I’m in a penthouse on Spring Street, where my association with this publication has landed me a coveted seat at one of the weekly celebrity chef–catered evenings hosted by an organization called the DTLA Dinner Club. It’s me and about thirty other diners, most of whom live Downtown—this is the primary qualification one must satisfy to land on the guest list—though several of the people I talk to are ex–DTLA residents who’ve been grandfathered in, or have otherwise fallen into the good graces of our host, Josh Gray-Emmer. A few of them are members of the Los Angeles Athletic Club, who tell me that they met Gray-Emmer in the Jacuzzi. I am immediately impressed: I may have connected with a stranger or two in a hot tub, but no one’s ever made it to dinner.
Most of these folks, though, are strangers, brought together by a mutual appreciation for upscale dining and the swiftness of their replies to the email announcing the event (a waitlist starts growing about thirty seconds after RSVPs open).
Gray-Emmer, 45, has been throwing these shindigs on and off since 2011.
It started informally, he tells me, with just him and his roommate inviting neighbors for weekly dinners. Soon enough, their friends started volunteering to cook. The celebrity element began with Chef Ilan Hall: “Being a little fan boy, I was…at [his] Gorbals restaurant when it opened and I invited him over.” The appeal for Hall was that he could use these dinners to test new recipes. When Hall started inviting his own friends, “it just grew naturally over the next ten years.” Now, they have “more chefs who want to cook for Dinner Club than we even have spaces for.”
Tonight’s lucky cook is the Chatsworth-born Chef Keven Lee (“Cheven”), C.E.O. and executive chef of CKL Events. Gregarious and very much in his element, Cheven presents to me shortly after my arrival an amuse-bouche of gorgonzola cheese, mushroom bread pudding, guajillo chili sauce, and pork bits left over from what will be the main course. It’s a single mouthful of richness served on a Chinese soup spoon, and it’s an absolute knockout. I love that I haven’t paid for it.
None of us has, in fact: these dinners are free for all guests, courtesy of Gray-Emmer (may I call him Josh, now?). Josh does all right for himself working as what he calls a community organizer, “fighting NIMBYs,” he tells me, on behalf of real-estate developers. For the past two years he has accepted some additional help from a sponsor, Hexclad, which has also donated cookware, cutlery, and the crisp white aprons Cheven and his team wear. The chefs are unpaid; they volunteer their time for love of the craft—and, Josh tells me, “because I let them cook whatever they want.” Unlike cooking for paying clients, there are no dietary restrictions to honor, no substitutions to juggle. “We’re all playing,” Cheven tells the crowd between courses. “Nobody has worked a single minute since we started this menu.”
I don’t trust this proclamation—Cheven and the four chefs helping him look like they’re working pretty hard—but if his team resents the assertion, they’re doing a good job hiding it. Cheven is assisted by private chef Patrick Thompson, of Pat & George; Jair Macias, who works in event operations at CKL; and Eric Cherdak and Lauren Feldman, executive chef and executive pastry chef at the newly opened Valley Village restaurant Bottega Taboo. Cherdak mentions to me, by way of introducing himself, that he is 22. I hit the roof and tell him I hate him. He takes this in stride. Nice people.
Before dinner is served I shuffle amidst the guests for half an hour or so, chatting it up with the eclectic crowd. There’s a cheerfully disillusioned DA in his fifties. A too-handsome music executive in his thirties. A 28-year-old private chef named Raina Poré, who’s on the Dinner Club calendar for July 19. Does she know what she’s preparing yet? Perhaps “elevated Southern” cuisine, her specialty, but she did that for a Dinner Club last September and thinks maybe she should switch it up. Like everyone else at this thing, Poré is immediately approachable and warm: we’re all our most appealing selves at the moment, abuzz with the knowledge that we’re the lucky few plucked from the masses to experience a five-star meal we’ve done nothing to deserve.
That’s not quite accurate, actually. Aside from living in DTLA, potential guests to these dinners must satisfactorily answer one question on the RSVP form: “What makes you awesome?” Here’s a tip: do better than “Because I am.” And don’t be afraid to take a risk. “One person wrote, ‘I’m a sex worker and I’m proud of it,’” Josh tells me. “She’s a great friend now.”
He’s spilling all of this while we eat on the roof, where three long tables have been set and seats assigned with care; Josh has Instagrammed us all and has everyone figured out. It occurs to me that, as a group, we are better looking than average, and I am momentarily suspicious that quick response times and smart self-marketing are not the only determining factors for who gets invited to this affair. But there are enough ordinary-looking people to keep my faith that Josh is more or less living up to the community spirit underlying this whole thing.
Tonight, there’s a five-course meal that starts with a banh mi “doughnut”: Cheven has sandwiched duck confit, a hoisin sake sabayon, and charred corn kimchi between two lightly sweet, pillowy buns. I am skeptical: I like some distance between my sweet and my savory, and I’m thinking this could be a real McGriddle of an experience. I’m wrong to worry. Duck confit on a doughnut is fantastic. Eat it the next chance you get.
Next up is a hamachi ceviche served with a giant taro chip. It is impressive but daunting, because it is served with a coconut aguachile and kaluga caviar. I am someone who does not like to make choices, and I torment myself wondering if I should be sampling each of these ingredients individually or if I should be trying to get all three of them onto each bite of taro chip, and if so what the proper hamachi–aguachile–caviar proportion ought to be, so I more or less think my way out of fully appreciating this dish. What I do experience of it is, to be clear, delicious.
The third course turns out to be my favorite: Spanish octopus carpaccio requiring very little personal agency. Just slender discs of octopus atop a spattering of aji verde, garnished with pea tendrils and what Cheven is calling “herbaceous soil” that is in fact a flavorful panko-like seasoning. The dish is spicy and tender and everything it should be. We all marvel at the artistry. “I wish I were this good at anything,” someone says. It’s the quote of the night.
Cheven’s pièce de résistance is the fourth course, a pork rack that has been brined for 24 hours. We all remark on how impossibly succulent it is, like it’s been cooked sous vide, though it hasn’t been—it’s roasted. I have never tasted pork so decadently soft. It’s served with a mustard sherry sauce (yummy, but he’d have been fine with salt and pepper in this philistine’s book). My plate also holds a dollop of pumpkin puree and two or three goat cheese gnocchis that somehow taste like cheesy potatoes, despite not containing potato. I am thrown, of course, by a small pool of spicy brown sauce and a mound of another “herbaceous soil,” as this is again requiring too much decision-making on my part. But the pork is good enough that even the condiments can’t hijack my experience. As we are busing our dishes I am scandalized to spot a half-eaten chop sitting atop one of the dirty plates in a plastic bin. It occurs to me to eat it. I do not—but only because I am full.
Almost. I have three servings of custard for dessert: it’s a miraculous burnt honey–flavored confection that Cheven has instantaneously frozen using liquid nitrogen, a big production involving his hoisting up a keg of the stuff and ceremoniously pouring it all over Josh’s kitchen. It’s like an ice cream–making fog machine (Cheven insists he’s serving custard, not ice cream; whatever it is, it’s an addictive creamy frozen thing that I wish I were eating right now). It’s one offering amidst a dessert cornucopia of halva, shortbread cookies, and panna cotta.
Sadly, I live in West Hollywood, so I’m not sure how many DTLA Dinner Club parties are in my future. Josh tells me he’ll have me back sometime, but to anyone in my neighborhood who may be reading this: I would love to come for dinner.
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