By Frank Sabatini Jr.
He was looking for a venue. She was looking for a chef. When they eventually found each other, a supper club distinguished by alluring Zen-like trappings and sophisticated cuisine was born.
Since September, South Park resident Audrey Jacobs has opened the terraced backyard of her 75-year-old Craftsman home a couple times a month to food aficionados seeking an atmospheric and culinary alternative to the restaurant scene.
An avid entertainer and venture capitalist, Jacobs took to Google and Yelp earlier this year to find a chef “who could turn eating into an art” for community gatherings at her house.
The search led her to Chef Peter Calley, an Oregon transplant who taught cooking classes for Hipcooks in North Park before conducting private classes through his own company, Culinary Hedonism.
“I made a list of five chefs starting with Peter. But I didn’t even interview the four others because I saw within minutes Peter’s artistic passion and devotion to food. He had the vision for a supper club and I had the space,” Jacobs said.
Calley then wowed Jacobs with a test dinner that included grilled rib eye with chimichurri and polenta.
“It was a truly transformative meal,” Jacobs recalled. “The flavors in everything blended together like a beautiful song, and he talked about the history of every course.”
Culinary Hedonism Supper Club quickly gained momentum, with each dinner soon selling out to 12 guests requesting a seat at the table via the website, culinaryhedonism.com. The upcoming schedule currently extends through March, and includes a special New Year’s Eve dinner and a New Year’s Day brunch. Jacobs’ address isn’t disclosed until reservations are confirmed.
“Audrey’s house is gorgeous, and she has a history of entertaining,” Calley said. “But what really did it for me was that she gave me complete control of the menus. It was a perfect storm.”
Although if you’re looking for commonplace dishes such as seared ahi, braised short ribs, trendy burgers, or vegetarian meals for that matter, you won’t find them here.
With the assistance of his sous chef, Stephanie Corneil, and after scouring local farms and farmers markets for ingredients, Calley’s dinners are typically eight courses and geared for adventurous omnivores. He doesn’t reveal the menus until guests arrive.
On a recent afternoon leading up to a dinner, he was trimming lamb hearts in Jacobs’ modest-size kitchen, preparing to marinate them in homemade Massaman curry. For another, he transformed wild boar meat into croquettes that were accented with Gruyere and Harissa aioli. Or for a course of roasted heirloom carrots, he graced them with rosemary-honey butter and smoked grapes. No one dish ever repeats.
“Whenever each course is served, there’s a hush that comes over the group and a sense of reverence at what’s being presented to them,” said Jacobs, who sets her custom-made wood table for the dinners amid flowering birds of paradise, tall bamboo, Talavera pottery, and a fire pit where guests converge afterwards over s’mores.
Jacobs is the social icebreaker at the dinner groupings, which are as diverse as Calley’s menus. At the start of each meal, she asks attendees to share a favorite joke, poem, song or anecdote that reflects their personalities.
Doriot Lair, a nearby resident and retired musician who started San Diego’s first all-female punk band in the late 1970s called The Dinettes, has attended the supper club three times. She initially learned about it on the social network app, Nextdoor.
“I was immediately smitten with the whole idea because I’m a foodie and all about meeting new people in the ‘hood. And Peter’s food is fabulous,” she said, recalling in particular a meal he presented celebrating the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, which featured “lots of Middle Eastern-type dishes with seasonal vegetables and beautiful sauces.”
Jennifer Leigh, a law enforcement officer and two-time guest, most recently attended Calley’s Asian-themed dinner in December. Among the standouts was an open-face banh mi sandwich of hors d’oeuvre size on homemade French bread with pate, five-spice crispy duck breast and pickled black radish.
“I could have happily eaten a full serving of it. I’ve loved everything across the board at both dinners. They overwhelmed my senses in a good way.”
David Barach concurs. As a turnaround CEO for startup companies, he also has attended two of the dinners, noting that they don’t compare to dining out in restaurants.
“The setting and the company were lovely, but more so the chef was very creative in mixing pungent, spicy, sweet and salty flavors into his cooking.”
Calley firmly believes that keeping the number of dinner guests to 12 attributes to smooth-flowing conversations. “People feel they’re part of a group, while at the same time, when one person speaks, everyone can listen.”
To his relief and surprise, the dinner gatherings have so far been void of political discussions, with the exception of a guest visiting from Italy who raised the subject at a dinner held the day after last month’s presidential election.
“The other guests shut down the discussion pretty quickly. Other than that, everyone has been courteous and respectful,” he said.
Alcohol isn’t served at the dinners, although attendees are permitted to bring beer, wine and spirits, which are oftentimes shared among the group. In addition, Calley doesn’t accommodate those with dietary restrictions, but makes exceptions for guests with food allergies.
“The name ‘Culinary Hedonism’ refers to indulging in all food without any sort of restriction and without holding back on the quality,” he stressed.
In keeping with supper-club tradition, set prices are not attached to the dinners, although guests are expected to make donations at the end of each meal, which typically range between $85 and $150 per person.
—Frank Sabatini Jr. can be reached at email@example.com.