No sooner had servers set down truck-tire-sized metal platters laden with various Ethiopian stews than the hungry private party of 26 people seated in the back dining room of Culver City's Industry Cafe & Jazz descended into a cutlery-free feeding frenzy.
Diners fought one another for hunks of spongy injera bread with which to mop up every dribble of spicy goat tibise and a raw, minced beef dish called kitfo, both off-menu dishes specially prepared for this group. Some people didn't even know what they were eating — and didn't bother to ask — until after the meal was over.
"That was raw beef? I thought it was lentils!" exclaimed actor Christian Magdu (who has appeared on HBO's "True Blood"). "Whatever it was tasted amazing."
There was a lot of conversation about the distinct pleasures of Sriracha sauce and even rumors of horse tacos at Grand Central Market. But left largely unspoken on that October evening was the common denominator that connected nearly everyone in attendance: Hollywood.
Foodies, as the group is informally known, is a monthly gathering of up to 50 core attendees — writers, directors, actors, agents and producers among them. It's functioned as an adventure eating club in Los Angeles for the last decade. The collective is more likely to trawl the city in pursuit of Korean soybean milk cold noodles than, say, nibble on small plates at A.O.C.
And there's the key to what makes these eaters unique.
Hollywood folk tend to wine and dine within the narrow parameters of expense account eating. They're known for "doing" lunch, not for taking even the slightest food risk. Generally speaking, it's a culture of "dressing on the side," of gluten-free carb-o-phobia where a person's avocado allergy or vegetarianism can be defining characteristics.
Moreover, when eating out on business, people in the industry tend to stick to a few tried-and-true canteens like Mid-City's Campanile and Ca'Brea, Morton's steakhouse in Burbank and Kate Mantilini or Sushi Sushi in Beverly Hills. In other words, places known for quality but almost certainly not for gustatory experimentation.
So, in inverse reaction to the town's gastronomical etiquette, movie development executive Gloria Fan founded Foodies in 2000, when chatting with a colleague about their shared fondness for spicy food inspired her first communal eating expedition. "I said, 'Let's invite a bunch of people who would actually be willing to venture east of La Brea for a meal,'" Fan recalls.
At her behest, a group of 10 — industry denizens all — traveled to Koreatown's Beverly Soon Tofu restaurant to sample spicy caldrons of the restaurant's namesake bean curds. And a monthly ritual was born. Although members have come and gone over the years, the Foodies mailing list has grown to include some four dozen dedicated gourmands through word of mouth.
To hear it from Fan, vice president of production and development at Mosaic Media Group, the Foodies' aim is to boldly eat what they haven't eaten before (no sushi or chicken Caesars, for example) and to capitalize on local resources that have, in recent years, made Los Angeles one of the world's most exciting culinary destinations.
"We like the ethnic diversity of Los Angeles and want to take advantage of that," Fan says. "People in Hollywood are passionate about things. It could be movies or TV, but often it is food. There are a lot of hidden foodies out here."
That passion can often lead group members to neighborhoods situated decidedly outside Hollywood's Beemer-friendly environs. Spencer Walker, a TV writer and former personal chef who wrote the culinary seduction guide "Cook to Bang," fondly remembers the Foodies' taco truck run in Highland Park in January. Fan printed detailed maps of the area (pinpointing locales such as a truck known as Income Tax Tacos for its regular parking spot in front of an H&R Block) and shepherded the group of two dozen or so Westside-centric people through their eating paces.
"There was just this whole string of entertainment folks who would probably have never come to this neighborhood otherwise," Walker says. "And here they are wandering the streets, eating birria tacos on curbs."
But given the group's restaurant choices, dinner can often come with surprises. TV and movie production designer Jeff Pogue fanned his mouth and winced, recalling his painful introduction to Thai curried fish kidney at Jitlada in 2007.
"It smelled like garbage, tasted like heaven, and it burned my mouth off," said Pogue (who has worked on films such as Brian DePalma's "The Black Dahlia"), breaking into a grin. "Like spicy fish sewage."
At her introductory Foodies get-together in September at Simpang Asia, an Indonesian restaurant located at a mini-mall in Palms, actress Elena Grassel (who was in the indie feature film "Tween") fell victim to a culinary bait-and-switch courtesy of some well-meaning proprietors.
"They were so nice. They put down the dish and said, 'Chicken, chicken!'" she says. "And it wasn't chicken. It was [beef] brains!"
But in stark contrast to such dues-paying, members-only dinner party groups in the city as the Supper Club or even any number of Facebook-organized epicurean groups, Foodies is more about the shared thrill of eating at unusual places than networking. "There's very little shop talk here," says production designer Michael Levinson. "It's not an industry meet and greet."
On a recent fall evening, at a long, communal table at Culver City's El Baron restaurant, conversation centered on delicacies from across the culinary universe — not development deals.
Plates of chicharrón pupusas and pastelitos rellenos started arriving from the Savadoran/Mexican restaurant's kitchen while talk focused on cow eyeball tacos in Santa Barbara and where to find Thai fried ant salad in Hollywood. By the time the beef tongue in tomato sauce course commenced, discussion had moved on to Disneyland's hidden Jamaican barbecue, the Food Network TV series "The Great Food Truck Race" and the merits of Himalayan yak chili.
Movie producer Diana Williams, a founding Foodies member who recently wrapped the documentary "Industrial Light & Magic: Creating the Impossible," put a finer point on the collective impetus: "Other foodie groups can be about snobbery. We come down to throw down."
Levinson, who worked on Spike network's "1000 Ways to Die" and the 2011 feature film "Slightly Single in L.A.," has been part of Foodies since 2006 and helps organize its events by tracking down suitably exotic dining spots. He provided a kind of mission statement for the group.
"We look for hole-in-the-wall places, places people don't know about," Levinson says. "The question, 'How'd you find out about this place?' Or, 'I've never eaten this kind of food before' — that makes me happy. We're trying to go wherever the typical Hollywood veneer isn't."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun