Saturday, 20 March 2010

The home restaurant phenonemon

The neighbours must find it rather odd. Every Wednesday evening since January, two dozen strangers have congregated outside a small flat on a Stoke Newington housing estate. The flat belongs to Horton Jupiter, a musician, DJ and amateur chef whose decision to open a restaurant in his front room has sparked a phenomenon. Within months, numerous home restaurants, also known as supper clubs, had popped up throughout the UK.

Using applications such as Facebook and Twitter to get the word out, these courageous cooks have dragged the restaurant industry into the social networking age. And home restaurants are, above all, social. Guests are seated at large tables, dinner party-style, and encouraged to chat to strangers. It's a world apart from a candlelit dinner for two.

Horton had no intention of being a pioneer. “"I have a book called This Diary Will Change Your Life and each week it sets you a task",” he explains. "“Week two was to start a restaurant in your front room, so I did."” He set up a Facebook group for The Secret Ingredient and devised a menu of vegetarian Japanese food. “"At first it was mainly friends, but by week six I had 24 complete strangers parading through my house, which was exciting and strange. It just exploded.”"

Mealtimes at Horton's don't always go to plan. "“It's a chaotic experience round mine,"” he cheerfully admits. "“I'm not saying to people 'come to my restaurant'. I'm saying 'come to my place to hang out with an idiot and get fed'."” The frequent delays and clumsy service add to its charm. "“Pretty much every week for six months I've forgotten to put the rice on",” he confesses. “"There are always delays, which in a proper restaurant would be unacceptable but when it's somebody's house these things don't matter. I don't worry if I spill a bit of juice in the middle of a plate. I'm not a graceful swan serving food, I'm a maniac dashing around the kitchen.”"

Horton charges £20 for six small courses and a welcome drink. It's good value, although he believes value for money has little to do with his experiment's success. “I don't think people are seeking a bargain,” he says. “I think people want a personal experience. Going round somebody's house and seeing their CD collection or their underwear on the washing line is exciting.”

Two weeks after Horton opened his living room for business, the food blogger MsMarmitelover turned her Kilburn home into The Underground Restaurant. An ambitious, experienced cook, MsMarmitelover had toyed with the idea of running a home restaurant for years, having visited similar projects in Cuba and Italy. "“I blogged about Horton, who I knew from the time we were in an anarchist samba band together, and decided I'd do it myself,"” she recalls.

While Horton sticks to his tried-and-tested (and excellent) menu, MsMarmitelover likes to make life difficult for herself. At the end of the month, she'll be creating dishes heavy on umami, the fifth flavour, and hopes to serve breast milk, although she's been having trouble sourcing it. When she celebrates Elvis' birthday in January, everything will be deep-fried. Regardless of the theme, she always offers cooked-from-scratch organic vegetarian food, home-baked bread and a welcome cocktail for £25.

Horton may have few qualms about his amateurish tendencies, but MsMarmiteLover hopes her evenings run without hitches. “"You don't want drama and conflict,"” she says. “"You want it to go perfectly. You don't want people to laugh at you and your house."” But while she's committed to good food and service, she believes it's a mistake to imitate street restaurants. “"You shouldn't be offering tables for two,"” she says. "“It's so interesting to sit at a big table and meet a selection of new people."” She also takes her role as a host far more seriously than most restaurant head chefs. “I try and make it a theatrical experience, so I always dress up. I wear lots of make-up. It's all a bit Rocky Horror.”

This summer, the floodgates burst open and dozens of home restaurants opened throughout the UK. On an average week in London, you can find Sunday brunches, afternoon teas, haute cuisine and barbecues taking place in living rooms, kitchens and gardens across the city. We've even started seeing twists on the home restaurant concept. The Rambling Restaurant combines the supper clubs' DIY ethos with the uniqueness of a flash mob. "“I like rambling around London finding interesting venues and the challenge of fitting an event to a space,”" says its co-founder Abi, who's prepared home-cooked meals in Waterloo squats, Clapton art galleries and music festivals. "“People love the unpredictability of Rambling events.”"

Home restaurants appear to operate in a legal grey area. So far none have experienced any trouble. “"The government would be foolish to clamp down on them,"” says MsMarmitelover. "“It's entrepreneurial and great for tourism. If you're coming to London and don't know any Londoners, it's a great way to see inside people's homes and meet new people."”

Horton may be a trailblazer, but he's reluctant to be the movement's figurehead. "“I find it very exciting that so much has happened and I'm incredibly proud,"” he says, “"but I don't feel I'm part of a movement. I'm just doing what I do."” It's given him a source of income, and a renewed belief he should always act upon his more outlandish ideas, although that's not necessarily a good thing. “"Some of my proceeds go to the Save the Bees campaign and I thought I should get in touch with Mr C of the Shamen and get him to re-record Ebeneezer Goode with the chorus 'Bees are good, bees are good'. He never got back to me.”"

Published in Hotline magazine. Image from

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