Hardeep Singh Kohli lifts the veil on the new ‘underground kitchens’: confidential gatherings of gastronomes in secret locations, meals that are governed by the rules of omerta
So there I am, in a stranger’s kitchen on a summer Saturday night, knee-deep in freshly cooked basmati rice, chutneys and pickles a go-go. And I’m ladling spoonfuls of smoked aubergine and pea curry on to the 24th of 25 expectant plates, wondering furiously if:
1) There will be enough to go round.
2) Each portion is roughly equal lest there be a disagreement.
3) The damned curry is still warm enough to taste palatable.
I am a maelstrom of madness, an apoplexy of activity. And I must confess I’m not altogether sure why I have brought this upon myself. I break off from the self-indulgence and recount the plates for the umpteenth time. Then before you know it, the food is a blur as anonymous arms grab and ghost the food to hungry and patient diners in the room next door.
Welcome to London’s newest and most sought-after ‘underground kitchen’. In a ground-floor flat in the depths of north-west London a woman who (for legal reasons) can only be known as Ms Marmite Lover has been transforming her terraced lounge and kitchen into a Saturday night restaurant for the last six months. Twenty-five strangers, utilising an enigmatic website and latterly Twitter, the social networking site, search out that evening’s themed menu and pay a modest sum for a three-course meal. Ms Marmite, a self-confessed food lover, devotes the latter half of her week to devising the menu and preparing the food. And while she may have weeks of experience at this sort of cooking, dining and entertaining, for me it’s a big ask.
There are few things I enjoy more than gathering a host of friends around my dinner table. Perhaps my desire to entertain with food is greater than the sum of the parts of my own heritage: the Glaswegians are well known for their hospitality, and the Punjabis throw the best parties in town, incorporating big-style dancing. Generally speaking, those who break bread and drink wine with me are known folk, new friends or old, but all people I have a connection with. Occasionally a friend will bring a friend, but that is the exception rather than the rule. Like many folk, I don’t feel very comfortable having my life invaded by those unfamiliar to me. So the notion of opening my kitchen, my flat and my life to two dozen strangers has never really crossed my vodka-addled mind, less so the idea that I would offer them a three-course meal. (The most I have cooked for at home is ten, and that was for friends and family, who can be expected to forgive culinary mishaps: paying guests have different expectations.)
But that is exactly what has started happening across the length and breadth of the country in the last few months. Underground kitchens have sprung up, to be sought out by novelty-seeking gastronomes. Last year, as part of a food festival in the north-east of England, an organised underground restaurant experience was launched, allowing people to try an ethnically diverse range of meals. That, however, was an organised event. What Ms Marmite Lover does is pure guerrilla dining. And it is this guerrilla component that requires her to be given a shawl of anonymity. There are no health and safety checks on her kitchen. Legally, she isn’t allowed to sell or serve alcohol to paying guests. And if her upstairs neighbours got wind of her operation, then they could tip off the planning department, who might, as only the officiously pompous planning department folk can, pay her an unsympathetic visit and ban her from running her ad-hoc eatery.
Based on a Central American idea, people entertain paying members of the public in their front-rooms and dining-rooms. Paladares or restaurantes de puertas cerradas (‘restaurants of closed doors’) have been commonplace in countries like Cuba for years. And while the rationale for these has been economic, a way for the Paladares owners to supplement their income, in Britain the venture seems to be born out of a love of food, cooking and new experiences. Ms Marmite Lover barely scrapes a profit together on her weekly escapade into underground cooking. (She didn’t admit it, but I’m certain some weeks she even runs at a loss; the week I cooked was a floral themed evening and she had spent £20 on edible flowers alone!)
Ms Marmite Lover pioneered the current incarnation and it seems to be taking London and the country by storm. She garners a deep sense of satisfaction from the process. And the diners, to a woman and a man, seem happy and content. A starter of Indian-style scrambled eggs with deliciously fresh asparagus goes down a storm. (Limited fridge space meant that a friendly neighbour was relied upon to store the starter in their capacious American walk-in fridge). The main course is my aforementioned smoked aubergine and pea curry. The whole aubergines are charred and burned atop the Aga (a wholly impractical oven for anything more than a Sunday roast). The burned skin imparts a smoky flavour to the flesh, which is then scooped away and combined with a panoply of Indian spices, onions, chillies and tomatoes. A couple of packs of Waitrose’s finest frozen petit pois add a sweetness to the earthy richness of the aubergine. The entire dish is then emboldened with industrial amounts of butter. (I aim to offer a genuine taste of the Punjab.)
Ms Marmite Lover has hand-crafted Indian ice cream, kulfi, which I have to confess is as good as any my aunts would have made.
The lounge-cum-dining-room is abuzz with happy eaters and the kitchen is a slump of shattered chefs. We have just about pulled the evening off. There were a couple of genuinely hairy moments when I thought the whole thing would fall apart. I hadn’t made enough masala for the aubergines and had to fry a whole new batch. The neighbour entrusted with the safekeeping of the starter had the gall to pop out for half an hour. And the kulfi seemed more than a little unwilling to slip out of the moulds and into bowls. According to Ms M this seat-of-your-pants-type nonsense is a regular weekly occurrence. She is so full of adrenaline and relief that I guess she won’t sleep for hours. I, however, am broken by my travails and escape back to the welcoming embrace of east London, a large vodka and my bed. I suspect my kitchen will very much remain overground, though I think I ought to invite Ms M round for a wee bite to eat.
Hardeep Singh Kohli is a contributing editor of The Spectator.