I fell under the sway of Dinner Lab’s mysterious culinary charms a couple of weeks ago and pretty much by accident.
Sometime during SXSW Interactive a new flood of public-relations emails had inundated my journo account and, already booked solid with Things That Need Covering, I was planning to blow them off entirely. But there was one pitch, from a person repping Aquaçai Artesian Water and tumblr, concerning a dinner that those companies were hosting – and the dinner was being staged by some organization I’d not heard of before: An organization called Dinner Lab.
“Ah, why not,” thought I. “Last week of the festival coming up, OK, I’ll indulge in what’s probably just another halfway decent meal – by way of further mitigating the vicissitudes of this harrowing journalistic life.”
[Full disclosure: My actual thoughts were more along the simpler lines of, “Free noms? Fuck, yeah.”]
A couple days later, having vanquished several deadlines, and curiosity getting the better of me, I figured I should click a link or two and kind of see, you know, what this so-called – what was it again? Dinner Lab? – what this Dinner Lab thing was all about.
So I clicked this link.
And then I was like whoa, and I was counting the days.
Dear reader, if you hadn’t heard of Dinner Lab before, I’m glad to be the one bringing you the good news. If you have heard of it but you’re not a member and you’ve been wondering things like, “Does it live up to the hype, to the mystery?” Then I’m pleased to say that, as far as my own experience at this shindig during Southby goes, I can answer that in five words: Yes, yes, yes, yes, and yes.
Here’s the basic deal of Dinner Lab: They get local culinary stars or talented up-and-comers to create a full five-course meal, a meal where the chefs can go brilliantly freeform and maybe cook up some dishes they’ve always wanted to present, that express their personal narrative as chefs, outside the restraints of wherever they’re usually plying their trade. And this meal will be staged, with a temporary kitchen installation and a full complement of service staff, somewhere other than a regular restaurant: It might be in a commandeered nightclub, on the roof of an abandoned warehouse, in the showroom of a motorcycle dealership, anywhere but the same-old same-old; even the club’s members don’t know where the next dinner’s going to be until the day before it happens.
So, yeah, that’s already pretty enticing.
Here’s an important fact about Dinner Lab in Austin: This New Orleans-spawned phenomenon – which is also flourishing in Atlanta and Nashville and New York and elsewhere – has its Austin operations under the canny supervision of Janelle Reynolds, former executive chef of downtown’s Bess Bistro and recent champion of the “Chopped” reality show. And for this sponsored fete during SXSW, Reynolds chose a particularly fine chef to prepare the meal. Well, she chose her husband, actually, although she couldn’t have found much better beyond the bonds of matrimonial bliss: Chef Jayson Reynolds, native Texan and longtime teacher at Le Cordon Bleu, has worked at some of the best restaurants in Austin – and his skills are remarkable. That’s why the five-course meal he created, inspired by an eclectic mixtape, comprised perfect renditions of these dishes:
Head Like a Hole
hog’s head terrine | whole grain mustard | pickled beet & turnip | mâche
popcorn breaded shrimp | popcorn fondue | cornflower
baby arugula | tangerine segments | yogurt spheres | sesame lavash | tangerine vinaigrette
braised pork belly | crispy fatback | polenta | grilled brussels sprouts | pea tendrils
Milk & Honey
honey panna cotta | dehydrated milk foam | honey & sesame brittle | honey gastrique
Yeah, see? Imagine those gastronomic selections done up right and and doled out via excellent service and you’ll understand why the couple dozen guests were oohing and ahhing and grinning amid the dinnertime conversation. I’d made it a point, before the event began and the food was served and Entertainment Tonight’s Rocsi Diaz – who is also the, ah, brand ambassador for the night’s Aquaçai sponsor – greeted the seated crowd with a 100-watt smile … I’d made it a point, I say, to interview the two reigning chefs there in the culinarily invaded KRAVE nightclub at 302 East Sixth. And so here’s that for you now:
Brenner: How did you get hooked up with Dinner Lab from New Orleans?
Janelle Reynolds: Dinner Lab started in Austin last spring, and I’d been out of the kitchen for a year and a half – with a baby. And I finally had an opportunity to check it out. A friend of mine knew Michelle (Michelle Llaguno, Dinner Lab’s market director) and said “This is right up your alley.” And so I joined the Dinner Lab team as one of the part-time chefs, helping out at events, and Jayson and I did one of the dinners together, as guest chefs, in November. And the Chief Culinary Officer attended the dinner and was so proud of our work that they offered me the job, in December, to take over. So I started full-time as the chef du cuisine on the first of January. And I brought this guy [gestures to her husband] along in the madness.
Brenner: Jayson, you’ve been a chef for a long time, haven’t you?
Jayson Reynolds: Well, I’ve been teaching here in Austin. I taught at Le Cordon Bleu for nine years, spent a couple years at Escoffier. I’m currently open to the industry, though, leaving myself open for opportunities.
Brenner: And what are the differences between this, the Dinner Lab experience, and a regular restaurant?
Jayson: [laughs] Ha, where do you start?
Janelle: Yeah – everything. We’re in a differnt event location for every single one of our parties. We build the kicthen the same way in every location, so in that sense it’s kind of the same. But it’s a different chef, a different menu, different prep, different recipes, different ordering. So, in that sense it’s nothing like a regular restaurant kitchen. As far as service goes, it’s a little similar, because we have our cooks with their assigned prep stations, and we push the food out course by course, similar to how we would in a restaurant.
Brenner: And you have a team of waiters who go with you to the different events?
Janelle: Yes, our back-of-the-house and front-of-the-house staff, we have a pretty good roster. So we change them out, leave it up to the staff who wants to work which event, and we staff accordingly. Almost everyone who works for Dinner Lab – other than myself and our front-of-the-house manager, Michelle – has a second job.
Brenner: It must be … draining to have a full-time job and then do this?
Janelle: I think, for a lot of our staff, especially the cooks … they come and do this on their day off.
Brenner: So what’s the trade-off for them? The experience?
Janelle: The experience, the opportunity to work with our guest chefs. Because everyone has their own techniques, their own way of doing things, so it’s a really good learning opportunity. I think that the day you stop learning as a chef, that may as well be the day you stop cooking. And it’s wonderful for networking – we’ve met chefs from around Austin that I normally wouldn’t have had the chance to make a dinner with – and chefs from out of state.
Brenner: And what was the, ah, the selling point of Dinner Lab for you, particularly, that brought you in?
Janelle: Well, I like that we’re kind of culinary nomads. And I really like the opportunity to do something that not a lot of other people are doing. I’ve been able to see more of Austin in the last year, from all of the event locations, than in the ten years I’ve lived here. And Dinner Lab’s really helped me grow as a chef, too, because I’m completely out of my comfort zone – I really have to push myself more than at a restaurant, because everything changes with every event.
Jayson: We have a small kitchen set up out back – fryers, a grill – but you have to be prepared for anything. I refer to it as “guerrilla cuisine,” because you have to think on your feet. Like, what if you don’t have enough power? Or, for this menu, we’ve got numerous dietary restrictions for some of the guests: Vegan, vegetarian.
Brenner: Sounds like a hell of a lot to accommodate, on top of the planned menu.
Janelle: With our members, we know about the restrictions in advance, and the guest chef is able to let Dinner Lab as a whole know what accommodations they’re willing to make. Some menus, it might be impossible to accommodate a tree-nut allergy. But we work closely with our guest chefs to do what we can for our members, because they’re paying to come to these events. We did more for this event, because it’s a special deal, but normally we wouldn’t have five or six different types of accommodations to make on one menu; it’d be more like two or three.
Brenner: And everything on the menu tonight, how new is it to you? None of this is something you’re attempting for the first time, is it?
Janelle: No, everything on the menu, we’ve made before – in one fashion or another – but the menu was created specifically for this night.
Jayson: They actually emailed me a list of music, like a mixtape, to work with. So each course has inspiration from either a song or an artist.
Janelle: The first course is “Head Like a Hole,” from Nine Inch Nails, and for that we’re serving head cheese with pickled beets and turnips. And for every Dinner Lab that we do, we encourage the guest chef to come up with a kind of theme, because it’s like the hook when our members are looking on the website to see what the upcoming events are. Like, they’ll want to check out the chef, the menu, and hopefully they’ll buy tickets.
Jayson: Dinner Lab’s also sent me to a couple other cities, to New Orleans and Atlanta, to do dinners in those markets. And I’ve been doing an all duck menu.
Brenner: Oooh, nice.
Jayson: Yeah, that’s usually the reaction I get from everybody. Like, “That sounds fantastic!”
Janelle: It is fantastic. Duck-fat beignets!
Brenner: So, the food is extraordinary – as I’m about to find out for myself. And the locations? I mean, here you’ve taken over a nightclub – but so many people already do that, for one thing or another, during Southby. But Dinner Labs often happen in some really weird places, don’t they?
Janelle: The locations are so much fun. I did a dinner in Nashville, back in the fall, and the location was in the prop warehouse for the Nashville Ballet. We staged our tables around the props, and the ballet was crossing over from Peter Pan to The Nutcracker, so we had these props all around for people to take pictures with. And we’ve done dinners in botanical gardens, airport hangars – it’s really interesting. I believe Dinner Lab in New York’s done a dinner on a helipad. And I spent one evening last fall in a place adjoining a men’s clothing store, and – because there was no overhang out back for us to grill under, and of course a thunderstorm rolled in that night – I literally grilled all evening long from the back of our U-Haul truck. It’s things like that that make the Lab part very challenging, whether it’s weather elements, or the electricity, or where’s-the-running-water-located. Figuring these things out is always a logistical joy.
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