The best ideas often start with a question.
A little more than two years ago, Renée Lavallée was on maternity leave from her day job as executive chef at a Halifax restaurant. She’d also been thinking about leaving that same job, to focus her energies on something else, something new. Something in her neck of the woods, in the Canadian city of Dartmouth, just across the harbor from Halifax.
But the question was: What and where could this be?
The answer was just a few blocks from her home, in a popular java joint called Two If By Sea, or TIBS for short. The café is run by friends of Lavallée’s, Zane Kelsall and Tara MacDonald. Lavallée asked the duo whether she could host a monthly pop-up dinner at their restaurant. Details were hashed out, responsibilities decided upon and soon the first TIBS Family Dinner came to be. Since then, more than 30 dinners have been served, featuring everything from a whole roast pig to an asparagus-themed meal. The dinners seat about 30 people and tend to be three-course affairs, with desserts made by TIBS’ MacDonald. Servings tend to be generous, keeping in line with TIBS’ penchant for making things on the larger side. (MacDonald’s croissants are as fat and as wide as your fist.) All this for $50, including tax and tip. “If I weren’t doing these meals, I’d be eating them,” jokes Lavallée.
Each evening starts with diners entering the cafe, the space flanked by four long wooden tables adorned with place cards. The communal-style seating is part of the charm, as you never know who will sit next to you. “It’s about the experience of getting together and meeting new people and eating good food,” Lavallée says. “Originally, we wanted it to be like going to your grandmother’s, where people pass food around.” Things have changed a bit since the dinners started; food is now brought to you, rather than served family style. But the mood is still very relaxed, says Renée. “It’s not high-end. It’s casual, solid food.”
Supper clubs invite diners into the chef’s arena
The idea of supper clubs has caught on throughout the area. Unlike some pop-ups that are one-night-only affairs, there is a consistency in the planning and execution of the meals. It also allows chefs from the city’s food establishments to leave their old menus behind. “When we started, restaurants saw it, and some of them did their own version, but most have fallen by the wayside,” Lavallée says.
Back in Halifax, Frederic Tandy has found supper clubs to be a way for him to combine his catering with his love of the theatrics of the kitchen. Tandy runs Ratinaud French Cuisine, a storefront for his charcuterie and take-home meals like quiches and cassoulet. But on certain evenings, customers enter the inner sanctum of his kitchen, turned into a makeshift dining room. “We arrange the kitchen in a way that when people sit at the table they can see the kitchen, how we cook and prepare their dinner,” says Tandy. For him, it was a way to get back into food service, but on his terms. “I missed the plating and the creativity,” he says. “In my catering I do private dinners, but instead of me going to people’s home we decided to bring them into our environment.”
Tandy’s events are little more intimate than others, as he tends to keep the headcount around 10. For him, the smaller seatings are part of the charm. “I believe that supper clubs have become popular because it creates a unique experience,” he says. “It’s very rare that when you go to the restaurant that you are seated with a stranger, but that makes it more interested because you never know who you are going to meet.”
Kathy Jollimore, who writes the Eat Halifax blog, agrees the level of intimacy between diners is part of the charm, but for her, it’s about the connection possible with the people who put them on that cinches it. “The chef is no longer relegated to the kitchen but rather becomes part of the experience itself,” she says. “More and more people want to be involved with their food, to know where it comes from, to meet the farmer, to see firsthand the chef’s process.”
That process can sometimes be a bit intense for the chefs involved. “Poaching 50 eggs within five minutes was a little dodgy,” jokes Renée Lavallée. “But other than that, we haven’t had any major hang-ups. We keep it simple.”
Keeping it simple for these chefs also means keeping it authentic and autonomous. “It’s a chance to be creative again,” says Lavallée. “I don’t have anyone telling me what to do. I can work with suppliers I love and figure what I can and cannot use. It gives me a chance to do what I want to, whether it be Asian, Mediterranean or French Canadian.”
Top photo: Alexis Kelsall (left), the wife of TIBS co-owner Zane Kelsall, and Renée Lavallée at one of the monthly pop-up dinners. Credit: Doug Townsend