After chopping vegetables for a dinner party for 60, and serving as many appetizer plates of potato croquette fried in duck fat with crème fraiche and caviar, Lisa Stern, a homemaker from Calabasas, sits down beside her husband to eat her meal.
"You'd never think you'd want to spend $300 per couple to self-serve. But I love it. I mean, who does that?" gushes Stern, a sprightly blond who was in attendance at an underground dinner party hosted by a traveling food-as-educational-theater group called A Razor, a Shiny Knife.
On this particular Saturday in August, everyone in the Wilshire office lobby-cum-makeshift dining room is doing it. The next week, 40 people will have paid that kind of money to make their own meals in San Francisco. This fall and winter nearly as many are expected to do so in Washington, D.C.; Miami; Chicago; New York City; and then, the first week in December, again in L.A. In February, residents of Colombia, Panama and Argentina will have a chance.
The success of the group's formula — hosting a seven-hour-long event in a nontraditional space where guests help prepare and serve a six-to-15-course meal while taking in demonstrations on knife skills, the proper use of liquid nitrogen and how to sous-vide short ribs bonded together with transglutaminase — is growing proof that the era of digital interactivity and the unstoppable popularity of television cooking shows have collided to create more than a generation of amateur food photographers.
Forget "So You Think You Can Dance"; here it's all about "So You Think You Can Be Ferran Adrià."
"We want to take the dining world and tell them you can make Thomas Keller's food at home. And do it with your friends, not for them," says the group's 31-year-old co-founder Michael J. Cirino, a dark-haired, heavy-lidded performer/cook who spouts off complicated ingredient names like methylcellulose almost as often as he good-naturedly salts his language with swear words.
And watching the carefully orchestrated interplay of preparation and explanation that bounces between Cirino and his two cohorts, chef Daniel Castaño and Jonny Cigar (who specializes in wine, mixology and non sequiturs), it's easy to believe that you too could round up a few pals on a Sunday night, crack some eggs into a plastic bag, fortify them with truffle gelée and serve them atop a neat round of condensed duck leg that has been bonded with Activa and shaped in a SmartWater bottle.
That is, if you could afford the supplies. A quality sous-vide cooker — essentially a tub of heated water with a pump that moves the liquid around in order to slow-cook food at a very specific temperature — costs around $700; and a good tank for holding liquid nitrogen can run about $600. For its jaunts, the ARASK group travels with 65 pounds of food (much of it in plastic sous-vide bags) and nearly $15,000 worth of equipment. The group also builds makeshift kitchens, as well as the tables for its guests, in under 24 hours.
In short, loving to cook isn't enough. You have to be obsessed. And maybe a bit weird.
A Razor, a Shiny Knife grew out of weekly Sunday hang sessions that Cirino and Castaño shared with other friends in McCarren Park in Brooklyn. The year was 2007 and the park hosted free concerts on the same day. As the hour grew late they realized they were hungry but knew they couldn't just show up at a restaurant with 20 people. Instead, they would go back to someone's house and cook as a group. From there, things got more serious and much more elaborate.
"We used to get together to play bocce and drink wine next to where the concert was," explains Cirino, adding that they wouldn't go near the concerts themselves because they "smelled like hipster."
Still, Cirino looks suspiciously hip himself. During the group's Los Angeles engagement he sports a possibly ironic mustache and dresses in a custom-made three-piece suit with a fat striped tie, a sky-blue shirt complete with monogrammed cuffs, black shoes and an old-fashioned silver spoon in his breast pocket.
The same goes for Cigar, who wears an ascot as well as pointy brown shoes and a custom blue suit with a copy of "The Clown" by Heinrich Boll tucked into his outer side pocket. "This poem pairs well with the wine," he says as he reads from the book. Earlier, he had read to the table from "The Great Gatsby" to great comic effect. Later it would be from Hemingway's "A Moveable Feast."
Cigar's deadpan goofiness adds a sizable portion of theatricality to the event. So does Cirino's consummate showmanship. He plays the ringmaster, shouting out orders — "I need 55 plates on the table!" — before casually leaning his elbow on a guest's shoulder and gamely asking, "You ever been to a dinner party in a lobby before?"
The event is taking place at the 5900 Wilshire office building. After Stern chops vegetables but before she serves croquettes, guests are ushered 32 floors to the roof, where they sip White Elephant cocktails "gently muddled" by Cigar and take in 360-degree views of the smog-ringed city and the gurgling La Brea Tar Pits below.
Leaning on a whitewashed ledge beside a giant cluster of satellite dishes that emit a rapid, electronic beeping noise (another nontraditional set piece for an unusual evening), an affable, middle-aged couple named Ken and Hinda Ziskin talk about their love of cooking.
"Tomorrow we're going to try our first ice cream," says Hinda — president of a company that chromes wheels — as Cirino breezes by on his hosting rounds.
"They're lying!" he chides. "They're both on TV. He actually penned a cookbook called '101 Ways to Prepare Geoduck.'"
The Ziskins chuckle as he disappears across the roof. "He's great," says Hinda, all smiles.
When the group files back down to the lobby at 7 p.m. dinner service is about to begin.
"We've got 10 minutes, how are we doing?" shouts Cirino to Castaño and a group of volunteers who are putting the final touches on the first course. A young woman in a polyester 1970s evening gown decorated with lily pads cracks eggs at a long table; soft music swells from hidden speakers; Castaño whips up crème fraiche; guests begin plating food, carefully dotting each croquette with caviar; and wine is poured. Excited voices reverberate off the lobby's lofty ceilings as a table is whisked out to accommodate an overflow crowd.
"As much fun as it is for us, it's fun for them as well. They're getting a lot of enjoyment out of it," says Max Roberts — a chef at the recently opened members-only Soho House in West Hollywood who came out of curiosity with fellow chef Nicky Pickup — noting the hammy pleasure Cirino and Cigar take in the controlled chaos of the proceedings.
Sitting nearby, friends Megan Sethi and Daisy Anand sip wine and giggle. "You see this on all the food shows, then you get to do it," Anand says.
"I wish I had gone to culinary school," Sethi says.
"We still should!" Anand adds.
But as the final plates are bussed and new friends say their goodbyes, Cirino stresses that this type of social cookery is not about schooled precision, it's about camaraderie. "The interactivity, the discovery — just doing it and getting physical and getting dirty and then sitting down and eating food that you made together," he says. "That's how you own a meal."