The Dissident Chef has been running underground dining events in San Francisco for the past few years. He cut his chops running a top-10 restaurant in Los Angeles, but soon grew tired of the customers that would deconstruct his creations to meet their diet of the month. So he shut the restaurant down and moved to San Francisco where he now runs SubCulture Dining and is preparing to open a new restaurant, Lafitte.
At SubCulture Dining, there are no choices; it’s a business where the customer is not always right, but instead has to submit to the event experience. As a result the Dissident Chef puts on events that both surprise and delight, and his customers leave raving about the experience. We got a secret meeting with this underground chef to find out more about his unorthodox events and the inspiration behind them.
What is SubCulture Dining?
SubCulture dining is an underground dining experience. When you buy a ticket to attend, you don’t know where the event will take place or who else will be there. A few hours before the dinner, you receive instructions on how to find us and then you show up to partake in a 6-10 course meal. There are no menus; I create the dinner based on what’s fresh in the market and what I’m inspired by.
Every meal I do has a thematic basis – has a purpose, and my guests request many of the themes. I remember during one meal everyone started chanting for corn and so I decided to do a corn dinner with corn in every course. I’ve also done an ice cream dinner where an ice cream is paired with every course. I like to find the interesting, and keep a surprise element in the dining experience, but most of all I like to challenge myself.
How did SubCulture Dining begin?
I spent all my savings doing dinners for investors to raise money for the restaurant that I hoped to open here in San Francisco, Lafitte. I knew there had to be a way to stem the tide as I realized that this was taking longer than I had planned. An interviewer in LA told me about underground restaurants and the idea resonated with me. I knew I had what it would take, and 30 days later SubCulture Dining was born.
When we started, most of the underground restaurants were social events. You would sit in a warehouse and share a meal, but it was a social gathering that happened to be serving food. Unlike these, we knew that we were a real restaurant, just operating underground. We embrace the pirate aspect of it, but we consider true brick-and-mortar restaurants our competition. We were quite stealth for a long time, but we’ve gone through an evolution and now we like to think that we hide in plain sight.
Lafitte has always been the end-goal, but SubCulture Dining events have turned out to be absolutely invaluable – I’ve gathered investors, found a landlord for my new restaurant, and made so many important connections in the industry.
How do you pick the location for your events?
When we do a SubCulture Dining event, it’s really an invasion of a small army of people. We are a mobile restaurant, so we travel with a lot of equipment plus all the place settings, so definitely no stairs is a big requirement. After that we look for interesting and unusual spaces that add to the unexpected and magical nature of the event.
As an underground restaurant, how do you do marketing?
I came up with ideas for marketing and I found that through word of mouth SubCulture Dining spread like crazy. I found that the quality of the work I do speaks for itself and if I create great events, people will talk about them and continue to come back. This philosophy worked well and SubCulture Dining took off.
We get most of our ingredients from local farmers and the farmers will promote us, since they know we do great things with their products. We try to partner with people that have high visibility and are respected. The wonderful thing about social marketing is its snowball effect. We built up a sizable list, which is now over 2,000 members.
How big a role does social media play?
I rely a lot on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter. I found that I could post and event on Facebook and Twitter and within a week we could sell out. Social media also helps me keep tabs on who’s saying what about my events. I remember when I picked up on the first twitter about SubCulture Dining. It was a guest who was waiting for instructions on where to find the dinner location. I looked Twitter up and although there weren’t a lot of users at the time, I thought it was interesting so I signed up. I’ve watched its evolution and the increasing impact that it’s having on word-of-mouth marketing.
I know how important it is to interact with our community on a daily basis, but before Twitter there wasn’t an easy way to connect in real-time. I used to write a weekly newsletter, but even carving out the time to do that was difficult. Twitter really changed the game on staying connected. And thank God for the iPhone. It has become an integral media gateway for me. I can take a photo or shoot a video and share it with the community in seconds.
I also started doing videos and set up a Vimeo page and YouTube channel. I’ve created videos to promote upcoming events and the launch of Lafitte. Video is another great way to tap into word-of-mouth by giving people fun and interesting content to share.
Tell us about your next event, Liam’s Burning Brit 2.
A while back, CBS called and said that Eye On The Bay wanted to film us for the show, which is hosted by Liam Mayclem. Liam came to the event and it aired on CBS and afterwards he invited me to his house for dinner. He cooked the one thing that he knows how to cook, shepherd’s pie. I felt that I had to teach him how to cook real English food, so we created a SubCulture Dining event around British food and Liam and I cooked. During the dinner, Liam burnt himself on some mashed potatoes – he was fine, but that’s how the Burning Brit event was born. This next event will be the second British food themed event and we have staff bringing back all sorts of amazing ingredients from England to make a real authentic dinner.
Will SubCulture Dining die when Lafitte is born?
We’ve really built up an industry around this and created an ecosystem that benefits so many different people. I couldn’t just stop doing these events.
SubCulture Dining has no rules and therefore we allow ourselves to be constantly evolving. But at our core we have an understanding of who we are and the type of events that we put on. That will never change.