Sunday, August 4, 2019

a decade of cobaya



It was exactly ten years ago to the day that Steven (a/k/a Chowfather), Steve (a/k/a Blind
Mind) and I hosted our first Cobaya "underground" dinner. Those were interesting times. Following the financial crisis of 2007-08, the food world seemed to be at something of an inflection point. Chefs like David Chang were pulling the chair out from the pretensions of fine dining and replacing it with a hard, backless stool in front of the kitchen counter at Momofuku Ko. Food trucks were a big thing, where aspiring restaurateurs could pursue their dreams without the big capital outlay required for a brick-and-mortar build-out. The hegemony that newspapers exercised over public discourse on restaurants was being undermined from one side by Yelp, and from the other by these things called "blogs" where anyone with some rudimentary knowledge of how to operate a computer could publish their thoughts to the internet. Many would do so with actual thoughtfulness and insight, and often with a side of snark.[1] Instagram didn't even exist yet.

Locally, Michelle Bernstein and Michael Schwartz were the queen and king, respectively, of Miami dining, with bookend Beard Awards to prove it (Michelle won Best Chef: South in 2008, Michael won the same award in 2010).[2] Since then, Michael's opened more restaurants than I can count,[3] while Michelle took a different direction; she recently opened Cafe La Trova on Calle Ocho with cantinero and longtime compadre Julio Cabrera (recently named Tales of the Cocktail's Bartender of the Year), and continues to run a high-end catering operation, but these days you're equally likely to see her on T.V., hosting "Check, Please!" or "SoFlo Taste," as in a restaurant kitchen. Good for her; it's a crazy life. Meanwhile, back in 2009, many of those who are now among Miami dining's most prominent names were still sharpening their knives: to name just a few, Brad Kilgore was working his way through some of Chicago's top kitchens, Zak Stern (a/k/a Zak the Baker) was traipsing around Europe, making cheese, herding goats, and occasionally baking bread at my kids' summer camp, Jose Mendin was still a year away from opening the original PubBelly.

It was a long time ago – longer than the lifespan of most restaurants.

I've told the Cobaya origin story many times when folks ask, "How did you start doing this?", but never written it down. Many of you have probably heard it before. The whole thing started in the valet circle of a Sunny Isles hotel. A couple chefs, Kurtis Jantz and Chad Galiano, had cobbled together a group of "food-focused locals" to be their focus group for a new restaurant concept. They'd found most of us online, probably primarily via Chowhound, which back in the day actually hosted a somewhat lively food discussion on its boards. That was how most of us knew each other as well, though a few of us had met in person. As the Steves and I were waiting for our cars at the end of the evening, we started talking about the then-current trend of "underground dining" groups.

Two questions triggered it: "Why not here?" And then: "Why not us?" And just like that, we decided to do it ourselves. We posted something on a Google message board that I'd used to organize a few other get-togethers,[4] started a website, and posted a mission statement:
The goal here is a very simple one - to get talented chefs to cook great, interesting, creative meals for an audience of adventurous, open-minded diners. That may happen inside a restaurant, it may happen outside of one. It may be a multi-course tasting menu, it may be a family-style whole hog dinner (here's hoping). For those who question the "underground" street cred of this mission, those questions are perfectly legitimate. My answer is, "I don't care." We're not limiting ourselves to meals cooked in abandoned warehouses in secret locations disclosed the day before the dinner; we're also not limiting ourselves to white tablecloths and silverware changed between every course. We're very open-minded that way: all that matters is if the food is good, and we think there's enough similar-minded folks to make that game plan sustainable.
Every invitation comes with a disclaimer: there is no "menu". There are no choices. You'll be eating what the chef chooses to make for the night. If you have food related allergies, strict dietary requirements, religious restrictions; are salt sensitive, vegetarian, pescatarian, or vegan; don't like your meat cooked medium rare, or are pregnant: this meal is probably not for you. Do not expect white-glove service. Don't ask for your sauce on the side. Just come and enjoy.[5]
Truth is, we hadn't quite honed our modus operandi yet – we let everyone know the restaurant that it was going to be at, and a preview menu got posted a couple days in advance – but the basic idea was that the chefs were going to get to cook whatever they wanted and the folks who showed up would get to eat it. We had no idea what kind of reaction it would get, but we wound up with a group of sixteen who wanted in.

On August 4, 2009, we hosted our first "Cobaya" dinner at Talula. Andrea Curto-Randazzo was the chef, along with her then sous chef, Kyle Foster.[6] It is still one of my favorite Cobaya meals, and I still pine for that tripe risotto.

What we found out is that there was actually tremendous demand in Miami for this kind of thing. We announced our next event a couple months later, and got so many responses that we added a second seating for the following night. Chef Jeremiah Bullfrog wound up doing two rounds of seven courses for 36 diners in a penthouse suite in Midtown Miami. I brought Frod Jr., who was 12 years old at the time, along to one of those, and he still remembers Jeremiah offering him a cigar and a beer as we hung out on the balcony post-service.[7]

Since then, we've put on a total of 77 of these "experiments." We've worked with some of Miami's most highly regarded chefs,[8] an even greater number of skilled and creative but less-celebrated talents, and the occasional visitor from places further afield.[9] We've had Andrew Zimmern join us for a dinner, which wound up being featured on his show "Bizarre Foods America,"[10] and then later cook for us at a couple events we co-hosted with the South Beach Wine and Food Festival. We've eaten with our hands at "kamayan" Filipino feasts in fancy South Beach restaurants, and we've eaten at a backyard farm in Homestead.

We've been served pig's heads, lamb's heads, goat's heads, pig's brains, veal brains, pig skin noodles, lamb's livers, rabbit's livers, beef tendon chicharrones, sweetbreads, duck testicles, mushroom dinuguan, morcilla toast, beef heart tartare, grasshoppers, silkworms, waterbugs, ant eggs, abalone, geoduck, turtle, blowfish, suckling pigs and smoking cows and kangaroo and rabbit and venison and goat, not nearly enough tripe, and enough foie gras to stuff a flock of geese. We haven't actually had guinea pig yet, unless you want to count a guinea hen stuffed with pig (a noble effort). We've had a dinner with truffles for every course, and another where we drank liquors from the 1950's-1970's with every course, and another – Cobayapalooza! – with seven different chefs for each course.


We've had roughly a thousand different people attend our experiments, and now routinely have to deal with the fortunate but nonetheless demanding challenge of receiving 250-350 requests for the 25-35 spots we typically have available for each of these events. We've spent a lot of time and effort trying to find ways to handle those requests fairly and in a way that maximizes the most people's opportunity to join us, while also making sure we can timely fill the spots that we have.[11]

Through it all, we've remained faithful to that mission statement, encapsulated in that first sentence: "The goal here is a very simple one - to get talented chefs to cook great, interesting, creative meals for an audience of adventurous, open-minded diners." I feel very fortunate to have been able to do exactly that for the past ten years, and to meet and eat with so many wonderful people along the way. Thanks for your support.

[1] R.I.P. "Eat Me Daily."

[2] No South Florida chef has won the award since 2010, though I think Miami can still claim as one of its own the wonderful Nina Compton, 2018's winner for her New Orleans restaurant Compere Lapin.

[3] Let me try from memory, without cheating: Michael's Genuine, Harry's Pizza, Ella, Genuine Pizzas in Coconut Grove, Atlanta, and Cleveland (?), Amara at Paraiso, Tigertail & Mary, and Traymore at the Como. (edited to add: I was close. The Atlanta Genuine Pizza closed but there's the original Harry's in the Design District plus Coconut Grove, Aventura, and Dadeland; and it's a Michael's Genuine that recently opened in Cleveland, not a Genuine Pizza. And while I thought Schwartz was no longer affiliated with Fi'lia because of a split with SBE, it's still included on the Genuine Kitchen website?). (edited again to add: so literally a day after I posted this, Schwartz announced he's closing the Dadeland Harry's. I guess I wasn't the only one not paying attention.)

[4] Again reflecting the centrality of Chowhound back then, we called these events "chowdowns," as they did on the other Chowhound regional boards, and I wound up with the idiotic "miamichowdown" email address that I still use for food-related things.

[5] Some of this was unapologetically stolen from an event announcement from Chef Jeremiah Bullfrog, who should probably see if he knows any lawyers he can talk to.

[6] Talula closed the following year, and it is still one of my all-time favorite Miami restaurants. Andrea continues to run Creative Tastes Catering with her chef husband Frank Randazzo. Kyle moved to Denver, where he's chef-owner of Julep. Kyle made some of the best offal dishes I've ever had, and I'm glad he's continuing that work at the Southern-inspired Julep, where the menu includes scrapple fries, chicken tail skewers, and rocky mountain oysters rockefeller. Another name you might recognize from the Talula kitchen: the outstanding pastry chef Antonio Bachour, though I think by the time of our dinner there he'd already moved across the street to work at the W South Beach.

[7] Another great connection from that dinner: the owner of the Midtown Miami condo that hosted our dinner ran a digital design company. One of their web developers was at the event and struck up a friendship with Jeremiah, then began working for him on the side, and ultimately wound up devoting himself full-time to the food business. Steve Santana – a/k/a @SliceDiceCode – now runs Taquiza, making the best tortillas in Miami, with locations in South Beach, North Beach and at The Citadel. I'd like to think that Cobaya can claim at least a small measure of responsibility for advancing Miami's taco game.

[8] A special acknowledgment here needs to go to Michelle Bernstein, who agreed to do a dinner with us back in 2011, when we'd been at it less than two years and hosted less than a dozen of these things.

[9] Sometimes when I look back at the list of experiments, I'm still flabbergasted by the names I see there: Bernstein, Schwartz, Norman Van Aken (a longtime culinary idol of mine), Nina Compton, Andrew Carmellini, Francis Mallmann, Carlo Mirarchi, Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo, Jeremiah Stone and Fabian Von Hauske, Justin Smillie, Katsuya Fukushima, Alex Talbot. What a thrill it's been to be able to approach these people and just say: "Cook for us."

[10] Zimmern gave a nickname to the sous chef working that dinner at Azul: "Wall Street," for his hair, which he wore slicked back, Gordon Gekko style. "Wall Street" no longer wears his hair slicked back, but found his way to success: Brad Kilgore now heads up Alter, Brava, Kaido and Ember.

[11] It continues to be a perennial problem that people ask for spots and then don't book them, so that we're always left to back-fill from the wait-list. When I hear restaurateurs complain about reservation no-shows, I listen with complete empathy.