The phenomenon known as the pop-up dinner, in which nontraditional spaces are converted into short-term dining venues, has been around for a few years. But a quickly expanding company named Dinner Lab is bringing what originally was a haphazard practice to a professional scale. And Baltimore is among the newest markets for the New Orleans-based company.
Dinner Lab will make its official Baltimore debut on Aug. 15. The company is now enrolling subscribers for its series of dining events, each of which showcases a single chef who creates a multicourse menu for the dinner.
Dinner Lab events are still held in nontraditional locations — hence the term "pop-up" — but the events are professionally managed by a permanent staff. They also, according to Dinner Lab founder and CEO Brian Bordainick, have a broader audience then the old-style pop-up dinners, which tended to be publicized within a small circle of friends.
Dinner Lab members share an interest in dining adventures, Bordainick said. "We'll often see some 22-year-old hipster sitting next to a 65-year-old retired person. How often do people eat with people 20 years older or younger?"
Members are notified of dinners several weeks in advance but learn the location only on the eve of the event. Bordainick said a typical venue is a commercial property in transition, perhaps in the final stages of construction or recently placed on the market.
The chefs for the Baltimore dinners, according to Bordainick, will sometimes be based in Baltimore but not always. The Aug. 15 dinner in Baltimore will feature a Vietnamese menu from chef Nini Nguyen, who is based in Brooklyn, N.Y.
The most successful chefs — Dinner Lab gathers extensive feedback from its members — are then invited to go on a national tour, where they will re-create their menus in other Dinner Lab cities. Nguyen was working as a sous chef at Eleven Madison Park in New York City when she made her first Dinner Lab dinner; she is now among a cadre of chefs who work for the company full time.
The chefs selected for Dinner Lab dinners are, like Nguyen, not executive chefs, Bordainick said. Most often, the featured chef works in a second- or third-rung position like sous chef or chef de cuisine. Bordainick said Dinner Lab especially likes to feature chefs who are trying to push cuisine forward.
Members pay an annual subscription fee, which Bordainick said goes toward commissary rental fees and for salaries of full-time support staff.
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Baltimore is among what Bordainick refers to as the "second wave" of new Dinner Lab markets, smaller cities with emerging dining scenes. The original markets were in cities like Los Angeles and New York.
Among the second-wave cities, Bordainick said, "The ones we're excited about are ones that resemble New Orleans, which are typecast as having one type of cuisine."
Bordainick said Baltimore's restaurant scene has a lot in common with New Orleans'. Both cities, he said, are perceived, at least by outsiders, as having limited culinary specialties — Creole and Cajun for New Orleans, seafood for Baltimore.
A native New Yorker, Bordainick, 28, moved to New Orleans in the months after Hurricane Katrina to work for Teach for America. He had short stints working in government and investment but found himself wanting to return to his service-industry roots. Dinner Lab emerged out of a series of midnight dinners that Bordainick staged in New Orleans. But midnight dinners were chaotic, he said — most diners showed up drunk.