By Mary Emily O'Hara
Special to DNAinfo New York
WILLIAMSBURG — Chef Fred Hua opened the gate of his popular Havemeyer Street Vietnamese restaurant Nha Toi this past June expecting to unload some vegetables, but instead was shocked to see the inside of his small storefront covered in dust and rubble.
“There was a huge hole in my wall,” said Hua, a 36-year-old San Jose transplant turned Brooklynite, who opened the eatery near South Second Street in 2009.
After a struggle with management over building construction that he claimed caused the damage, Hua decided to take a loss and repair it himself. The closure gave the art school grad time to ponder new directions, leading him to launch a series of rotating dinners known as the South Side Supper Club.
“I don’t like to think of it as a pop-up, 'cause to me that’s like Korean tacos or something,” Hua said, noting that he and his girlfriend Kate Alberswerth, a pastry chef at Mast Brothers Chocolate, often hosted dinner parties at their home in Ridgewood. “It’s more of a grown-up dining experience. It’s not open to the public. The idea is for professional cooks to showcase their work and build a following.”
So far, dinners have included a regular Dim Sum night, special events like "Lettuce" (where the menu featured Norwegian mackerel with red peppers, yuzu and scallion oil on butter lettuce) and even a food-themed art show.
At the art show, attendees crammed into the 19-seat space to gaze at, and ultimately purchase, food-inspired paintings while being served small plates and specialty cocktails.
“Food is art," Hua explained. "If anything, it’s the most involved — you’re using all five of your senses at the same time."
But the space also provides opportunity for young chefs to show their skills independently of a brand.
Alexis Krisel — a chef who helped Hua create the food art show and spent years as a line cook at the Spotted Pig in the West Village and sous chef at Williamsburg's Allswell — soon plans to host a seven-course meal at the club.
“What Fred is doing is allowing us to showcase what we personally love to do best,” Krisel said. “We don’t have the opportunity to do that working at restaurants. Unless you are the executive chef, you have to just do what you’re told to do. South Side Supper Club allows us to have fun and think outside the boundaries.”
The club has hosted several other local chefs, who take time away from their main gigs to plan dining events. Visiting Seoul chef Wonil Lee partnered with food blogger Sarah Lee of Seoul in the City to present Beef Dduk Galbi and Omija tofu ice cream at a night called “The Back Kitchen."
Despite the rotating roster of chefs, Alberswerth still bakes all the desserts, including fortune cookies for the recurring Dim Sum nights. “She would kill me if I let anyone else do the baking,” Hua joked.
Diners must RSVP or buy tickets online. Some are friends who are invited by the chef, or regulars of the former Nha Toi. Tickets run between $30 and $70 — barely enough to cover the rent on the storefront, Hua said.
Hua — who’s done stints at Morimoto, Bao 111, Loulou and Danny Meyer’s Hudson Yards catering company — opened Nha Toi to positive reviews in 2009 before his building was sold and rents increased, he said.
But with two years remaining on his lease, he decided to stick it out by changing concepts.
“I lived a block away from Nha Toi and went there every week," Krisel recalled. "When I saw the restaurant was closed, it was really sad."
But after Hua invited him into the new space and discussed the Supper Club idea, “I was hooked,” Krisel said.
"The space now is like a white canvas,” he said. “We can turn it into whatever we want.”
The South Side Supper Club is located at 160 Havemeyer St. Email email@example.com.