Opinion

Using supper clubs to champion produce and provenance

25 April 2016

Liz OKeefe
Liz O’Keefe

Chef and food writer Liz O’Keefe lets us in on how she is creating a stage to promote consumer awareness and interest in fresh produce and its suppliers via her newly launched supper club

Having gone on about it for years I’ve finally got around to doing it; I’ve started a supper club before I miss the trend completely.

Naturally, it has fresh produce at its heart and focuses on cooking with the seasons – in line with my dinner-party planning and recipe website Seasonal Dinner Parties. But the theme, for this year at least, is mushrooms, as it coincides nicely with the autumn publication of my book, which is co-authored by Michael Hyams (also known as the Mushroom Man).

I’m hosting a supper club per season for spring, summer, autumn and winter, and my big idea is to produce a secret menu that will be revealed at the table on the night. The menu will concentrate on mushrooms as a product, as well as some independent (sometimes small, sometimes artisan) growers and producers.

The aim is to not only please people’s palates, but to interest them in produce and its provenance. Perfect fodder for a dinner party in every way.

Preferring to keep things calm and simple, my 40-odd guests will be entertained with a seven-course mushroom taster menu at the Café From Crisis, the eatery based at Crisis (the national charity for single homeless people), in Aldgate, London.

The recipes will also be published on the Seasonal Dinner Parties website, so people at home can source and prepare the same menu, but on a smaller scale, of course. No Heston-like molecular gastronomy feat for me (phew!).

Proof in the provenance

The very nature of a supper club provokes a preoccupation with provenance. So, as the host, I plan to introduce my dishes with confidence and provide extra knowledge to make the whole experience more interesting and holistic for the diners.

I’ve also picked producers to supply my ingredients on the basis of their story. Through ‘foodie entertainment’, I aim to connect people to the food and the real picture behind it: the livelihoods, the skills and the logistics.

This is not a supper club supplied by a garden kitchen or a one-field-suits-all farm; this will be a representation of the fresh produce industry and how it operates everyday to keep us supplied with fresh fruits and veggies.

My supper clubs will follow the same ethos as my forthcoming mushroom book (to be published by Lorenz Books), in the sense that it’s about the real horticultural scene behind the punnets, as well as tasty and nutritious recipes.

On the night, I will explain (hopefully in a non-preachy, fun-way) that there are networks of commercial mushroom foragers throughout Europe and the world with masses of experience and expertise that have sometimes been passed down from generation to generation.

I want to get across the message that they exist so we can consume safe-to-eat morels in spring or the mighty cep come autumn.

Sourcing the goods

Having started my career as a chef and after interviewing too many chefs not to appreciate that a menu should be based around what’s available and good, I already had several favourite products and their producers in mind.

First on my list, after my culinary partner-in-food Mushroom Man, was family-run firm Cobrey Farms and its Wye Valley branded purple asparagus, as well as its lesser-known but award-winning Roman vineyard’s Castle Brook English sparkling wine.

I remember walking through Cobrey’s asparagus fields around 10 years ago (for an article I was writing at the time), after which the father-and-son team of Jon and Chris Chinn showed me their magical two-hectare vineyard and shared a bottle of their first vintage year wine. The wine uses the same grapes as Champagne and it really gives it a run for its money.

West Midlands grower Westlands was also a first port of call, with its crazy range of micro-cresses, but more importantly for me, the edible flowers that the company produces in its glasshouse facility, which are akin to the powerhouses in Holland.

Others that were harder to chase, however. As a chef I never got to the stage of sourcing – I got as far as pricing up my dishes before it became clear that a less fast-paced, food-orientated version of life was the way forward for me.

A quick response is essential, no matter how small the order. Much like the fresh produce industry, you feel like you are flying by the seat of your pants. You’ve got to get everything in place; from the glassware to crockery, and lighting to legal. Then you’ve got the perishables to sort. It’s like running a mini restaurant.

Sourcing for just one night can be tough though. Thankfully, good relationships plus reactive, and sometimes proactive, people can make all the difference. I can only imagine what it’s like being in charge of a full-time restaurant and serving people everyday – it’s a sure fire way to have a nervous breakdown when you can’t even guarantee the amount of people coming through your doors or how much they will order.

Getting people interested

Publicity started around about six months ago via a modern word-of-mouth piece and social media activity. And there was a press element. Many targeted emails and embarrassingly direct tweets later, and it’s been long-standing friends and contacts that have come through in the end.

There was a golden tweet about from delicious (173,967 followers and counting) and a piece on spring mushrooms on delicious. online, plus two review posts to come from travel and food website Foodtripper.com, not to mention my supper club inspiration – Rosie Llewellyn from A Little Lusciousness (she is the one to blame for all this, by the way).

Providing links to the various producers involved and the drinks featured have also helped. But, I’ll admit, organising your first supper club is tough and the normal barriers of not having a proven product are clear, as well as the focus on mushrooms, which some might class as a ‘Marmite product’.

For a good cause

Nonetheless, it’s helped that the event will be held at the Crisis café because a fee for the venue will go to the charity, which helps integrate homeless people in London back into jobs and society. Crisis will also receive the profit and there should be more than usual since most of the producers are kindly donating or part-donating their wares.

Money is often uncomfortable (for me, anyway) and it’s hard to set a price for something that hasn’t proven its worth or has an obvious value. In the end I’ve opted for £45 a ticket, which includes the whole night’s food, drink and entertainment. Even so, I worry I’m undervaluing the very expensive wild mushrooms, but demand requires interest and that interest can only come from knowing the product in the first place.

As I keep on saying, it’s all a learning curve. So, what will be, will be. I’m hoping for a sellout – for the charity donations more than anything. And, like the mad woman I am, I’ve already set up the three subsequent supper clubs, to be held in summer (June 25), autumn (September 24) and winter (November 24). All will be hosted at Café From Crisis.

I’ll let you know how it goes…

Supper Club: Mushrooms in Spring

Where: Café From Crisis, 64 Commercial Street, London E1 6LT

When: April 23, 7pm till finish

What: Mushrooms and sparkling wine, plus a vegetarian option and non-alcoholic drinks 

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