An Evening of Culinary Hedonism…and, so much more.
I remember a salmon dish my Dad always ordered at a favorite spot. The memory makes me smile. Mostly, because of my Dad. But, also, because of that salmon. You probably have memories like that, too. The special kind, wrapped in and around food, startling in their clarity.
If so, attending a supper club like Culinary Hedonism is the next rung on the ladder for you; a call up to the semi-pros. You come to a thing like this on purpose, to create memories and consume them. There’s no other reason you would sit at an intimate dinner eating food you didn’t order from a chef you never met with ten other diners of the same ilk. It’s an undertaking that, at the least, will challenge your food and travel knowledge and your ability to socialize with complete strangers from diverse walks of life. At the most, it may challenge a few other things.
Audrey Jacobs has introduced, from her backyard in South Park, a new entrant to the San Diego supper club scene with Culinary Hedonism, which is also the trade name of Executive Chef Peter Calley’s private chef business. And, my new stripper name. The dinner experience exceeds its moniker completely, with much more being indulgently feasted upon than mere food. The stripping…it’s more of an elemental nature than a physical one.
Like most serious foodies, Audrey has a day job to help support her habit. Part of that job is traveling frequently and widely, allowing her to pursue a hobby of seeking out supper clubs throughout her travels. With Culinary Hedonism, she’s curated those experiences into an epiphanic event that can only be truly grasped once you’ve attended. It’s an eight course choreographed meal complete with attentive, polished front of house service. It’s also Audrey doing, you’ll observe, what she does best, which is facilitating, introducing, interacting, deciphering, directing, bussing, fetching, serving…super-hostessing the dinner experience with the grace of a ballerina and the panache of a salsa dancer.
Cue the food, which, of course, is the music that Audrey, and, by extension, the rest of us, dance to. It’s the siren’s call to participate in the Culinary Hedonism experience. Other than Chef Peter’s email describing that “dinners are geared toward the ‘conscientious omnivore’…featuring dishes that include seasonal produce, shellfish, game, red meat, gluten, dairy, etc.,” you have very little information to help you decide whether or not to even attend. But, yes, that’s enough. Whatever new happenings and company are in store for you are worth it. Because of the food. The promise of a great food experience tends to do that to people like us – galvanize anticipation and interest to a level that overrides any undercurrents of doubt or apprehension.
There’s a lot happening with Peter’s food. Yes, everything he serves at Culinary Hedonism tastes fresh…like picked up from the forest floor or caught off the pier this afternoon fresh. But, you’d expect that from a chef with Pacific Northwest roots. Freshness alone, though – that’s not enough to make food great. If it were, we wouldn’t need chefs, only foragers, farmers, fishermen and hunters. Flavors must be enhanced and textures considered to turn fresh ingredients into memorable ones. There are as many different ways of accomplishing that as there are people that have ever prepared a meal.
The grilled marinated spanish octopus served early during our meal indicated that the width and breadth of ingredients alone were a bit staggering. The tenderness of the octopus and the seamless integration of flavors and elements were an indicator of the excellent technique being applied. Instead of a heavy use of spices, Culinary Hedonism courses are dominated by aromatic, enriching, herbal notes, somehow extracted from each of the utilized ingredients without compromising them. There’s no in-fighting or muddling between components – everything on the plate has an identity. Even the simplest seasonal dishes like heirloom beets and roasted carrots stand out as memorable, each articulating distinctive, unmasked, concentrated, earthy, root flavors and fragrances with every bite. You’ll be surprised you like them so much, given that we are in produce rich, farm to table-centric San Diego where any boutique restaurant worth its existence does a version.
You may catch yourself picking at each dish because your palate to brain neurons are telling you that there’s something more going on than just the one or two perfect bites that meals like this usually surrender. In doing so, you’ll discover that there are perfect micro-bites on each plate, where any sum of the individual components of protein, vegetables, nuts, fruits, herbs, seeds and emulsions add up to a unique taste and texture experience.
You’ll certainly question at some point whether the meal is really all about the food. It isn’t. That would be counter to the supper club concept. One of the main ingredients in the supper club experience is the conversation; the sharing of life, food and travel experiences with your dining partners. The flavor of each dinner changes, too, dependent on the mix of guests attending and their willingness to shed their social armor.
At Culinary Hedonism, this element isn’t left to chance. The evening’s festivities are choreographed and directed by Audrey and performed by the diners. Your first inkling is when you receive an email from Audrey after registering. It begins by addressing the particulars of the dinner. Then, there’s the mildly angst inspiring reference to a tradition that dates back to Irish salons of the early 20th century, requesting that each guest bring “a bit of your soul to share,” in the form of “a story, song, quote, poem or joke to enliven the conversation.”
Whoa, there, Cowgirl…I have a few questions! How serious, enlightening, funny, inspiring or irreverent should this soulful vignette be? Am I gonna have to do this at the dinner table? Out loud? Maybe, wink, wink, you can give me a pass? No? What’s my time limit? Can I do a Powerpoint? Oh, never mind. The anticipation is a good reason to do some scotch imbibing beforehand and some wine quaffing in the aftermath.
Inexorably, peppered between courses, stirring stories were shared; some funny, some adventurous, some inspiring, some thought provoking. There were tales of brushes with death, guerilla shopping trips, entrepreneurship, accomplishment of life goals, book authorship and lifelong love discovered and requited. No one gets off the hook here, not even those souls tucked in the corner, professing extreme shyness and a dearth of cooking ability. Good thing – hers was the best food story of the evening. And, their stories, naturally, become part of yours. Yes, this is a good tradition to perpetuate.
You’re lured back to the here and now by the food, served unobtrusively, inducing wonderment at the apparition-like appearance on the table of plated courses for twelve. You’ll admire the food and its presentation. You’ll taste it. Again. You’ll discuss the food, along with the most recent personal revelation or story shared by your tablemates. You’ll allow the food to do what it does so naturally by transcending social barriers as one of the non-negotiable constants of the human condition. We must all eat.
Roasting a marshmallow to end the Culinary Hedonism evening, I remember the last time I had done so. With my kids during our desert camping days. And I smile. Mostly, because of my kids. But, also, because of that marshmallow.
Culinary Hedonism. Indeed.
Cheers, to you and your stories, my friends!