It’s a brisk fall afternoon in the Central West End neighborhood of St. Louis.
I’ve climbed a narrow flight of stairs in the rear of the main kitchen at Brennan’s, a popular wine and cigar-centric pub, looking for the Rogue Chefs. Comprised of several turn-of-the-century row houses that have been interconnected by doorways punched in the walls, the second floor of Brennan’s features a couple of bars, a cosy cigar lounge, and much to my surprise, a tiny record shop (yes, as in vinyl). It also features a minuscule kitchen boasting a single six burner gas range, and a small refrigerator. It is in this tiny space that the Rogue Chefs will shortly prepare an 11 course meal for 30 people.
I first met the Rogue Chef’s through friends, shortly after moving to St. Louis. Back then the Rogue Underground Dining Society was in its second year, and my wife and I were thrilled to be invited to join one of the dinners. Over the years we have gone to several pop-up events at locations ranging from a Gothic church to a suburban basement to the roasting facility of a local coffee company.
Each dinner is announced via email to a carefully curated list of invitees. The only information provided is the date and theme. Those who are able to respond immediately are able to snap up a reservation for the twenty or so seats – competition is high. If you RSVP and then cancel? Chances are you won’t be on the next invite list.
The location is provided to the lucky guests a day or so before the dinner, usually just an address, with no other information about the location. Dress is generally “as you see fit” but most diners tend to dress up a bit … this is, after all, not your usual dining experience. You are given a theme, but no menu or details. Basically you show up and see what happens.
“From the beginning, Rogue was meant to be a culinary vision,” says Chef K, “driven by both our reaction to the contemporary dining setting, and by a deep sense that we wanted to liberate ourselves and our diners from the many constraints that diners experience in this generation’s glamorized food world. We wanted to create an all access pass to everyone who would be involved in Rogue, and by everyone we mean everyone – the volunteer wait and kitchen staff, the photographers, the occasional DJs, event hosts, musicians, singers, and actors. Each of these individuals need to form a team determined to create an event that will break down the industry’s “4th Wall.”
One of the most exciting things about The Rogue Underground Dining Society is the ability to not only enjoy a delicious meal in a clandestine location, but to participate in the event, whether that means helping to prep, donating bread or wine, or volunteering an interesting space for a future dinner, as my wife and I did.
“The diners themselves are always considered part of “the crew” and are asked to participate in any way they feel comfortable. They ultimately end up helping us form our true identity as an engaged Underground Society. We are driven by the urgency to create events that are not always (or only) about food. As much as Rogue has always been about chaos and no-holds-barred breaking of all the rules, each and every detail is always carefully thought out and planned, from the menu, to the lighting, the music, centerpieces … even entrances and exits are carefully orchestrated. All this with the thought in mind that the guests are about to experience an event that forces them to become an integral part of Rogue. We are after all Culinarians whose vision of the industry was and is forever built on a platform of change and progression. Nothing happens by chance at a Rogue event, and yet everything is left to chance, luck, and a hint of illusion.”
For their 50th dinner at Brennan’s, the Rogue Chefs took this sense of participation and creativity to an extreme level. When the guests arrived, they were greeted with a cork board populated with small tags. On one side were tags notating different cuisines (Hispanic, Canadian, Far East, etc.) and on the other, various cooking techniques (fried, under pressure, torched, etc.). Each party was asked to choose one tag from each column and pair them up. Then, while the guests enjoyed cocktails and hors d’oeuvres, the chefs took these mash-ups and created the menu on the fly, drawing on their collective experience to serve up amazing combinations of flavor, texture, and technique to make Rogue 50 a memorable experience for their guests.
Later, well after midnight, as they were toasting the success of Rogue 50 at the traditional after-party, the Rogue Chef’s were already planning their next event. Chances are you won’t be on the invite list, but keep your ear to the ground in St. Louis and you may just meet a Rogue Chef in the wild…
“Imagine preparing the four recipes photographed in this magazine, add seven more, and execute them off-the-cuff for 30 guests in a kitchen with barely enough room for one person. That’s 330 plates inspired by a list of 11 cuisines and 11 culinary techniques that our guests were invited to mash-up together and make us sweat. And sweat we did!
That was the make up of what became Rogue 50. The “mash-up” anti-anniversary party. Rogue, remember, is all about control and precision. This event challenged our abilities and creativity to the extreme. It was grueling and fun. We had to pivot every 5 seconds to get to the next course. It completely threw us off our game. As a result it was the most exhilarating Rogue we have ever done. The rush was more than we could have imagined and we realized at the end of the day (which began at 5 a.m. and ended at 1:30 am the next day) that this was why we Rogue. This is why Rogue exists. This is why it will continue…”
– Chef K. n
For more about The Rogue Underground Dining Society, check out the latest print issue of The Insatiable Lens!