Our ‘Private Parties’ segments will explore the world of underground dining. The intent is not to expose the locations of the perpetually migrant secret supper clubs, or to reveal the passcodes of the multi-locked and cryptic entryways, or hand out the phone numbers to the texted treasure mapped dinners; their elusive behavior is their appeal and their success enfolded with their lack of omnipresence. We are simply sharing the artistry of their imaginative dishes, promoting their truly remarkable initiatives and their founders who are the pioneers of the ever-evolving food trends. They are the constant rumbles within the complacent food world. They are the freshly lit kindling, and you know how the saying goes… where there’s smoke, there’s fire.
It’s a surreptitious matter, the secret dining society- almost so hush-hush you’d think it was illegal but all the more enticing that you must find your way in. You always hear of these types of dinners through a friend of a friends’ shady yet au courant work friend. You know the type- the actual scenester you so desperately want to dislike but can’t help but envy and seek for advice. Welcome to our first installment of Private Parties.
Mike Lee of Studiofeast is everyone’s favorite “supper club guy” and here’s why: he was able to do more with no more resources than anyone else and not only make it, but blow it out of the water. He’s taken his success and parlayed it to new heights. In the past 12 months, he’s landed on the front page of the New York Times’ Dining & Wine section, has begun working on a smartphone APP “Food. You. Me.” and debuted and spoke on his initiative of getting the world to cook at SXSW. He is also the subject of a short film produced by the creative behind Bourdain’s No Reservations, is developing new menu concepts, and continues to hosts his “Sundays at Studiofeast”, all the while spending light hours at his non-food related day job. Breathe.
His story is simple, “It just sounded like a cool thing to do,” Lee told me over, what else, a couple of sandwiches on an ordinary Thursday in late March. “I didn’t have grand dreams, I’ve gotten so much out of this already that if the whole thing folded today, I’d be happy.” Mike grew up outside of Detroit and comes from a history of restaurateurs, dating back to when his grandfather emigrated and opened one of the first Chinese restaurants in Detroit. Mike’s grandfather is the type of man feel-good movies are made of.
“One day I asked him, ‘why Detroit?’ He didn’t speak any English, a natural inclination should have taken him to a city with a large Asian community in the US. But he replied matter of factly, ‘Exactly! I wanted to clean up and start new.’ At one point they had 18 lines cooks and were making upwards of $15,000 a night in cash. His signature dish was War Shu duck, a deboned steamed duck stuffed with steamed ground pork and then deep-fried. He always told us stories about Mayor Coleman Young calling to get 4 orders for him and his staff when it would be a long night at the office, which is pretty cool. I’ve been thinking of ways to bring war shu duck back.”
Ironically, Lee has never worked in a restaurant a day in his life but living in New York he craved the large family dinners and began cooking for friends. As an art student, he had been searching for a creative outlet since starting his day job. One weekend he stayed in: built a concept and a website, and the rest is history… well sort of. Things escalated, he found himself featured on blogs, small and medium newspapers and then on May 4, 2011 on the cover of the New York Times Dining & Wine section for his participation in the stunty L-train Luncheon. He keeps reiterating, “I’m not a chef, I’m just a dude with a day job, an excel wiz and I’m really good at mail ordering anything I need.” But the thrilling underground supper club world doesn’t solve Lee’s biggest conundrum: he wanst to get everyone in the world to cook.
To Lee, this project is 3 fold and he’s about to embark on the 3rd phase as the 2nd comes to a close.
✓ Phase 1: Starting Studiofeast
✓ Phase 2: Share his story
Phase 3: Get everyone in the world to cook
Right now, Lee believes that as a country we are focused on the supply side of cooking- sustainability, local food, the farm bill, all of which are great but we need to talk about the demand side. He elaborates, “The way mainstream media teaches mainstream America how to cook is broken; everyone is geared around these charactertures, which are there to sell magazines. I’m not saying I don’t like it, but it’s not really approachable. There isn’t this middle ground, where people aren’t trying to be Thomas Keller yet not sink down either. I want to show people there’s a different, more flexible, way of doing things.”
We dared to ask, “so how do you do that?”
“Well that’s where the rubber hits the road!” Lee whole-heartedly states, with the tone of someone who’s been toying with that question for many months yet still hopeful. He continues, “everything is extremely single purposed right now, ‘here’s a recipe for a roast beef sandwich’ which isn’t entirely useful. I want to show you a 3-step formula for how to make a great roast meat sandwich. It could be lamb, brisket or pork, then you can choose variations for spices, what pairs well with Moroccan spice and you add other variables. Instead of selling you 1,000 recipes, I’m trying to find a way to generate piece of content that will spawn 1,000 meals. What is the one conversation I can have with you that will enable you to cook 1,000 recipes. Why is there even a need for that many recipes? It’s daunting.” That’s what their (Mike Lee and Will Turnage) App “Food. You. Me.” does. “I want to teach improv and jazz in the kitchen, not classical music. Classical assumes a perfect environment and the kitchen isn’t perfect.” A student of improv for 4 years, Lee knows what he’s talking about. “With Improv there is still a formula, there are 3 arc plots with 3 parallel structures that all come together in the end. Life is messy and improv accounts for that. It’s like a Curb Your Enthusiasm episode.”
I began to see a theme with Lee, he likes things in 3s. He believes that in order to get everyone cooking people need to…
1. Care (starts with inspiration)
2. Know how
3. Have the available resources
“On your way home tonight there will be many options on how to get yourself dinner, and one is to cook, but you need a little of all three [of the above] to do that.”
He knows how to inspire and he knows how to teach but number 3 (accessible resources) is the biggest hurdle, which is the drive behind the “Food. You. Me.” “Think about it as a language. You walk into a library and only understand how to read 4 books. I give you the alphabet, you build words and eventually learn the language, and all of a sudden the room full of books is now reading material. When you begin cooking you may not use the highest quality ingredients, but as you continue to cook you develop a taste for things like olive oil and know when it is best to use each product in a variety of dishes. The greatest part of cooking is that everyone has a kitchen. It’s as if you were given an art studio built into your apartment. People just need to spend more time in it, truly structure their life in it.”
But of course, that’s not all. Lee is still planning innovative secret dinners. If you’re lucky enough to find your seat at Studiofeast in the next year there will potentially be two dinners you’ll want to get in on. One will truly feed on your emotions, touching on the classic “dinner and a movie” where the food will be representative of the provoked emotion and served in sync with that scene. Another is a traveling dinner prepped in a moving RV headed for a nearby city, an “out of these doors, open road” concept.
While Studiofeast is the reason this all began, the nationwide cooking project is the “big-picture” goal. As we were finishing our sandwiches, he turned and, almost as a well-developed afterthought, said, “It’s about time for new voices and a new mantra on how to teach people to cook. I want to be one of them.” As I walked back, I felt inspiration coursing through my veins. I knew it was true; Mike Lee will be one of those voices.
To grab a chair at the Studiofeast dinner table, visit their website invite list: studiofeast.com/invite, and be sure to follow them on twitter @studiofeast
Photo credit: Zoe Schaeffer / I’m In The Kitchen
We shot two locations with Mike, one eating sandwiches in Central Park and the other during filming on the upcoming short video, it will be released in a 3 weeks.