Want to tell the chef at your favorite corner BYOB what you really think of her new-for-fall dishes? Sign up for Tasting Collective. The members-only dining club is expanding to Philly next month, giving restaurant-obsessed Philadelphians the chance to take part in private dinners, share feedback with chefs, and get a behind-the-scenes look at what goes into putting plates on the table. It launches early October, with three eateries already locked in: Russet in Center City, East Passyunk Avenue’s Will BYOB, and Cadence in Kensington.
Nat Gelb started Tasting Collective in New York City two years ago, after seeing the response to dinners he set up for friends in private rooms at local restaurants. Through word of mouth, the small events grew bigger and bigger, until he was easily able to take over an entire restaurant for two seatings a night, with chefs making dishes that aren’t usually on the menu. The supper club expanded to Chicago and then San Francisco, and now Philly.
“I didn’t have a connection to Philadelphia before I started prepping for our expansion there, but I totally fell in love with it,” Gelb says. “I live in Brooklyn, and Philly has a similar vibe — there’s a palpable energy, with this very vibrant, bustling food scene with innovative, small, independent, chef-owned restaurants.”
Those chef-owned restaurants are the key to Tasting Collective. Here’s how it works: Gelb and his team approach a place like Will, usually only open Wednesday to Sunday, and promise to fill the restaurant on a night that it’s typically closed or slow, often with two seatings. The restaurant knows in advance how many people are coming in, which means it knows how much food to buy and prepare, and it keeps all the money it brings in. Diners pay $50 a head, not including tax and tip.
Tasting Collective makes its money by selling $165 annual memberships. Only members can purchase tickets to the dinners. (They can also bring guests, for an extra $25.)
“We don’t make money off the events themselves — I knew this wasn’t going to work if we were gouging restaurants; they’re struggling enough,” Gelb says. “But we’re coming in, bringing in new people, and a restaurant is making as much on a Sunday or Monday as it usually would on a Friday.”
Along with the meal, members are signing up for intimate conversations with notable chefs.
When the dishes start coming out, the chef comes out too and tells the story behind the food: the inspiration for the restaurant or where certain ingredients come from, or maybe how a particular dish is made and where he learned the recipe. Meanwhile, “the food comes out constantly,” Gelb says. “We call it an eight-course feast, but there’s no break. The food just keeps coming, it’s a whirlwind experience.”
Diners jot down questions for the chef on cards, for a Q&A that takes place at the close of the meal. They’re also given menus — printed by Tasting Collective — and invited to rate each dish and write comments. The annotated menus are collected for the kitchen.
“Feedback is a big part of the experience,” Gelb says. “Attendees get to try out stuff that’s not on the regular menu — dishes the chef is playing around with, testing out. And then the chef gets really awesome feedback in a closed-loop system. It’s not feedback that lives online on Yelp forever. It’s feedback that all about being constructive.”
Gelb likes an aura of urgency around Tasting Collective’s events. The first dinners in Philly are October 8 and 9, and memberships are just opening now. Once it takes off, Tasting Collective dinners will pop up at different restaurants every other week, with the when-and-where reveal about a week ahead of each event. “That’s plenty of time,” Gelb says. “These will fill up.”