There’s a new culinary trend sweeping through major U.S. cities, and it has less to do the food than the experience itself. Communal dining is on the rise, and startups are honing in on this concept make it mainstream. Companies like Outstanding in the Field, Eat With, and Feastly are leading the charge. The latter has established venues in five food-loving cities, giving chefs a platform to curate a unique menu for an intimate group of strangers who share a love for good food and dynamic conversation.
The modern practice of communal dining is more sophisticated than one may initially imagine. It is not sitting on the floor with a group of people, spooning heaps of food from large pots with bits of bread; nor does it embrace the potluck philosophy of bringing one’s own dish. The communal dining experience is a choreographed event that completely relieves the guests of all responsibility.
“I was drawn to this experience because I knew I didn’t have to choose. I like letting the chef decide. It feels like you’re being taken care of,” Chistina C., a guest at a recent communal dining event, remarked.
In Feastly's case, the chef creates a set, multi-course menu with a specific theme or ethnic influence. The guest list is limited to ten to sixty “Feasters,” depending on the venue’s capacity. Upon arrival, guests are greeted by the venue host and seat themselves at long dining tables. The chef is formally introduced, and he or she explains their culinary concept. Feasters are then left to engage with each other and enjoy the meal as the courses are presented one by one.
“Its the best of both worlds," says Christina R., assistant to LA-based chef Rachel Carr, who recently hosted a vegan Peruvian Dinner. "I felt like I was at a friend’s house for dinner, because I got to meet cool new people, like friends of friends. But I also loved that I was waited on like at a nice restaurant. Plus the food was phenomenal - better than most restaurant food and definitely better than my friend’s cooking!”
Communal dining breaks down the barriers of the restaurant and allows for free flow of conversation and a deeper appreciation for the meal. In a traditional restaurant, it would be in poor taste to intrude on another table and share their bottle or ask how they heard about the event. At a Feastly meal, mingling (and BYOB) is encouraged. Further, there is no pressure over what one will order. The menu is fixed so the guest is not faced with challenge of indecision, or influenced one way or the other based on their fellow diner’s orders (let’s face it, if she gets the salad you will, too). Expect bold new flavors and dishes from subcultures not often (or ever) seen in restaurants, such as vegan Peruvian. It is a chance to eat boldly, savor shamelessly, and connect with others on the same culinary journey.
These communal pop-up meals also benefit local, up-and-coming chefs by giving them an opportunity to showcase their creativity and skills. The idea is especially popular with the niche culinary crowd, from self-taught food bloggers to classically trained personal chefs. For example, Michelle Marquis is a freelancing chef for celebrity clients, but on social media, she transforms into an allergen-friendly vegan punk rock princess.
“You can only be so creative when you’re a personal chef because your job is to cater to someone’s specific palette. Feastly gives me a creative outlet I never had before, not even in a restaurant. I love that.” Marquis' recently hosted an “Awful Waffle” series. Her vegan, gluten-free matcha waffle topped with roasted banana ice cream, figs, blueberries, bananas, walnuts, and maple syrup left guests swooning with delight.
The emergence of communal dining is revolutionizing the way we eat. Adults so often eat the same thing, alone, and without consciousness. We mindlessly shovel in dinner in front of the television, fork through a sad lunch at our desks, nibble near the buffet because we’re tired of small talk at the party, or gobble down breakfast in our cars. Shared meals revive a sense of comfort and excitement in the everyday monotony of meal time.
A regular Feastly chef in the LA circuit,Nicole Derseweh notes that all the Blue Zones "have a strong sense of community. Its the one thing that truly feeds and nourishes us, aside from food. Combing the two just makes sense.”
Yes, “food is fuel,” but it can be so much more than that. Food is a form of social entertainment and engagement. It can bring about new friends, ideas, and a better understanding of another culture.
Marquis, not only a chef but a participant, summarized her experience at Chef Derseweh’s recent vegan Unicorn Brunch: ”You come to this space and you’re surrounded by strangers, but you leave with a bunch of new friends and a really satisfied tummy.”
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