Dispatches from the Creation Wars

Kuznicki on Underground Restaurants

Jason Kuznicki discusses an article in the New York Times about “underground restaurants” cropping up in NYC. Long excerpt below the fold:

On a beautiful Saturday morning in this village of 6,000 about half an hour from Ithaca, a group of friends and acquaintances gathered at Cold Brook Farms, which specializes in wild game and doubles as a hunting preserve. Most had driven up from Brooklyn late the night before, and now, at an hour that was way too early for brunch, they were in a low-slung outbuilding decorated with taxidermy, groggily joking about the décor and awaiting coffee and doughnuts. “All right,” announced Michael J. Cirino, one of their hosts, “we’re going to butcher a boar, if anyone wants to watch.”

Forget the coffee and doughnuts. The group moved to a processing room in the back, adjacent to a large walk-in meat locker. There, hanging on metal hooks from the ceiling, was the carcass of a freshly slaughtered 150-pound boar. Mr. Cirino nicknamed it Louis. For the next hour and a half, he and his friend Daniel Castaño, 30, a cook who has worked at Otto, Babbo and Quality Meats, methodically broke down the animal with cleavers and saws, hacking it into recognizable parts like tenderloins and ribs. Mr. Cirino, 29, who works as a legal aide and closer for commercial and real estate transactions, had never attempted anything like it: he was 20 minutes in before he thought to put on an apron. Another professional cook — Jacqueline Lombard, a caterer — and two enthusiastic amateurs helped butcher, while the rest of the crew snapped gory photos with their phones.

That they were able to lure a half-dozen urbanites upstate to dismantle a pig is nearly achievement enough, but Mr. Cirino and Mr. Castaño had grander plans: the rest of the day was to include lessons in pasta-making, knife skills and using hydrocolloids to create fluid gels, as Mr. Cirino outlined in an e-mail message to prospective guests. The event — “exploring and cherishing an entire wild boar,” he wrote — was supposed to culminate in a six-course meal, complete with wine pairings and dessert, served at a communal table, with time left over for a boccie game. For this unique guerrilla cooking school experience — organized by Mr. Cirino and Mr. Castaño as a kind of field trip for their New York-based dining club, called A Razor, a Shiny Knife — they charged $80 a person, barely enough to cover costs…

The passionate enthusiasts who have opened dozens of unlicensed restaurants in apartments and other private spaces in recent years do not generally aspire to become traditional restaurateurs, with overhead and investors and the health department — a k a The Man — telling them what to do. They are not in it for the money or for Buddha Bar-size crowds; instead, they say, they are in it for the community and the creative freedom. It’s hard to imagine even the most adventurous legitimate restaurant encouraging customers to hack the hindquarters off a boar’s carcass. And underground restaurants have found their niche. Stringing together the farm-to-table movement and a bloggy kind of interactivity, they have gained a following among food lovers, mostly in their 20s and 30s, who have an opinion on local versus organic, prefer intimate and casual to grand and ceremonial, and are open to meeting people and building connections in new ways.

I’m with Jason, this is an incredibly cool hobby. I’d be all over this if I lived somewhere that had them. I’ve heard of similar setups of local gourmet clubs that get together once a month in different homes owned by the members and either cook together or have the host cook for everyone. Love it.

In an e-mail message, Elliott Marcus, associate commissioner for New York’s Bureau of Food Safety, said, “If you’re serving food to the public, you need a health department permit and you have to comply with all the health code rules to keep food safe,” adding that they inspect frequently.

You know what? People have been cooking for themselves and for others for centuries. What’s the difference between cooking for “the public” and cooking for a group of friends? If I host a dinner party, no one shows up asking about health department certificates.

I love this idea. I want one. Unfortunately, this area is too small to have one (and cheap hot dogs out of the microwave is probably what most people around here think is good food anyway).