Chefs for a Day

Are you as good a cook as you think? Here’s one way to find out:
Open a pop-up restaurant
in your own dining room.
Writer Chris Colin
takes on the challenge.


This story also appeared in the February 2015 issue of Sunset magazine.
Photographs by
Thomas J. Story


Author Chris Colin breaks up pistachio brittle for a brain-meltingly amazing salad that guests inhale.

THERE COME a few moments in life — and a small motorcade of Ubers pulling up to your house is one — when hard questions must be asked. What have I done? was mine on a recent Friday night. My wife and I had earned a quiet, mindless evening of Netflix. Instead, in four minutes, our dining room would become a Dining Room and our once sane-ish house a full-on, albeit illegal, restaurant.

Oh, and five hours later, the restaurant would fold. One bright blast of insanity, and then we’d close the doors. Like a nuclear war, sort of. Get it all done at once.

Nobody had forced me to become a one-night restaurateur; I hadn’t lost a bet. The idea was not just voluntary but — at its heart, I contend — sensible too. Because haven’t we all wondered? All throwers of dinner parties can attest to that bleary, pixelated moment when the stress has abated, the dishes turned out damned decent, and you think, Hey, not bad. Gazing out over the happy destruction and the jolly guests, you allow yourself a flash of hubris: I could get paid for this!

Of course the fantasy ends when reality sets in: Oh, right, running a restaurant would be freaking miserable. But for just one night? What if there were a low-stakes way to find out whether your cooking and entertaining are as solid as you’d like to believe?

Just as regular folks can now dabble in taxi driving (Uber), tour guiding (LocalGuiding), and the hotel arts (Airbnb), serving food to strangers has become as easy as signing on with a site like EatWith or Feastly. From there you get paired up with interested diners and, voilà, our era’s fascination with chefs collides with tech’s insistence that anything’s possible. Where once you had to be a full-on underground-restaurant type to launch an underground restaurant, today all you need is Internet access. (Okay, and faith that the Health Department has bigger fish to fry than you. Like much of the sharing economy, this corner occupies a legal gray area. Some home restaurateurs ask merely for “donations” in hopes of avoiding official scrutiny. All gamble to some extent.)

Step one was settling on a set price for the evening — no small psychological feat. If you’ve had the lifelong and honorable custom of not extracting money from your dinner guests, it’s a tough habit to kick. One morning in the car, my wife and I attempted some of the most meticulous arithmetic our marriage had witnessed. Amy scribbled guesses for booze consumption and food. I threw out a few more for table rentals, flowers, and other little touches. Then our son’s smoothie spilled all over the list, and I just made up a number: $65 per person. It seemed like a respectable, grown-up number. That made me nervous, so I subtracted 10 bucks and wrote up a solicitation for diners.

Simple as those websites are, I decided to cut out the middleman and find customers on my own. We’re not chefs! I typed, in perhaps the worst pitch ever. This might be bad! Come be guinea pigs! On a Wednesday morning, a blogger in my San Francisco neighborhood posted my call for diners. Meanwhile, I hatched assorted Plan B schemes, in case nobody replied.

An hour later, I just about needed a new hard drive to hold all the RSVPs.

Our dining room has room for only eight. I decided to admit 10 — we could squeeze.I A

The folks writing in sounded so friendly, so game. By the end of the day, our guest list had crept to 12. There was only one thing to do: Figure out what we were doing.

Ridiculously delicious homemade pizzas, from a recipe in Lora Zarubin’s cookbook, I Am Almost Always Hungry.

IN THE THREE-WEEK run-up to our dinner, I began soliciting advice from actual restaurateurs. Allison Hopelain, of Oakland’s magically hospitable Camino, recommended organizing everything around one central pillar. That made sense. The sheer number of possibilities for our operation had begun to mushroom — what if we foraged all our ingredients? and got a magician? — and it helped to establish a clear vision.

Ours was this: The meal was a referendum on our existing chops, not a test to see how fancy we could get. I had a hundred insanely ambitious recipes I wanted to try out, and every one would stay in a drawer. Instead, Amy and I would pick the best from our repertoire. My question wasn’t whether I could successfully impersonate a three-star chef. It was whether the skills we already had could pass muster.

With this, free moments suddenly became menu-planning moments. That crazy Indian beef thing we always do — too heavy? Too heavy. What about those mussels in that incredible broth? Nah, sorta weird. Friends rave about our chipotle corn chowder, but what would the main course be? Amy’s ridiculously great pizzas, of course. Dessert, for its part, was a no-brainer. I have a Key lime pie you’d kill a kitten for.

I suppose every chef needs something to fixate on. Me, I needed pistachio brittle. Years ago, Amy and I had eaten the most brain-meltingly amazing salad at a hip little restaurant in Asheville, North Carolina, called The Admiral. Every bite was like having Stephen Hawking and Billie Holiday whisper in your ear. I’d re-created it before and had no choice but to make it for our guests. I didn’t care if it sounded atrocious — Bibb lettuce, smoked blue cheese, applewood bacon, a soft-cooked egg, beets, shallot vinaigrette, and, yes, homemade pistachio brittle — I knew it would be awesome. But I also knew my brittle making had been uneven in the past. Whatever. Worst case, everyone hates the food and leaves early and torches our house in rage.

All this time, I made a point of humbly conceding that this wasn’t actually a restaurant. But as D-day approached, and with apologies to those who do this for a living, it sort of was restaurant-ish. On Tuesday, Amy and I bickered about the wine we’d serve. On Thursday, I actually rolled my eyes, maître d’–like, over not one but two last-minute cancellations. Oh and the money. Like any good restaurant, we were spending gobs more (high-quality ingredients, high-quantity booze) than we’d be taking in.

As the author (far left) lets a diner into his home, neighbors cause a stir by lining up.

THE DAY OF OUR DINNER, we jettisoned our offspring and spent nine solid hours in fast-motion, minimal-talking, in-the-zone prep mode. You know how little kids can lift Oldsmobiles in times of great need? This was that. Except we were shucking corn, renting chairs, pilfering rosemary, buying flowers, cooking bacon, making a music mix, grating cheese, hiding toys, grilling dough, getting dressed, and then getting re-dressed. We looked up and it was noon, and we looked up again and it was night.

The Ubers came, the Ubers went, and in singles and pairs our guests climbed the steps to our door. I’d enlisted half a dozen neighbors to line up in front of our house, as though hoping for admission to a popular restaurant; now, with grave ceremony, I waved the real diners through. Waiting for them inside were our two standby cocktails, the nostalgic Pimm’s Cup and the dangerous Whiskey Rickey, plus a selection of California wines. Waiting to deploy them was our hired waiter, a wildly illegal 13-year-old in sports coat and braces.

Amy and I had met Dash the Dashing Sommelier at another party last year. The kid is straight-up charming, and after some negotiation with him and his mom, I arranged for him to serve drinks for the first hour of our evening. Portland restaurateur Will Preisch had recommended a welcoming glass of something; our diners’ whistles were wet within moments of sitting down.

Which happened in the living room. A note to genuine restaurants: Look into getting one of these rooms. Rather than stampeding to the dining table, our clientele enjoyed a civilized get-acquainted period on our couch and chairs and squatting by the record player. The scene very much resembled our most recent dinner party, with one seismic exception: Amy and I steered clear.

I’d insisted fanatically on not knowing any of our diners, but that didn’t stop me from Googling the bejesus out of them. There was a maritime museum curator, a couple of tech workers, and someone who wrote about the aviation industry. One guy helped run National High Five Day. One woman had been part of a hotshot crew fighting fires in Colorado; now she was a nanny and an inveterate streaker. Do real restaurateurs feel this odd affection I was feeling? Even before I’d gotten to know them a bit, I loved them. They were intrepid for showing up, and exceptional for rolling the dice on strangers when they could’ve played it safe. But most of all, they were simply our guests, and by God we intended to show them a good time.

At 7:45, we lured them to the dining room — the best food will always be the food served latest — and pretended not to be having dozens of mini heart attacks.

Co-chef Amy (the author’s wife) shows wildly underage Dash the Dashing Sommelier the pop-up restaurant’s “cellar.”

WITH OUR GUESTS stuffed expectantly around a single long table, we began doing that thing restaurants are famous for: serving food.

It was a hot night, and our oven had been roaring for hours. Sweatily, Amy and I diced peppers and chopped cilantro for the chowder. Two by two we ferried bowls to the table. Serve from the left, remove from the right. Quickly we settled on a species of interaction that involved quick conversation, but then allowed us to retreat to the kitchen. Did we pass between the two rooms 10 times … or 50? Impossible to say. We’d entered a fugue state, aware only of bodies and plates and whether they’d been united yet.

We’d done all the major prep, of course — the cooking, the mixing, the ironing — but there’s always last-minute stuff. Mine revolved heavily around my salad. Over the previous 48 hours, I’d experimented with nearly every pistachio brittle recipe known to man. One batch was too thick and gummy. Another was too cloying. Finally I’d come up with something that was thin, light, sweet-and-salty, and, yes, brittle. Now, as the bowls began to come back, and while helping Amy remove pizzas from the oven and keeping an ear tuned to conversation patterns, I began serving this vaguely baroque salad.

Full-grown adults don’t immediately cotton to a salad with candy and beets and eggs in it. Candy and beets and eggs don’t even really belong in the same sentence. But it was a hit. The plates were annihilated. We cleared them, refilled wine (we had a bottomless-glass policy and were taken up on it), and left some breathing room before the next course. Breathing room for the guests, I mean. It was 9, and Amy and I weren’t scheduled to breathe until 11 or so.

We’d worried about the pizza. We had little doubt it would taste great, but the optics of serving something seemingly ordinary troubled us. The pies came out of the oven exploding with un-pizzalike colors: the orange of the squash, the green of the rosemary, the prosciutto color of the prosciutto. The pizza disappeared in minutes, and more came out and that disappeared too. After waiting a respectable-seeming time, I had no choice but to haul the Key lime pies out of the fridge. These were inhaled.

Somewhere in there — time had fused together at this point — a Bach sonata drifted in from the sidewalk outside. A violinist friend had come to offer a serenade. She, too, was inhaled. This is what happens at a restaurant, I guess. It’s a place of consumption — you shovel coals into the furnace till it’s over. Our friend played for a few minutes, then slipped off into the warm night, and folks went back to eating.

Amy and Chris pause from the madness of hosting 10 strangers in their dining room.

I WILL SAY THIS about running a one-night operation like ours. It takes too much time and is over too soon. Maybe that’s how it is with food in general — the insane amount of labor and the fleetingness of it. There came a moment when I overheard folks talking about Ken Burns. I have things to say about Ken Burns! But I was a cook, not a diner; my place was in the kitchen.

In the end, I couldn’t decide whether I liked it better this way. It was exciting being handed cash. It was exciting when some of the diners proposed having a reunion dinner. (A reunion! Of this!) And it was exciting hearing the praise of the food, as well as the critiques — our salad plates were too large and made the amount of salad look worrisomely small. But mostly I spent the evening waiting for something to go south, then marveling when it didn’t.

It was 11 when, both reluctantly and not reluctantly, we shooed the stragglers away. We’d been cooking since morning, and at another level, for weeks. Alone at last, Amy and I crumbled onto the couch, too tired to stand and too wired to sleep. We discussed our favorite people, parsed reactions to the dishes. “I was definitely pouring Cabernet on top of Pinot Noir by the end,” Amy said. We shrugged. Fake restaurateurs get to shrug as much as they want.

As we sprawled there, the obvious asserted itself: There are much easier ways to go about losing money. (What we made: $550. What we spent: $922.82.) But another realization dawned on us too: The toughest part had been psychological. Holding 10 strangers’ happiness in your hands is no small thing, it turns out. A familiar feeling had cut in and out of the evening, and it occurred to me now what it was: parenthood.

To be sure, our guests’ table manners surpassed those of our children, and every single one seemed fully potty-trained. But our urge to care for them felt jarringly parental nonetheless. Sure, all dinner party hosts want their guests to enjoy themselves. But this time, we were the help.

Fifteen minutes into the evening, we’d been put to the test. Amy and I were at the stove when we realized that talk in the other room had bottomed out. Someone had veered into politics and stayed there a beat too long; clear as day, our guests’ happy ions started rearranging themselves into awkward silence. If we’d been part of the mix, it would’ve been a breeze to resolve. Instead we’d stood there, eavesdropping helplessly.

But then something interesting happened: The ship righted itself. Pleasantly but firmly, someone interrupted the monologue, and in two minutes, conversation hummed again, stronger than ever for having dusted itself off. Our child, tossed alone into the pool, had learned to swim.

For Amy and me, the moment was somehow both happy and draining, not unlike how child rearing is both happy and draining. Later on, I mentioned the feeling to some of those real-life restaurateurs I’d polled. This business of yours, I said — food is just one small piece.

Oh yes, Kevin Cline, from San Francisco’s Front Porch, concurred. For the duration of a hot, frantic evening, the well-being of a bunch of strangers is entirely your responsibility.

That’s where my next bit of advice comes in, he added: Always carry a flask.


Chris Colin is the coauthor of What to Talk About. Hear him read this story — and see the recipes — at sunset.com/undergrounddining.