Every two months, Caribbean and Mediterranean restaurant Nzuko in Watertown closes its doors, dims the lights, and welcomes a group of diners to an intimate five-course meal. Over the next few hours, private chef Kendall DaCosta — an industry veteran who previously worked at local French hot spots including the now-closed Bastille Kitchen — drops artfully arranged plates of red snapper carpaccio and fonio congee in front of each diner.
The unique dishes are all part of DaCosta’s globe-trotting, Afro-diasporic supper club. Traditionally, supper clubs are dining establishments, often billed as high-end, that can include everything from a multicourse dinner to a live show. In this contemporary iteration, which is also popping up in other cities including San Francisco and D.C., chefs like DaCosta and Pao Thampitak, an alum of Brookline Thai standout Mahaniyom, are hosting supper clubs to tell the cultural stories behind their dishes and foster dialogue between diners — and people can’t snag seats fast enough.
Each of Thampitak’s Gaaeng supper clubs is themed around different regions or cities in Thailand, illustrating how varied the cuisine can be even among geographically close destinations. Thampitak, who also works as a server at Comfort Kitchen in Dorchester, hosts supper clubs in his home for six to 10 people, at $120 per ticket, when his schedule allows. DaCosta hosts 25 to 30 customers at his bimonthly $175 dinners at Nzuko. In both cases, the chefs announce upcoming dinners on Instagram and the dinners almost always sell out, they say.
Culinary cultural heritage is at the core of these meals. Thampitak, born and raised in Bangkok, designs menus based on old recipes that have fallen out of culinary trends, like neuua araawy (เนื้ออร่อย), a white curry dish with braised beef and lemon basil that was made for 19th century Thai royalty, Princess Khruamatwimon Thongthaem. DaCosta, who is second-generation Jamaican American, and his sous chef Sāsha Monett Coleman, base each meal in Afro-diasporic traditions and then incorporate global flavors and techniques; one example is fried rabbit, which DaCosta and Coleman have “made Black,” he says, by soaking the rabbit in buttermilk and frying it in a Southern and Japanese biscuit panko.
DaCosta titled his project “Out of Many, One People,” the national motto of Jamaica, which is displayed on the country’s coat of arms and represents unity among cultures.
“It broadens everyone’s horizons,” says DaCosta. “We’re seeing how harmonious Korean kimchi can be with German sauerkraut, with American coleslaw, with Jamaican escovitch pickles. They’re all the same thing just with different names, different methods of making them, different readily available ingredients in that region.”
Thampitak and DaCosta were both drawn to the supper club idea after years of working the line in high-pressure restaurant kitchens. In these more intimate settings, the chefs dodge the often toxic kitchen culture of bigger restaurants — marked by low pay, long hours, and short staffing — and stay in complete control of their creativity, as well as connect with diners on a personal level.
For now, the supper clubs are largely a labor of love. DaCosta says that the profit margins on these dinners are only “a little better than breaking even,” though the community-building aspect alone makes the dinners worthwhile. Chef Matthew Bullock used crowdfunding to get his Southern Pines Supper Club running on the last Sunday of every month at Cambridge restaurant Forage.
Filipinx American restaurant Tanám, formerly in Somerville’s Bow Market, was built on a similar community-centered ethos. Thampitak partnered with chef and owner Ellie Tiglao on several supper club dinners, but the restaurant suffered during the pandemic and closed down permanently in January.
However, the trend is still growing. Nia Grace, the owner of Darryl’s Corner Bar and Kitchen — a Southern comfort food and live jazz hangout that Grace also considers a supper club for its social and entertainment value — is doubling down on the format at her new Seaport restaurant opening in April. Here, customers can stay awhile, savoring a meal and basking in the notes of the saxophone. Grace will also intentionally partner with BIPOC-led businesses like Uncle Nearest Whiskey.
At his next supper club on March 9, DaCosta will take the experience even further with a live installation by local artists Nygel Jones and Erick Maldonado. Diners can sip cocktails created by Nzuko general manager Obi Ndukwe and check out the paintings before sitting down at the communal table.
DaCosta’s supper clubs are unapologetically Black, he says, centering Black culinary culture and taking place at Black-owned restaurants. He’s continuing to seek out Black-owned restaurants as hosts for his dinners. In March, Thampitak will partner with the team behind Vietnamese hit Cicada Coffee Bar in its new space, the Eaves, opening at Bow Market in April. Both parties will create their own take on bún (rice noodles), Thampitak from the Thai perspective and the Eaves team from the Vietnamese perspective.
The goal of the supper clubs, DaCosta says, is to create “a space for different cultures to come together and eat food that could potentially be nostalgic for them and to learn why it’s nostalgic for that person across the table from you that you don’t know yet. There’s nothing like it.”
Celina Colby is a Boston-based writer covering travel, food, and art.