Taking the Elitism out of Chef-Led Dinners
Generally, when you’re talking about chef’s table experiences, what you’re really talking about is elitism; it’s all about high-cost private access to a chef in a setting that excludes other diners. At Tasting Collective, a members-only dining club operating in 16 cities coast-to-coast (with more cities planned in 2024) with over 10,000 members nationwide, the goal is not social exception: instead, it’s about forming community among passionate diners through inclusive, affordable, chef-led dining experiences at some of America’s hottest restaurants.
Each month in each city, Tasting Collective takes over a buzzy new restaurant and transforms its dining room into a stage/test kitchen where the executive chef can flex their culinary muscles while connecting with interested local diners; it doesn’t hurt that Tasting Collective generates much-needed income for host restaurants on their slower nights. Each Tasting Collective meal is a 5-course tasting menu that showcases the host restaurant’s unique point of view. Usually, it’s an occasion to workshop off-menu dishes currently being developed in the restaurant’s kitchen. While dining, members fill out feedback cards that offer private, discreet, and constructive input. Like the private “friends and family” dinners that restaurants use to work out operational kinks prior to opening, Tasting Collective events offer a mutually beneficial exchange between diners and chefs.
Nat Gelb, who founded Tasting Collective, notes that diner-to-chef feedback wasn’t part of his original plan. “Initially, the feedback was a way for people to connect with other members and have something to talk about during the meal. But we saw that chefs were reading through these comments with a fine-tooth comb and really valuing them. It flips the script on the relationship between restaurants and diners since Yelp, which is very antagonistic.”
Over the course of each dinner, the chef comes out of the kitchen to introduce each course, share stories, and elaborate on each dish’s components. They use this time to shine light on the thinking that went into a dish’s creation. Then, during dessert, there’s a lively Q & A with the chef that offers members a unique opportunity to learn more about the dining experience they’re having. It’s a way for diners who are passionate about restaurants to connect more meaningfully with the people in and behind them.
Gelb was raised in Chatham, NY, a tiny hamlet in Columbia County, where—at that point—dining options were severely limited. Nevertheless, his parents, both writers, were creative and expressive cooks. Gelb has powerful memories of sharing food around a table and actively discussing it. In some ways, Tasting Collective draws from Gelb’s history of 1) being starved for exciting restaurant experiences, and 2) loving how meals facilitate meaningful human connection. With Tasting Collective, Gelb unites a community of widely diverse people around a shared interest. “At our events,” Gelb says, “it’s not unusual to see people in their 20s sitting next to people in the 70s, sharing in ways that they wouldn’t normally do and having a blast together.”
As veteran hosts can attest, a seating arrangement can either make or break a dinner party. It is no different at Tasting Collective’s events. While Gelb is coy about what calls his Secret Sauce, he does hint at Tasting Collective’s “9 essential seating rules,”, one of which is to group all solo diners together. Another is to avoid placing only two couples who don’t know each other together at a single table. The goal of these rules is to encourage lively conversations.
Tickets to Tasting Collective’s events cost $70 per person, which covers the cost of each 5-Course meal, and all ticket proceeds go to the host restaurant. This is a fraction of what you’d pay to attend chef-led tasting events held by RESY, the James Beard House, or Mastercard, etc., even though Tasting Collective events are also being held at Michelin starred restaurants (Tuome, Jeju Noodle Bar) and are hosted by James Beard Award finalists (Chef Ohm Suansilphong of Kru). This is because Tasting Collective’s fees are covered by its annual membership fee. Currently, there are more than 10,000 Tasting Collective members in top dining destinations across the USA; these include Atlanta, Austin, Boston, Charlotte, Chicago, Dallas, Denver, Houston, Las Vegas, New Orleans, New York, Philadelphia, Portland, the Bay Area, Seattle, and Washington, DC.
Interested? You’re in luck. While the usual Tasting Collective membership fee is $165, readers of Edible Manhattan, Edible Brooklyn, Edible Hudson Valley, and Edible Westchester can snag annual memberships for just $99 (here’s how). PS: you really don’t want to wait. In NYC, this month’s event will take place on February 26th at one of Brooklyn’s hottest new restaurants, Margot in Fort Greene. There, Executive Chef Frank Scarlota—who comes from Momofuku Ko, Contra, and Philadelphia’s beloved Vernick Food & Drink—will be introducing members to Margot’s highly seasonal, collaborative, and ever-changing cuisine. Visit Tasting Collective to request your discounted membership invitation today.