I’m all for new culinary experiences, but I don’t want to pay an arm and a leg for fussy food in flashy restaurants. Fine dining, in all its pomp and ceremony, has gone out of fashion - but secret supper clubs are in.
In the past, the traditional supper club would be held in an exclusive venue where the elite would gather to socialise. But nowadays, the events have been stripped of their snooty reputation and consist simply of amateur chefs cooking up a storm in their front room for friends and friends of friends. Having tried out various food experiences in London for a while now, I fancied myself somewhat of a supper club connoisseur. Arrogantly, I presumed I’d seen all the capital had to offer. That was until I met French/British Maud de Rohan Willner, food designer and founder of Table Talks.
Most supper clubs are based around a concept, whether that’s typical British cuisine, clean eating or a celebration of gastronomy from around the world. Table Talks is a supper club centred around speakers, one for every course, who present ideas and topics for guests to discuss. After hearing rave reviews from friends, I decided to head down and try one out myself.
Sustainable food futures
As I watch the guests flock into the quaint Islington venue, greeted with a carrot and vanilla vodka cocktail on arrival, the trepidation in the room is palpable. ‘Sustainable Food Futures’ is tonight’s theme, with a surprise vegan menu corresponding accordingly.
Founder Maud is pottering around putting the finishing touches to the table, dressed in baby pink dungarees, a signature outfit of hers, I learn. To start, we are served a colourful plate of foraged raw vegetables and beetroot hummus. I crane my neck to take a look at the first speaker, as my teeth sink into sweet, crunchy radishes and a floret of purple cauliflower. Madeleine Taylor, co-founder of Jar & Fern, stands up to present the concept of rest and relaxation and asks us where we feel most at ease, in a world where eco-anxiety is rife.
By the time we get to the main, we are already knee-deep in talk of insecurities and safe havens, but are soon hushed to make way for the next course. The principal dish of the evening is Rainbow pasta with pumpkin, harissa, hazelnuts and vegan cream cheese. A sight to behold, the colourful pasta is layered like a lasagne and placed neatly in the middle of the plate with a sprig of watercress on one side. This time, sustainable fashion advocate Sacha Holub is speaking and chooses to ask us what item in our wardrobe we have worn over 30 times. A long dialogue ensues around the damaging effects of the fast fashion industry, and Maud chats to me as she pours the wine.
“I chose sustainability as the theme as it’s something I’ve been trying to improve on in my life, especially in the kitchen. Various people and businesses have inspired me to do better, including Douglas McMaster and his restaurant Silo and The Guardian’s Tom Hunt and his zero-waste recipes. Living more sustainably is so important, so tonight is an experiment to get people talking!”, she says excitedly.
Dessert is split into two parts, first a (vegan) cheese plate made from cashew nuts, alongside poached grapes and pistachios served on charcoal crackers - delicious.
Fittingly, a discussion around wine accompanies the cheese tasting, as we hear from natural wine connoisseur Laura Jalbert. Finally, we conclude with a chat around the trend of zero waste living, from zero waste lifestyle enthusiast Hannah Smith. This is complemented with a sweet, minimal dish of pearl barley pudding, cereal milk ice cream, rhubarb and popped amaranth. It always sounds more fancy when you don’t really know what the ingredients are, doesn’t it? Amaranth, I discover, is a grain and was a staple foodstuff of the Aztecs.
Where did the idea for Table Talks all start?
I’m curious as to how Table Talks initially got off the ground, as it seems an ambitious project to undertake independently. Maud explains that the supper clubs are just one part of her self-run business, Salty Studio. Through Salty Studio, she runs and caters for unusual events around London, designing bespoke menus and sensory experiences.
“At the time, I was living in a warehouse,” Maud explains, “so I had a space next door I could rent out.”
“I just had to create a menu and put everything together. Selling tickets was the tricky bit, as a newbie I found it quite difficult to wear all the business hats: the creative person, the marketing person, the social media person etc. But this also excited me, being in charge of everything and doing it exactly the way I wanted it to be.”
When it came to choosing a theme, she wanted to create an open space for discussion and debate. At the end of a Table Talks event, she hopes guests go away having tasted new flavours, met new people and learnt something too.
“For my menus, I always need to have a reason WHY I chose the ingredients or a way of plating. I look into the topics that a particular speaker is going to talk about and think of how I can represent this on a plate.”
I ask if she can give me an example. “At one of my recent supper clubs, someone spoke about emotions and difficulty in the workplace, which in her case was the hospitality world. I used rainbow carrots arranged in a little forest, to signify the obstacles in her way, and truffle oil and spicy harissa drops to represent the excitement, passion and richness of it too. That’s just one example!” she explains.
The set menu approach is the key to a sustainable supper club, Maud informs me. This way, she knows exactly how much everything will cost and food waste is minimal. “I’ve been looking into innovative ways to use whole ingredients too (carrot tops, beetroot leaves, dry toast, cereal milk…),” she says. “And I'm curious about preserving things like pickles. I try making my kitchen more eco-friendly, by using a compost bin for my food waste, recycling appropriate products and trying to buy less packaging.”
A seasoned food and experience designer for her age, 25-year-old Maud brings something different to the supper club scene. With impressive credentials, having studied a Food Design & Innovation MA in Milan, she is as passionate as she is skilled at her work. “By combining food and design, I want to explore innovative ways to convey messages and transmit emotions. There are so many ways to achieve this, textures, colours, flavours, aromas and so much more,” she concludes.
Look out for her next supper club on ‘Social Media Addictions and FOMO’ on January 13th in Hackney, London. Tickets are £35 and include a 4 course meal + welcome cocktail.