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Food Fight: Battle Supper Club

Dessert at a Reality Dinner / Click here for a slideshow
Dessert at a Reality Dinner / Click here for a slideshow
Photo by Groovehouse

Other cities have had them for years, but -- as with many concepts -- Houston is a bit behind the curve. We're talking about chef-driven, intimate, fiercely modern, multi-course dinners that allow a culinary wild man (or woman) to experiment on a willing audience, while at the same time showcasing new techniques or ingredients.

Houston's first series of these modern supper clubs had a short existence: Ad Hoc, a dinner series hosted by DiverseWorks in the summer of 2008 at a now-demolished Victorian home on Alabama and Alameda, which had been partially taken over by graffiti artists Aerosol Warfare. The dinners were conceived primarily as supper clubs for artists, journalists and other such folk to convene. David Grossman, formerly of Gravitas and now at Branch Water Tavern, was the chef at these $50-per-person dinners, but food wasn't necessarily the main star.

Around that same time, Randy Rucker began hosting his long-running and popular tenacity supper clubs. Formerly the chef at Rainbow Lodge and chef-owner at the short-lived but impactful laidback manor, Rucker started tenacity as an offshoot of private dinners that he was catering. In a June 2008 interview, Rucker said that the thing he enjoyed most about throwing these private dinners was "...the personal level. The ability to really know where the food is coming from. Not to say that this project doesn't have responsibilities, but operating a full-service restaurant for lunch and dinner with full staffing is an unbelievable task."

These supper clubs ran anywhere from $50 to $75 per person and were announced on Rucker's blog, feeding curiosity. Reservations always went quickly -- no dinner could really accomodate more than 20 hungry people at at time. But times change, and so did tenacity.

These days, Rucker no longer hosts the supper clubs in his own home, but in facilities with commercial kitchens and more room. And what's more, there's a new game in town: Reality Dinners, hosted by Chef L.J. Wiley at up-and-coming Mexican restaurant Yelapa. So how are things shaking out for the supper club scene now that there's competition?

Tilefish tiradito in kimchee consomme at tenacity
Tilefish tiradito in kimchee consomme at tenacity
Photo by Katharine Shilcutt

tenacity, various locations Check out our slideshow of dishes from a recent tenacity dinner.

Rucker's supper clubs have evolved over time from small, almost clandestine affairs with a like-minded group of food lovers with one or two people in the kitchen to all-out events held in large spaces with -- at times -- a crew of ten sous chefs working the line. Although tenacity went on hiatus while Rucker was heading up the kitchen at Rainbow Lodge, his departure from the restaurant meant that the private dinners started up again to a crowd of still-eager diners.

An average tenacity dinner usually runs around $75, with wine pairings extra (as was the recent case at 13 Celsius). The dinners are normally themed in some offbeat but alluring manner. Take, for example, the recent New Year's Eve tenacity at Paulie's, where Rucker sought input from his Twitter followers on what traditional NYE dishes he could deconstruct and present in a new light for the evening. The result was a menu that included items such as caldo verde with collard greens, grated chorizo, smoked potato and goat's milk (alas, no black-eyed peas).

And for another recent supper at 13 Celsuis, the night's theme was all raw, all the time. Every one of the seven courses presented was a raw seafood item such as giant squid sliced into linguine-like ribbons and coated with Japanese mayo to mimic alfredo sauce, and icefish marinated in vodka with spices and pea shoots. Talking with Rucker afterward, we commented on the veritable army of sous chefs from various area restaurants he had working on the fish that night. His response was prescient: "I'm training them up," he said. Apparently, it's Rucker's intention to act as a Johnny Appleseed of modern cuisine in Houston, teaching younger chefs how to source local ingredients and prepare them in brand-new ways.

 

Coriander & lime crusted pork belly with citrus salad and edible violets on a spicy white bean puree at Reality.
Coriander & lime crusted pork belly with citrus salad and edible violets on a spicy white bean puree at Reality.
Photo by Groovehouse

Reality, 2303 Richmond Avenue Check out our slideshow of dishes from a recent Reality dinner.

The story goes that Rucker was once running down a list of what he called Houston's most talented chefs. He claimed that all of our city's best chefs were working as sous -- Justin Bayse at VOICE (who is now heading the kitchen at Stella Sola), Cody Vasek (also at VOICE) and a relative unknown called L.J. Wiley, who was a sous at Cullen's in Clear Lake. Fast-forward a year, and that same L.J. Wiley is now the head chef at Yelapa Playa Mexicana, and quickly garnering rave reviews for his modern spin on coastal Mexican cuisine.

Inspired by the tenacity dinners and his own desire to showcase local ingredients as much as possible, Wiley has started his own series of supper clubs that he's calling Reality Dinners. Why "reality"? According to Wiley, "These dinners are all about awareness -- awareness of where food comes from and what you are putting into your body." Similar to the tenacity dinners, the food is caught, picked, created or killed as close to the dinner date as possible, and as close to Houston as possible. It makes for an interesting combination of dishes.

The first of the monthly Reality Dinners was held in the cozy upstairs confines of Yelapa, with 13 courses presented throughout the evening to the 12 assembled guests. At $65 a person, that works out to a maddeningly cheap $5 per plate. Courses like tom-ka-pla with cured and raw triggerfish, galangal, and crab mushrooms took our breath away, while we marvelled at the perfectly marbled, fatty pork from Harrison Hog Farms (which promises to take away the coveted Berkshire crown, at least as far as Texas is concerned).

 

Amberjack leche de tigre at tenacity
Amberjack leche de tigre at tenacity
Photo by Katharine Shilcutt

Winner

This may be a divisive answer, or perhaps seen as taking the easy way out. But the real winner here is Houston. If Houston wants to be recognized as a national (or God forbid, international) city of culture, an important part of that culture comes from the food we eat, make and serve in our restaurants. Chefs need an outlet for experimentation and need an audience hungry for both innovative food and local food products. Who wants to eat Sysco all the time anyway? There's room for both Reality and tenacity in town -- and the inspiration that comes along with them.

And in an odd twist of happenstance, the next tenacity dinner on January 24 will be held at -- of all places -- Yelapa. Wiley and Rucker working side by side is proof enough that we aren't the only ones who think both Reality and tenacity are evenly matched.


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