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Social dining in Chattanooga, Tennessee and beyond
Story by Chris Chamberlain
In today’s crowded restaurant scene—where traditional favorites are joined by new dining venues almost constantly—it can feel like you’ll never get to every hotspot you want to check out. In such a market, it’s easy to imagine that chefs would foster a spirit of competition, thinking that somebody else’s restaurant has to fail in order for his or hers venture to succeed. Fortunately, in many communities and for many chefs, that is not the situation: Chefs often feed their creative souls through collaboration and cooperation which best shines through during special dining events that showcase the talents of all involved.
In addition to frequent charity dinners where noted chefs share their kitchens with guests, another more casual way for chefs to get together and cook is through periodic supper clubs. In Chattanooga, Tennessee, Chef Erik Niel and his wife Amanda are owner/operators of Easy Bistro & Bar and Main Street Meats. In addition to their own success as restaurateurs, they help shine a spotlight on all the things that make Chattanooga great.
Chattanooga has a vibrant downtown with a stunning riverfront. There’s a burgeoning culinary scene in the city, in no small part thanks to the Niels. (Chattanooga is often a stop along the way for talented cooks aiming to make a name for themselves in the smaller city before moving to larger markets like Atlanta or Nashville.)
Erik and Amanda decided that a great way to draw attention to Chattanooga’s local talent (and possibly keep that talent closer to home) would be to create a series of collaborative dinners. They invite guest cooks and chefs to help cook unique meals featuring some of the amazing seasonal bounty of local ingredients available and serve the meals in some of the most interesting spots around Chattanooga. In a nod to a historic nickname for Chattanooga and its sweeping mountain vistas—See Seven States!—the Niels named the series “Scenic City Supper Club”.
“My wife, Amanda, and I created the Scenic City Supper Club to help shine a light on the emerging hospitality and food scene in Chattanooga,” says Erik. “We’ve been fortunate to be able to participate in a myriad of special dinners and food festivals, the kinds of events that bring chefs and hospitality professionals together, and we wanted to have something like that in our hometown. It’s an event for the cooks, servers and bartenders of Chattanooga; the guests are just the happy recipients of us getting to play together.”
The Scenic City Supper Club launched in 2015 and holds quarterly dinners featuring local talent paired with visiting chefs to prepare multi-course dinners. To make sure it’s a party, there’s always wine, beer and/or cocktail pairings with each course, and these also often highlight local producers. Guests can sign up for a seat or a whole table and meet new friends during cocktail receptions before sitting down to the feast. Niel partners with local businesses to seek out novel sites for his supper clubs: Past events have taken place at a distillery, under the dome of the Chattanooga Choo Choo Hotel, in a wooded glen on a farm, and even at a long table for 100 right in the middle of a closed downtown street.
These are tremendously fun events, and tickets sell out almost instantaneously after being announced because past diners want to return to every event and new people want to join in the fun. But Niel emphasizes that there’s an even larger mission behind the series: “Scenic City Supper Club brings the local talent that we have in Chattanooga together in a non-competitive way, so we can help foster the growth of the overall food scene.” But you can just go for the food and frivolity. We won’t judge.
Here are some other notable supper club opportunities across the South…
Delta Supper Club – This Mississippi-based series rotates through interesting sites in and around the Delta. It’s a membership-only arrangement, but joining gives you access to events throughout the year that aren’t ever available to the general public. A portion of the proceeds goes to a special scholarship fund to benefit culinary students in the state and help create the next generation of kitchen stars.
Connect Dinners – These dinners are the brainchildren of the folks behind “Eat Y’all,” a business organized to help connect some of the South’s best restaurants and chefs with farmers and food purveyors. The dinners are held around the region to expose consumers to all the great things that can happen when the right ingredients get in the right chef’s hands.
VEA Supper Club – VEA stands for “Vivek’s Epicurean Adventures” and is named for supper club founder Chef Vivek Surti. His Indian heritage influences some of the flavor profiles in his delicious multi-course dinners that are held in fun venues in and around Nashville, Tennessee. But don’t expect straight-up curries from Surti. He’s a true epicurean and loves to experiment with foods from around the globe with an emphasis on the Southern region of the U.S. He often invites guest chefs to join him, and he has plans to drop anchor in a permanent bricks and mortar location where diners can enjoy his supper club experience on a more consistent basis.