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Home cooking: Why NYC chefs are opening their houses for dinners and backyard brunches

Chefs like David Burke, José DeJesus and Edouard Massih say the at-home meals allow for a much more personal dining experience.

Chef José DeJesus hosts a public dinner series

Chef José DeJesus hosts a public dinner series dubbed "Breaking Bread" in the Bronx.  Photo Credit: Cecilia Burgos

Being friends with a chef likely has lots of perks: restaurant connections, food trend insight and of course, dinner invitations. But even if you don’t have any best-bud culinary masters in your life, you can now dine at their homes.

As supper clubs become more popular, and sites like EatWith and ChefsFeed (formerly Feastly) gain traction, people are looking for more special, individual dining experiences. And New York chefs are following suit by opening up their homes to the public, with private dinners in their one-oven kitchens to brunches in their Brooklyn backyards.

Cooking in their own spaces can allow for more comfort and creativity — as well as struggles coordinating family schedules — but no matter what, it always ignites their favorite experience: unifying strangers with food.

Personal space, professional duties

Chef José DeJesus started hosting public dinners at his home in the Bronx, the borough he grew up in, about two years ago. Starting a supper club had always been a goal, and after he completed “Hell's Kitchen” season 18 he had a newfound sense of confidence and determination. But, as he scouted locations throughout NYC priced at $1,000 per night, it seemed like it wouldn’t be cost-effective.

At the time, he and his in-laws had just bought a three-family house in Morris Park. They had to do a lot of renovations, so his wife suggested they center the kitchen design around his supper clubs. So, they cut out a window in the wall between the kitchen and dining room, where two guests can sit and watch as food is being prepared and interact with the chefs. They also have a table in the kitchen that seats six additional guests.

He spent the past year hosting pop-ups around the Bronx and Manhattan and plans to bring the series back to his home in July.

“It’s been a lot of fun, being able to create and giving people an experience they can’t get anywhere else, especially in the Bronx,” he said of the series, dubbed “Breaking Bread.” “People are shocked to watch us prepare a seven-course meal for six people on four burners and one oven.”

DeJesus said it’s also comfortable using the same appliances he knows really well, and not having to travel with equipment. The only really blurred lines come with choosing dates that work with his family’s schedule — and not inconveniencing his in-laws and children if they come down to see a bunch of strangers in their kitchen.

Chef Edouard Massih is a bit newer to the game — he just hosted his first ticketed at-home brunch in his Greenpoint backyard on June 15. He always had casual get-togethers with friends in his yard — which he calls “a hidden gem in the middle of Greenpoint” — and they suggested he share his space and recipes with more people.

He already had permits in place for his catering business, which he does full time, and aside from that, he had to consider setup, décor and the one thing he couldn’t control: the weather. Luckily he was met with a gorgeous day.

“I am my most creative when I cook professionally in a personal space because I can test more recipes and ideas whenever they pop into my head,” he said.

“For research and development, it’s helpful to have all my ingredients, recipes and cookbooks in one place. My kitchen transforms into a huge playground with all the utensils and equipment needed to bring an original and inventive meal to life.”

What to serve

For Chef David Burke — who has started more than 20 highly praised restaurant concepts, including the acclaimed Park Avenue Café and the David Burke Tavern on the Upper East Side — the food possibilities are what drew him most to the idea of a more intimate dinner setting. The David Burke Tavern is the bottom floor of a town house, and he lives on the upper floors. He recently decided to convert his home office on the middle floor to be a small dining space.

Burke and his team cook in the restaurant kitchen and carry the food to the second floor, where they explain details one-on-one about the history of dish, the inspiration, the cooking process, etc. It also allows him and his staff more flexibility and creativity of ingredients.

“If something is ultra seasonal, or too fancy for everyday American dining, we can make it for this,” he explained. “Things like sweetbread, quail or rabbit, that won’t really sell on everyday menus. Or more complex dishes that are too difficult to execute when we are really busy in the restaurant.”

For Massih, the setting influenced his brunch menu directly.

“I wanted my menu to complement the outdoors by using more seasonal produce, highlighting fresh veggies, and showcasing zesty flavors,” he said. “For example, I offered a seasonal homemade pickled board with a variety of goods like pineapple, cauliflower, watermelon rind, tomatoes … Then I paired it with some light Mediterranean cheeses such as goat cheese, feta, and labneh to create a colorful summer rainbow spread.”

An intimate feel

All three chefs attest the at-home meals allow for a much more personal experience for diners as they form connections with others in a small space over food. It’s educational as well, as they can openly ask chefs questions about the food they’ve prepared and techniques for cooking.

“Being a home environment, we want people to feel that we are genuinely concerned about providing value, allowing them to learn, be fed well and get knowledge,” Burke said. At his dinners, he always has accompanying wine pairings by a winemaker, who informs on that level, as well.

Massih was equally impressed by how much people connected over food, saying they “came in as strangers and left as friends.” It probably helped that everything was served “family-style.”

“It truly was my dream come true to invite strangers into my backyard, cook for them, and share my love for Lebanese food with my local community,” he said. “I have been living in Greenpoint for over five years now and it was my first time ever sharing my space and recipes with locals.”

Guest Marcy Krever, who found out about the event via Instagram, felt the same from the other perspective.

“I loved the experience … I met a fellow who works in hospital ORs, a half-Iranian, half-Colombian woodworker who’s also a bartender (I’ll definitely go to his bar), Edouard’s cousin from Australia, and a host of others too,” she said of the social aspect. “The prevailing attitude seemed to be to form a community, rather than silo ourselves with the partners and friends with whom we’d arrived.”

IF YOU GO:

  • Chef David Burke’s next dinner: 7 p.m. June 25; buy tickets here.
  • Chef Edouard Massih’s next dinner: 7:30 p.m. July 11; buy tickets here.
  • Chef José DeJesus’s next dinner: To be announced on Tock.com.

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