Been hearing about all those super-fun, decadent, hush-hush underground food experiences happening all over the place, but not sure how to get your foot in the door? We've got some surefire tips from food-world insider Liza DeGuia. Liza's fascination with the secret life of the restaurant world has led to a James Beard Award for her work as a food documentarian, and it's led her to all kinds of incredible underground dining experiences. For instance, she once wrote about a hidden lobster pound in Brooklyn, where a chef was handing out lobster rolls through a mail slot in a door—but only to insiders who were plugged-in enough to know where to find him (Sarah Jessica Parker once drove up). Liza has also eaten all manner of exotic, not-necessarily-legal ingredients at pop-up dinners (um, beaver tail?), and she continues to track down the most memorable, out-of-the-way experiences as co-host (with chef Russell Jackson) of the new BravoTV.com show Going Off the Menu. Here, Liza shares her tips for how to discover the coolest off the radar food experiences, and—most important of all—how to get in.
1. The underground food scene is not like Fight Club “
People throwing underground experiences want to be found," says Liza (pictured above left, with Going Off the Menu
co-host Russell Jackson, right, and MythBusters
star Tory Bellecci, center, in episode 104). "They wouldn’t be throwing these events without thinking there are people out there who are willing to go the extra mile to get to them. They don’t want to be totally secret. They want the whispers to start happening about them. If you’re following the food media, people are writing about underground experiences all the time. You have to do the research. You have to enjoy it. And you have to know that you need to dig a little. It’s not like Fight Club. People want you to talk about it, but they’re not going to talk about secret dinners all the time and ruin it for everyone. It’s more like, 'I’m going to talk about it when the right person asks me.'"
Blow-torching sandwiches at an underground pop-up in Going Off the Menu Episode 104
2. The fun is in the ask
Liza likes to suss out the secret dishes that restaurants are willing to whip up, but only for in-the-know diners. And where does she get her tips? Besides word of mouth, she says, “A lot of info is on social media, Twitter, Yelp, Foursquare. You can search for secret menus or off-menu items, and people who have discovered this stuff have usually posted about it. I use Yelp a lot because most people are on Yelp. A lot of Foursquare now is older, but that doesn’t mean the stuff isn’t still there.”
3. Make yourself uncomfortable
“If you want to have an adventure, you have to come out of your skin. You have to play. And you don’t play if you don’t start interacting with people in a different way.
People have to be willing to make connections or go out of their way. You have to do things that feel unnatural to you to get into the underground scene. A lot of the people who know what’s happening are the food writers. You can write to them sincerely and tell them your story and what you’re looking for, but not in a demanding way—more like, can you help me? Send them a direct message on social media. I find a lot of people will get back to me."
Liza and Russell with Underground's Amirah Vann in Going Off the Menu Episode 102.
4. Be passionate
"The underground scene is looking for passionate people to be part of that community. They’re not just looking for people who want to be there to be popular. They’re looking for people who care about food and want to have cool conversations with strangers. A lot of these pop-ups are small, 10- or 20-seat dinners. They want people to have conversations. It's a small community. You have to be open and really sincerely interested. And approach everything with enthusiasm, especially the people in that scene because they can read you so easily."
5. Chat up the chef and the bartender
If you land in a city, look up a really good cocktail spot and start talking to a bartender. They tend to have their ear to the ground because part of their job is to engage with everyone at the bar. A lot of them have done underground stuff because there are a lot of cocktails involved with that scene. And if you go to a pop-up dinner, talk to that chef and don’t be afraid to ask, where else have you been? Often they’ve been to other pop-ups and were inspired by them."
Underground's Amirah Vann in Going Off the Menu Episode 102
6. Be gracious and bring a present
The hosts are going out of their way to have this dinner. If you get invited, bring something to surprise them. A lot of people come with a friend, but you’re ruining the experience if you’re just hanging out with your friend the whole time. Be ready to talk to people, and that’s going to open the rabbit hole to this underground world. Come with an open mind and come to socialize. Don’t think of it as networking; think of it as going there to make friends and be part of the community. If you like something, tell the chef and be thankful, and they’ll invite you back."
Want to see what kinds of wild adventures Liza, Russell and their friends get up to in Going Off the Menu? Stream all six episodes now on BravoTV.com.
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