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Dinner Lab, a Data-Driven Dining Club, Expands to Chicago

By Janet Rausa Fuller | April 3, 2014 6:53am
 The experimental dining club began in 2012 in New Orleans and has spread to nine other cities.
Dinner Lab expands to Chicago
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CHICAGO — Dinner Lab, a fast-growing dining club, is setting the table for Chicago, but apparently not fast enough.

The first of the club's weekly dinners on April 10 is sold out and has a waiting list of 40. The second dinner on April 17 is also full.

Since its 2012 inception in New Orleans, in a "rented ground-floor apartment in the middle of the 'hood," as co-founder and CEO Brian Bordainick puts it, Dinner Lab has multiplied, sporelike, to nine other cities, including Chicago.

About 750 Chicagoans have paid the $175 annual membership fee to have access to events not only here but in the other cities where Dinner Lab operates.

In spirit, Dinner Lab might seem not unlike other underground dining clubs. Each dinner is limited to two seatings of 60 people and ranges in price from $50 to $95 a person, paid online in advance. Slots are typically snapped up in less than five minutes. (Tickets for the next Chicago dinner on April 24 go on sale Thursday.)

The location is revealed via email to members the day before an event. It could be an old warehouse in Bridgeport, an art gallery in West Town or a parking garage in the Loop.

Five-course meals served on charmingly mismatched dinnerware is the norm, cooked by a rotating lineup of chefs with impressive restaurant pedigrees. Some are employed full time by Dinner Lab. Some work elsewhere and just want to try out the pop-up concept.

Dinner Lab's chief culinary officer Francisco Robert, whose job it is to round up interested chefs, has worked at Alinea. A recent New York dinner featured Kwame Onwuachi, chef de partie at Eleven Madison Park; the menu reflected his Nigerian heritage and Bronx upbringing.

Cory Morris, who will cook the April 17 dinner in Chicago, is chef de cuisine at Mercat a la Planxa in the South Loop. His menu is a study in pig from nose to tail, with dishes like slow-cooked pork shoulder with tuna aioli, watercress and lard bread.

But Dinner Lab is way more wonkish than white-tablecloth, said Bordainick, 28, a former teacher.

"We are a data company, in essence," he said.

At the core of Dinner Lab is its data collection, gleaned from members' registration profiles and the rather low-tech paper survey method. It's valuable information that Bordainick said helps the company and chefs refine the events and menus to get at what people really want to eat.

"The way the industry has operated for so long is based on intuition, which is crazy," Bordainick said. Restaurant concepts "are being thought of from an ivory tower. I want to liberate that process."

Comment cards are set on the tables. Attendees are asked to fill them out during and after dinner, and for the most part, they do.

"About 97 percent of our diners fill out their feedback cards. The 3 percent that don't are just too wasted," Bordainick said. "People really like having that pen and paper. They love being able to help people get better at what they do."

Using this feedback, the Dinner Lab team can analyze how and why a certain cuisine, portion size, preparation or ingredient works, or doesn't work, and what that means for the chefs, specific cities, future menus and even the purveyors working with Dinner Lab.

"We're not coming in saying we know each place. It's the exact opposite — we have no clue what people want to eat in Chicago," he said.

Given the popularity of the dinners, the next phase is to keep adding more — and getting more feedback. Starting in May, Dinner Lab will take its chefs on a dinner series tour in each of the 10 cities. These dinners will be in addition to the two held weekly in each city.

"It's as big a logistical nightmare as you're thinking," said Bordainick, who hired 54 employees in 2013.

The company has an even bigger goal in all this: to open one, or possibly more than one, "completely user-data-generated restaurant," Bordainick said — not just a better restaurant, but the perfect one.

"At the end of the day, all we're trying to do is give a chef a platform," he said.