Mission Mediterranean restaurant Tawla isn’t always its busiest on Mondays — but on June 18th, it’s liable to be packed with members of Tasting Collective for that group’s first San Francisco dinner: An eight course, family-style meal at $50 a head. Tawla chef Joseph Magidow will also be on the menu, so to speak, presenting dishes and answering questions. Access to chefs is one central premise of Tasting Collective’s dinners, which started in New York two years ago before expanding to Chicago and now San Francisco.
“The business model [for restaurants] is doing as many covers as you can a night — it doesn’t leave room for a lot of interaction between chefs and diners,” says Tasting Collective founder Nat Gelb. That’s a shame, he thinks, since “there are so many smaller, chef-owned or chef-partnered restaurants all over, and they have stories to tell.”
Gelb’s model at Tasting Collective: Partner with restaurants by booking them out on nights they’re typically slow or closed to the public, then selling tickets for special events to Tasting Collective members. In New York, 1,500 members pay $165 annually, and the company hosts meals about once every other week.
Gelb stresses that Tasting Collective doesn’t make money off restaurants or its dinners — just from its subscription model. All meals follow the same format, with eight course family-style menus for $50. Members can buy tickets for non members to join them for $25 extra. 20 percent of covers automatically go toward tips, and drinks are pay-as-you-go.
For many chefs, Tasting Collective’s meals are an opportunity to step out of the kitchen and into the spotlight. Most take to it naturally, but “we do work with places where the chefs are nervous about speaking,” says Gelb. “‘Do they really care about how I made this?’ they say, and we say, ‘yeah, they do.’ During the Q and A, they always open up.”
A private, members-only eating club model at normally public restaurants might sound like Ivy League exclusivity run amok — but with its mostly communal seating and convivial atmosphere, Gelb likes to think that Tasting Collective’s meals are inclusive rather than the opposite. One thing’s for sure: They definitely buck the traditional power dynamics in the dining room, creating a casual atmosphere and leveling the playing field between diners and chefs.
Members even receive printed menus and can rate each dish and give feedback. “It’s the anti-Yelp,” say Gelb — which is to say, it’s intentionally constructive, and chefs actually read the feedback with an open mind.