinner together, just for the sake of cooking and feeding ourselves, not long after we met in late 2002. That soon evolved into having our friends over regularly every Sunday. And that soon turned into the proper supper club, probably in late 2004 sometime.

How did your supper club get started?
Tamara: It started when we realized we were mysteriously broke at the end of each month and didn't have money for rent! The culprit was obviously all the wine and groceries we'd been buying. So we asked people for a donation, just to cover costs. We had no idea that we were beginning a supper club””we were just trying to stay afloat and continue the ridiculous cooking projects and events we were pursuing.

Zora: What we weren't expecting was that asking people to pay actually made the dinners more popular. We were afraid our friends would ditch us, but actually they just turned around and invited all their friends–as long as they were paying guests, they didn't feel like they were crashing a party or imposing on our hospitality.

How many events do you run?
Tamara: The schedule varies, but typically a big dinner every two weeks, sometimes as many as three a month if life permits and there is stuff we feel like cooking. And despite the name, they're not just on Sundays. Saturdays are of course nicer because people can really relax and stay late. But we also have them on weeknights too, often a smaller group–people come right after work, and usually head home by 10 o'clock.

Have you always been into cooking?
Zora: We were both very lucky to be raised in homes where cooking was the norm. My parents were very particular about good, healthy, fresh food, which I of course hated when I was a kid, because it meant no sugar cereals or white bread. But once I grew up, I realized how lucky I was to have that sensibility–it's really missing in the US right now. I taught myself to cook when I was in graduate school, basically by cooking through a Madhur Jaffrey cookbook–slightly random, but it was delicious stuff I couldn't eat just anywhere. And I realized my dad was right–he has always said, “If you want something to taste right, sometimes you just have to make it yourself.”

Tamara: My dad was a chef, his father a master chef, and my mom grew up working in her family’s pastry shop. But I rejected all that””I had no desire to learn. I had to go to college, marry a man who cooked and then get tired of washing the dishes before I really got curious. I decided to pick up Gourmet magazine because I thought that if I was really going to learn, then I would learn from Gourmet, the be-all, end-all of fancy food! I ended up experimenting on my husband, his Navy buddies and all of our friends. Later when we split up, I practiced on other roommates, friends and boyfriends. Working as a waitress for many NYC chefs also fueled my curiosity. I would eat Mario Batali’s beef cheek ravioli one night, and then dream of how I could make it at home.

Is this your full time job now?
Tamara: No, not at all, although it is a huge part of my life, both social and creative. I now have a small catering and private-chef business I call One Ass Kitchen Productions. And I mean small as in I do all of the work myself. Occasionally I fill in by hiring my multitalented friends. My goal is to be able to be able to hire all of my friends who have lost their jobs in this downturn, and put them to work chopping, dicing, drinking and listening to Led Zeppelin with me.

Zora: Ha! No! In fact, I was leery of charging money for the dinners because I didn't want it to feel like a job at all. I had also run a supper club for a little while before I met Tamara, and I knew it was just not easy to make money with. At least for me–I'm always prone to seeing some cool, unplanned-on ingredient in the store and grabbing it even though it puts me over budget. So it’s very much a hobby.

What has been your favourite evening?
Tamara: Ah, so hard to pick just one. There was a night, a few years ago, when we made beer-can chickens. I had seen a man make them in Tennessee the week earlier, and I thought it would be fun. What I didn’t count on was that grilling one chicken stuck on a beer can and grilling eleven of these are two completely different scenarios. It was hilarious to look at the grill with all of the little chickens sitting upright””like they were waiting for marching orders. It was summertime, and very hot and humid. There were mostly old friends, but about four strangers who have all now become friends. It was incredibly loud because people were drinking too much in hopes of combating the heat. There was this moment when I was bringing some food out from the kitchen””the apartment was on the second floor, and as I descended the staircase and saw everyone laughing and drinking and eating I realized that this was the only beauty that mattered to me. It was like some old Italian movie, and I was so proud that it was happening because I had this insane idea to recreate beer can chicken for 20 people.

Zora: Actually, not to sound sappy, but having Jamie over was one of the best dinners in recent memory. He was an excellent guest, of course, but it was a great group of guests””a good mix of regulars and a few new people. And we managed to all squeeze around one long table and have some real conversations. Sometimes the dinners can get a little hectic, and I don't get a chance to talk to everyone, but this one was much more like our original vision–it was a great reminder of why we have the dinners at all. Usually I wind up in the kitchen most of the time, so it's nice to be reminded what people are experiencing out at the dinner table.

How do people find you? Is it all word of mouth?
Zora: We've had a little bit of media coverage here in New York, so we've gotten a few cold emails, but basically it's still all word of mouth. Friends of friends of friends of friends…and suddenly we've got 400 people on our list!

Tamara: We also invite people we meet who we think would be good guests. I catered a party recently and ended up talking to a guy about the sad state of my garden. The next thing I knew, he was offering me this amazing compost from the City of New York’s secret stash, and I was inviting him to dinner! He is now a new regular, and has invited other really interesting guests as well.

I know that there have been some romances that have started from people attending your supper club – have there been any arguments or challenging customers?
Tamara: In all of the literally thousands of people who have eaten at Sunday Night Dinner, we have only removed two from the list for bad behavior. Everyone pretty much self selects. And basically people are decent and fun. I mean, you have to figure that if they are willing to come to Queens, which is a really unsexy borough, and eat dinner in a stranger’s living room, they must be up for a good time.

How big is the supper club movement in New York?
Zora: It's terrible, but we don't get out much and visit other people's clubs. But my impression is that it's a very big deal–both from the media coverage and from what guests say when they come to dinner. I get a sense that down in Brooklyn, supper clubs are like the new bands–all these cooks working on different projects reminds me of the indie scene in the 90s. But we rock it solo up here in Queens!

Tamara: In the beginning, it was Ghetto Gourmet and us. I think they were the first, though we didn’t even know about them then. Gradually I started hearing about others, each one more secretive and sort of outrageous than the last. Now it seems like I hear about or get an invite to a new one every other week. I confess, I haven’t been to any others, but it seems most are more profit-driven than ours, and some try to emulate a cool kids’ restaurant scene. Ours are still very much about dinner at home, and all that means. But whatever form they take, they will continue to be very popular, especially in cities full of people who have left their families far away, because they're a substitute for the “family dinner” that is so nourishing socially and emotionally.

Have you been to any supper clubs in other countries?
Zora: Actually, I got the idea for my first long-ago supper club, which I started in 2001, from a dinner in Amsterdam–a woman was throwing these Indonesian dinners in other people's houses. It was very informal and a little bit of singles' scene, and she was charging cash and apparently making good money off it. But I kind of botched it when I brought the idea home, at least from a money-making standpoint–I made it a little more ambitious, foodwise, and also couldn't bring myself to make money off my friends! So I eventually had to shelve it while I did paying work.

Tamara: I have not, but I would love to.

Is it highly competitive?
Zora: It might be–we're just not into the scene enough to know! We try to keep Sunday Night Dinner low-key and not about foodie glamour or hipster cool. And if we hear anyone trying to obviously schmooze or network, we tell them to tone it down. Which is not typically the way things work in New York City, and I think our guests really appreciate that.

Tamara: I think we are specifically noncompetitive, which is one of my favorite things about SND.

Have you been to any other supper clubs in London?
Zora: Not yet, but we're open to invitations!
Tamara: Yes, for God’s sake, ring us up and we’ll be right over””and hungry!

Tamara and Zora have published a book on their adventures with Sunday Night Dinners called Forking Fantastic! Put the Party back in Dinner Party


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