Nashville Scene: How a Novice Chef Created the Supper Club Series Nashville Loves
The original article was published by the Nashville Scene on October 19, 2017. Check it out here!
How a Novice Chef Created the Supper Club Series Nashville Loves
Vivek Surti has cooked up a Nashville culinary institution with his VEA pop-up dinners — and maybe more
Nashville’s longest-running pop-up restaurant, Vivek’s Epicurean Adventures, is now in its sixth year of delighting diners with what creator Vivek Surti calls “unique, fun and delicious experiences.” The Scene caught up with Surti, a former food blogger and avid home cook who learned his restaurant skills through the VEA dinners, to talk about what goes into the meals, how it all got started and if he’s ever going to open a place of his own full time.
What made you want to do the supper club?
I had moved back to Nashville from D.C. in 2010. I had a couple months where I was looking for jobs. In that time, I had started a food blog. Back then, food blogs weren’t huge, but there were a couple of people doing them still. Also I was watching TV, and there was a show on the Food Network. It was just a one-hour special about a supper club in Athens, Ga.
The Four Coursemen!
That was a great little show. It was on the Cooking Channel.
I thought it was so cool, because it was like there was a guy who was the chef. He was going straight to a farm and seeing what the farmer was growing, and cooking that. Then they had one person who was a wine person who was pairing the meals to what they were making. Then there was a designer who put everybody in this cabin on the farm. Everybody sat at communal tables. They got to enjoy the food, and the chefs talked about how they made the dishes and what the inspiration was. The farmers were there. The wine pairings would come in, and so I just thought that was a cool way to eat and was like, “I wonder if anybody does this in Nashville.”
I did the Google and researched it and found out that nobody was really doing it. Then I thought, “Hey, I think I can do this.” I asked my parents if I could host it at their house. I think the first supper club I had six people come in. It was just very much like we didn’t charge anybody. There was a suggested donation.
Right. Did anybody donate?
Yeah. I had no business being in the restaurant world. I knew how to cook at home, but that doesn’t necessarily translate on how to do events. I remember the first one I was cooking everything to order. We had four courses, but I didn’t understand the concept of prepping, or at least you don’t understand the concept of prepping at home the way that restaurants do. I had all my stuff prepared, but I still had to make it, and I was serving at the same time, because I didn’t have any help.
Was that the world’s longest meal?
No. It was still three hours, two-and-a-half hours maybe, for three courses, five courses. I remember one time I was making this, it was like a lemon pudding cake. I put that in the oven after I had served the entrée course, and didn’t realize that it takes 35 minutes for it to cook. It was just kind of like people are done with their entrées, and it’s easy, and then I’m just waiting on this cake. We had fun with it. I just opened up some more wine, and we all just kind of hung out and talked.
Sure. Pretty much the only response right there is just keep drinking.
Yeah. It was just like a dinner party at home. Then a little bit after that, I was having lunch at the Nashville Farmers’ Market. My friend, Laura Wilson, had just started working there. She was telling me about how she had just started a job at the farmers market and had just built that little kitchen [the Grow Local Kitchen] in the middle.
That was a nice kitchen to work out of.
Yeah, it was. The benefit there was that Laura, she didn’t want to work in a restaurant anymore. She had just had her son, Porter. I certainly needed help in just making the supper club into a bigger thing, because at that point, I didn’t really know what it was going to turn into. I just knew that I wanted to provide what I now call unique, fun and delicious events for people in Nashville. I just thought it would be fun to have an experience where people can go in. It’s a small number of people, it’s a set amount of courses where the food is unique, and it’s paired with great cocktails or beer or wine — and do it in a way that really built community.
What was the size on those?
It was a 25 max, that’s what we had. When I was telling Laura that I was doing it at my house, she was like, “How do your parents like that?” I was like, “They tolerate it, but they’re probably ready to kick me out.” Then I was like, “Laura, could we do it here?” She was like, “I’d love to do it here.” I was like, “Can you help me?” She was like, “I’d be more than happy to help.”
Did she know what she was getting into?
No. The first dinner we had I remember I actually used a prep in the kitchen. We would have them on Saturdays, and so I would start at 8 in the morning. You’d see the whole rush of people just start coming by. It was over in the AM@FM space at the time, because that actually had a liquor license so we could sell there.
I linked up with Laura, and then did everything at the market. Laura really helped me kind of learn, one, how to craft a menu that can be executed for these types of dinners, and also how to treat it more like a restaurant and less like a home cook. All these things they talk about, especially prep, I think it’s a concept that chefs really understand well, but that home cooks, we just don’t do it. When you can learn that hey, maybe the entrées you’re serving 25 people should be something braised so you don’t have to sear 75 scallops to order, whereas you can just take some short ribs, throw them in the oven, and then they’ll be ready when you’re ready to serve, things like that.
Then I also linked up with my buddy from high school, Ryan Moses, who works at Best Brands. I was talking to him about maybe getting some partnerships with some different liquor brands. Ryan came on board [to do cocktails], and Laura came on board, and we kind of built the team for what was essentially the next two years, where we did a dinner at the farmers market every month, five courses, cocktail, beer, wine.
It’s only once a month, but at the same time, for somebody who has a day job and is not a chef, is not working in a kitchen full time, what was the learning curve like on that?
Yeah. At the beginning, it’s a lot of just learning through immersion. The fun part about cooking is that it’s not rocket science. Once you kind of learn a little bit, you start picking up things pretty quickly. I was lucky in that Laura was just a really great teacher for me, in not only menu planning and how to execute dinners, but then early on we actually partnered with a couple of chefs. We did an early dinner with Jeremy Barlow from Tayst, and then we did a dinner with Matt Bolus. Working with those two guys, you pick up on a little bit of what they do and the tricks that they have to make a dinner easier to execute.
It’s become this kind of restaurant rotational sort of thing. You were at Fenwick’s the other night. How many did you end up with at Fenwick’s?
We had 140.
Wow. At that point, you’re not just a pop-up. You’re a pop-up operation, but you have to think about staff. You have to think about service. You have to think about all sorts of things that are not just, “Hey, I think I can cook a meal for X number of people.”
Yeah. There’s a huge learning curve. Now we’ve been doing it almost six years, a little over six years, so we learned quite a little bit on that. We do three formats now. One is what I call the traditional format, which is that it’s a course meal with pairings. That’s always between 20, and we’ve gone now as high as 80 people in that format. The second one is where we’ll do one item, and we’ll do a lot of those, so between 200 and 250. We did Indian fried chicken at Hattie B’s twice. One time it was 200, one time it was 250. Then we did biryani and beer at The Family Wash, and that was 200 people. Then we just did Indian curry night, which was 140.
You’re Indian. You’re known for being a great Indian cook. Do you lean into that, or do you go a completely different direction?
Yeah. The fun part about doing the supper clubs and doing them consistently was that it pushed me creatively. I didn’t want to make the same thing every time. There’s some pop-ups, there’s one pop-up model which is, especially if the goal is to open a restaurant, to do one or two types of dishes and just do those a lot. Those can be really successful. I think you even see it in this town. Nick with Mangia — he had a concept, and he did that concept. The menu changed seasonally, but it was a great idea. Now he has a brick-and-mortar spot. Then there was Sarah Gavigan who did Otaku. She did different bowls of ramen, but it was a ramen pop-up. Then they were able to open up a brick-and-mortar as well. For my food, when I first started cooking, I didn’t really cook a lot of Indian food, because if I wanted Indian food, I could just go to my mom’s house or I’d go to my aunt’s house. I’ve certainly become much more interested in it the last two, three years. I think that in this country, there’s a really small percentage representative of what Indian food is. Indian food, I think, is the most regionally diverse food in the world. That’s just an opinion, but it’s a country where there are 29 different states. Each state has its own culture. It has its own language. It has varying religions. It’s in various climates, and so the food in India is very regional, but it’s also very differing.
I didn’t know what chicken tikka masala was until I was 16 years old. Some kid in high school was like, “Hey, man, you ever had chicken tikka masala?” I’m like, “You mean like chicken Marsala that they have over at the Macaroni Grill?” He was like, “No, man. At the Indian restaurant.” I’m like, “I don’t know what that is,” because my mom, when she makes chicken, she just calls it rasa vari chicken, which means chicken with gravy.
When are you going to do this full time?
I don’t know yet, Steve. I don’t know if I’m ready to talk about that yet.
Let me ask this a different way then. You’ve done this. You’ve got a really good following. I know a bunch of people who have done the supper club. It certainly seems like you’ve learned enough to do this as a restaurant. What are the barriers to those sort of things?
I think for now the purpose of the supper club was never to make it a restaurant. It was to provide unique, fun and delicious experiences for people of Nashville. So long as we do the supper club, that’s what we’re going to try to do. It’s never about what the next step is. It’s like, Can we tell our story at this time? For me, that story is constantly evolving, because I think you can find inspiration anywhere, really, as a chef. A lot of times I get asked these questions like, “How do you come up with the dishes?” To me, part of it is I really want to be respectful of where food comes from and the stories that are behind it. I try to make food authentically, for whatever that word means, to the best of my ability.