5 Questions With Zach Kupperman of Dinner Lab
Dinner Lab, a popular members-only supper club that gives a platform to emerging local chefs, is expanding to St. Louis this fall. In advance of the Sept. 19 Dinner Lab in St. Louis, we caught up with Zach Kupperman, one of the co-founders, to pick his brain about the roots of Dinner Lab, their national network of chefs and what we can expect at the first Dinner Lab meal in St. Louis.
ALIVE: How would you describe Dinner Lab to someone who wasn’t familiar with the concept?
Zach Kupperman: Dinner Lab is a membership organization where you pay an annual fee and join as a member. As a member, you get access to our flash pop-up dinners in unique, off-the-beaten path locations around your city, like abandoned warehouses, helipads or motorcycle factories. All the food is prepared by up-and-coming chefs—the line cooks or sous chefs at really nice restaurants around town who may be stuck in the back of the kitchen doing bread pudding all day long and hate their job. The idea is that Dinner Lab is a platform for these chefs to cook a menu and a cuisine they’re actually passionate about and get an opportunity to showcase their work. We collect a lot of feedback from our diners at every single meal. As a diner, you rate the food and the chef on everything from taste to quality to presentation to if the item belongs on a restaurant menu. We share and analyze that feedback with the chefs to help them improve from week to week.
When you go to Dinner Lab as a diner, the actual experience is about a 30-45 minute cocktail hour. Then, it’s a 5-10 course meal that’s a 2.5-hour seating. The kitchen is an open kitchen where you can walk up and see all the cooking, the prep work, the plating, and then the chef comes out and talks to everybody and tells his story. Throughout the meal, for every course, every diner has a feedback card. As the courses come out, they rate the course and it provides an opportunity to play restaurant critic.
ALIVE: How did Dinner Lab get started?
ZK: Five of us, all friends, co-founded this in New Orleans two years ago on Aug. 18. In the beginning, we were all doing different things and we all had other full-time jobs. New Orleans is a place that is known for fantastic food, and obviously you can drink 24 hours a day. But late night, there’s no good place to go get food. You’re sort of limited to your standard burgers, hot dogs and pizza. We thought that there was so much cooking talent there, why not do something on the late-night side and give these chefs exposure? We did some late-night pop-ups, and people loved it so much it took off and evolved into something we could do permanently on the dinnertime side. We started it in August 2012 and since then we’ve grown. Now, we’re in 19 cities.
ALIVE: How do you source the chefs for each dinner?
ZK: In St. Louis, for example, about 50 percent of the chefs for our dinners will be from St. Louis, and 50 percent will be from other cities. We look at Dinner Lab at its core as a destination for all things new in food. We have access to all of these extremely talented culinary individuals who are sharing their new ideas in food with our diners. When a chef does really well in, say, Nashville, and the ratings improve, we will take that chef on the road and pay for them to fly them to a new city for our diners to experience the cuisine and to give that chef more feedback and more opportunity to build their resume. Now that we’re in 19 cities, we have this network of all the chefs we’ve worked with. In the beginning, when we go into a new city like St. Louis, we’re leveraging personal connections and relationships. We do some outreach and we contact some of the restaurants and the chefs to see if there’s interest. It’s a great opportunity for the chefs—they see a value and they love it.
ALIVE: Why did you decide to expand to St. Louis?
ZK: My wife is actually from St. Louis. I grew up in New Orleans and I never went to St. Louis—I had no idea what was there. When I started going there a lot visiting my family, I felt it was this amazing, underrated city, especially in terms of food. I think there’s a great emerging culinary scene there, and it was exciting for us to put that on our path to go into that city. There’s a lot of culinary talent in the city, and the goal is to bring new ideas in food to other areas of the country. We’ve had a lot of success in somewhat other Midwestern cities—we’ve been great in Chicago and Nashville, and I think there’s some similarity in the food scene. For us, I was just happy to go to St. Louis. I love it now that I’ve been going there.
ALIVE: Can you tell us a little about the Sept. 19 event in St. Louis?
ZK: The chef for this event is Chris Bailey from Portland, who has cooked a number of meals with us all around the country. He trained at Le Cordon Bleu and he’s cooked professionally at a ton of other kitchens in Portland. His aunt had a Thai restaurant, so he grew up learning the ropes in Thai and Asian cuisine and decided he really wanted to be a cook. This particular menu that he’s doing for St. Louis is a concept that he wants to create for his first restaurant that he’s dubbed “Signifier.” It’s a modern interpretation of izakaya, which is a Japanese drinking establishment that focuses on small plates that go really well with paired drinks and open-fire cooking techniques. When we work with these chefs, we don’t dictate what they cook. This is a platform for them to create what they’re actually passionate about. The items on the menu are what he wants in his restaurant, and it’s pretty exciting to see how the menu has changed over time. He is continuing to work toward this concept of creating his dream restaurant and he’s using Dinner Lab to prototype that menu.