It's Okay to Talk about Supper Club
Mike Lee, BBA '02, is cooking up eventful dining with Studiofeast.
ANN ARBOR, Mich. — The New York culinary scene is notoriously competitive. But Mike Lee, BBA '02, is proving you can challenge people's palates while providing home-cooking comfort, you can create buzz by creating intimacy, and you can do it part time.
Lee is the founder of Studiofeast, a supper club that features unique culinary experiences in a setting designed to feel like a friend's house. In fact, that's how Studiofeast got started six years ago, when Lee, who then was an analyst at American Express, discovered he liked having friends over for dinner. As the size of the dinners grew — in terms of both menu and audience — Lee and his cooking partners realized they were part of a burgeoning supper club trend in Manhattan. Studiofeast has been featured in the New York Times and the New York Post, and Lee has appeared on the Cooking Channel, at South by Southwest, and more.
"There are thousands of great restaurants in the city that have great food, but don't offer that convivial atmosphere you get at someone's home," says Lee. "On the flip side, being at a friend's house might not mean great dining. We try to take the best of both scenarios. Especially in New York, people are always looking for something new and interesting to do, and the supper club concept has really caught on."
Lee runs Studiofeast with two friends; none are professional chefs. They advertise their events via an email list that numbers close to 3,000. Because he doesn't rely on Studiofeast as his sole source of income, Lee says he has more freedom to push the culinary envelope. At times, Studiofeast has hosted some 150 people for dinners exceeding 10 courses, but a group of 12-25 people is their sweet spot. While he's glad to have had the experience of producing high-quality food at a heavier volume, a smaller size allows Lee more time to mingle with his audience and talk to them about the culinary concept he's presented. "Education is important to me. I like to be able to tell people about the guy who that morning foraged the mushrooms they're eating that night."
A key piece of that education is making good, interesting food accessible to the time-crunched masses. Lee stresses to guests that he is a guy with a busy job (now in product design and innovation at Chobani) and a busy life — just like them. His goal is to demonstrate culinary principles that people can apply at the end of their workday.
"You can put a really nice, home-cooked meal on the table for your family without killing yourself," says Lee, who makes a point of not calling himself a chef because "that name puts a wall between me and other people." He points out that there are abstract cookbooks on the market that are become nothing more than coffee table decorations. On the other hand, watered-down cookbooks don't give the reader enough credit. In between, says Lee, is the audience he's trying to reach with Studiofeast. "There are smart people who don't need things dumbed down but don't need extreme complexity, either. They see that I have a job, just like they do. I have a small kitchen, like they do. I shop at their grocery stores. And I'm able to pull together these meals, which means they can, too."
Previous Studiofeast meals have included a dinner held on the subway, as well as a doppelganger dinner that featured vegetarian and omnivore versions of dishes that identically mirrored each other. Lee says he knew that dinner was a success when diners were sampling everything without thought to which was which. "There was this confusion happening, and people were delighted by it."
That sense of enjoyment is even more impressive given that Studiofeast diners usually are complete strangers. Lee doesn't try to stage the interactions by strategically seating a lawyer, for example, next to an artist. Instead, he says the commonality of the dining experience organically fosters conversation — and even some love matches and professional partnerships.
"People who come to a Studiofeast event really want to be there and know all that it entails. They know it's the place you come when you want dinner and the evening's entertainment all in one setting. We take the food seriously, but we don't take ourselves too seriously. The biggest point of Studiofeast is that it's got to be fun."
Learn more about Studiofeast at http://studiofeast.com/our-story/.
— Amy Spooner
For more information, contact:
Amy Spooner, firstname.lastname@example.org