I’m an entrepreneurial type who has dabbled in business start-ups over the years—all food related. Not sure how I got the foodie bug; my mother was not one to insist that I learn how to cook and I never expressed interest in learning (though years later I was glad to come across her recipe for eggplant parmigiana … mmmm). As a child I was a picky eater but somehow morphed into someone who always managed to eat more than anyone at the table. When out with friends I gladly accepted offers to finish what someone else couldn’t. Luckily for me, back then my metabolism was speedy (after age 40, not so much).
When I got my first apartment I fancied I would become a gourmet cook and set about collecting a library of books of every type of cuisine. It never happened: Six years of business school at night while working full-time turned me into one lazy gal when it came to the culinary arts. In 1981 I moved to Greenwich Village where my foodie inclinations went into high gear. A foodie friend and I would religiously read Eric Asimov’s New York Times column, “$25 and Under,” and dutifully proceed to almost every highly-rated venue to channel our inner food critics.
In my early thirties an aunt I was close with invited me to partner with her and a Canadian friend in an exclusive distribution deal to sell Manx kippers in the U.S. I’d never heard of kippers or the word Manx—they were from the Isle of Man and considered to be a premium product. Nevertheless, the proposal had all the right ingredients: The chance to work with Rita in a business that we were convinced would be a goldmine. Heck, I even got New York Times food guru Florence Fabricant to write about it. Fast forward one year and a few investment dollars later, and Rita’s resistance to formalizing the arrangement with the Canadian partner led to my exit.
My first foray into hosting dinners was in the early 2000s, a company called New York Culinary Adventures—Dining Experiences for People Who Live to Eat. It was targeted to tourists who were “passionate and curious about food” and interested in group dining experiences in restaurants that offered excellent food at reasonable prices, many of which were not listed in New York City guidebooks. The lightbulb moment for the concept occurred during dinner with a Korean businessman whom I’d been teaching English at the former International Center in New York. Our sessions were ending as he was returning to Korea; in a gesture of thanks he invited me to a restaurant in Manhattan’s Koreatown on “Korea Way,” on 32nd Street between Fifth Avenue and Broadway. I was psyched, I’d never tried Korean and the chance to go with a native would be ideal.
At dinner I was introduced to the wonderful world of banchan, Korean side dishes of pickles and veggies that are for sharing and replenished throughout the meal; rice and soup complement. One of the more familiar of these dishes is kimchi—napa cabbage lightly fermented in red chili flakes [read: very spicy]. Leaving the ordering to my host, I sampled main courses like beef bulgogi (of Korean barbecue fame); jjigae, a Korean stew of meat or seafood and vegetables; samgyeopsal, fatty slices of grilled pork belly garnished with lettuce, garlic, and chili paste; and the well-known bibimbap—a salad-like dish with rice on the bottom, sautéed vegetables, egg, toasted seaweed flakes, and sesame seeds. And let’s not forget the Korean version of the dumpling: mandu. (By the way, Gina Pace recently wrote that “Koreatown in NYC is now being taken more seriously as a dining destination.”)
The waitstaff and my student happily educated me about every dish placed on the table. I remember being utterly delighted with the whole experience. The next day, New York Culinary Adventures was born—since I’d been so jazzed during dinner the previous night, I thought tourists with interests in the culinary realm would be similarly gratified. Our literature pitched: “If you delight in the pleasures of well-prepared, uncommon foods, a culinary adventure in one of the most ethnically-diverse cities in the world will be a memorable experience.” With offerings like “Pan Asian Odyssey,” “International Sampler,” and “The American Experience,” our itineraries let people “revel in the cuisine of a particular region or take a veritable world tour.” For a host of reasons, the start-up did not get very far.
A few years later my food interests turned to fine dining, spurred in part by a foodie boyfriend who introduced me to the joys of five-star feasts. When the relationship ended, I started asking friends if they might like to dine at upscale places on a regular basis. I had no takers, so I turned to craigslist. Around 2006 Fine Diners Over 40 was launched there purely as means to find fellow foodies, not as a business. In that iteration the price point was around $50 all in—so no celebrity chefs in that constellation. The concept proved to be popular. I ran the group for about a year until I became distracted by other matters. I did meet some nice friends and will never forget the amazing experience at Per Se where I celebrated my fiftieth with some folks from the craigslist group.
To be continued…