22 September 2007

The 200lb Muffin Club

The room was abuzz with chatter as the staff descended with the main course and glasses were charged. Candles flickered giving everyone a perfectly romantic glow.

The playboys were working the room as I finished re-counting the money. A Photographer chatted animatedly to a Banker while an Ad Man was chewing the ear of a florist. One of my dining companions had pulled up the piano stool and was beginning to launch into a piece on the grand piano.

As the waitress bent over me with a plate she said, “Can I come to your next club night? I’ve never seen a better looking group of people – and you’re all having such a good time."

I laughed and said, “You’ll need to have a friend who is already a member of the club…
…or convince one of these guys to bring you next time.”

There has been a fair amount of media coverage on Zingara Cucina as a self-proclaimed underground restaurant movement in Melbourne. It has had an unnatural amount of coverage in the traditional media with many wild claims being made by the protagonists. It’s proving to have its fans and detractors, causing quite a kerfuffle in the blogasphere. Even Facebook has two groups devoted to the desire to eat at Zingara.

Last week journalist Ed Charles speculated that it was in fact an elaborate ruse. I wonder is it really a fake, or some elaborate self-promotion for the individuals involved? Based on my own experiences, I wondered if the founders were trying to drum up collaborative support in order to bolster their ambitious claims. If so, they are doing it in a very clumsy way. I believe that time will tell and that this enigma will eventually be laid bare.

I too once hosted an underground dining movement. The Two Hundred Pound Muffin Club was a dining club in two incarnations. The first was in the late eighties and the second was in the mid nineties. Some outings were in restaurants, some were rural and a few were event based. They were an absolute hoot; I made a ton of friends and watched the group evolve in a way that left me with a deep interest in social anthropology.

As a bon vivant, the people who gravitate towards my company have a slightly hedonistic urge, so it’s not hard to find dining companions. In my twenties I was a much more experienced diner than my friends, having grown up with parents who embrace the term Foodie, and who took me fine dining from an early age. Looking around me I realised that there was a niche for orchestrated fine dining experiences where my friends could broaden their food and wine knowledge, and thus was born my concept of a club.

At the time of the second incarnation, I was beginning to meet some young chefs socially. Most were about to break into their own ventures and were hungry for an audience, so I set up my club around these sorts of venues. I would work with the restaurant on the menu and a wine selection and we would come to an agreement on the price per head. They got an audience of budding gastronauts who went on to publicise the venue socially and some became repeat visitors.

The Club offered not only an epicurean experience, but also a simple forum where members could meet like-minded people. Most extended their social networks and quite a few people met their future spouses there. One couple have even framed the menu from the night where they met. As I recall, the woman in question garnered three phone numbers that evening, so the guy she ended up with was very proud of himself.

As the host, it is a very big task to undertake this kind of venture. Ensuring that you have the right numbers, adequate resources and that the financials are worked out accordingly is stressful. The success of these ventures rests on the right PR and hype. As I mentioned to Ed, the food doesn’t have to be great or even the best element of the night. You are selling the sizzle, not the sausage. The key is to convince people that they are a part of something particularly unique, that it is in fact, a ‘money can’t buy’ experience.

Ultimately we are all drawn to the desire to be considered just that little bit better than the next man. The coveted ‘hard to get invitation’ can arouse anxiety and at the same time will draw criticism, but it is the base desire for a certain cachet that leads to the evolution of underground movements, whether they are gastronomically inclined or otherwise. Regardless of the public’s distrust of PR, marketing and spin, the deployment of these tactics are pivotal in guaranteeing your club’s success. After all, you are actually making something out of nothing, without which you have a standard dinner party or fancy picnic.

The bottom line though is that these clubs are great fun to be a part of and can be a heady experience for all who attend.

Tomorrow: Underground Dining 101, or how to start your own underground restaurant movement.


Anonymous said...

I was hoping you might write about this after seeing mention of it on Ed's site. It's also great to see you being so candid about its form and function -- when I first read about Zingara Cucina I was more than a little cynical about the 'experience' and the type of crowd it would attract (it's so not me -- I eat for comfort/enjoyment and not for in-/edginess). Anyway, I look forward to more about your insights into the phenomenon and the nature of the 200lb Muffin Club!

Anonymous said...

I read your post eagerly. Eds was very well researched but yours has come from actually doing it. I recently posted an account of a similarly themed experience here in Hobart & to my astonishment someone has already lambasted me for getting the details wrong. This is the more curious as I made the whole thing up! It just goes to underpin your theory of how we all want to be a little more 'in the loop' than the next person.

stickyfingers said...

Thank you Duncan & The Gobbler for your very encouraging words. For my part the establishment of the club came from an innocent desire to create something fun and mildly educational for my friends.

The members only stipulation comes about because you want to keep the balance of personalities right. My motivation wasn't elitist. I feel that it only takes one bad apple to spoil the fun, so you take whatever precautions you can to ensure that everyone has a good time.

Ed said...

Sounds cool. But how do we know you aren't faking it and that this isn't simply a chapter in your novel? Is that why you threw a sucker at me? Appologies for seeing a conspiracy in everything.

stickyfingers said...

Haha, ever the skeptic Ed, but I understand, that's what makes for a good journalist. In this case I have a box somewhere with old invitations, some photos, a club logo and menus etc...and a few of my Facebook friends are old Muffin Club members. Naturally in order to preserve the mystique, none of it will be published here. LOL!