Kitchen confidential

At this underground dinner party, cleaning your plate hurts so good

Kitchen confidentialInside a sparse art gallery in a reluctantly gentrifying Toronto neighbourhood around Dundas West and Ossington streets, some 30 strangers assembled for the latest food fad: Charlie’s Burgers. Chefs from the choicest establishments in Canada collaborate on an inventive menu. It’s served in a secret location to a hand-picked list of guests who gain access by impressing the hosts with their food fancies via an online questionnaire—and by forking over the $110 per person fee.

Dubbed an “anti-restaurant” by earnest bloggers, it’s more like a “guess who’s coming to dinner” party—churches run these all the time; one congregant cooks a meal but doesn’t know for whom until the doorbell rings. The dinner guests, on the other hand, only have an address and a massive appetite. Charlie’s Burgers, like these church dinners, is at once awkward and exhilarating.

The best bits:

  • The adventure. To arrive at the venue, guests were instructed to pick up an envelope containing directions, tucked inside a newspaper box. There, a 20-something hipster (later discovered to be one of the hosts) was staked out in a nearby telephone booth, keeping tabs.
  • The food. The food! Divine and slothful. Hence, this moving exchange between a few tablemates masochistically consuming the decadent Canard en Conserve by Quebecois ingenue Martin Picard. It was driven to Toronto from Montreal that day. “This is so good. It’s like heaven.” “Yes, this must be heaven. Everything is white in here, the walls, the linens.” “But I can’t finish this whole dish.” “Oh no. Is this hell? We have all this delicious food in front of us, but we can’t eat it!”
  • The hosts. So enthusiastic. They volunteered repeatedly to eat the scraps from our plates. One did—an array of eight cheese wedges was just too much for even a pair of guests to ingest in one sitting. Another host, more savvy and sly, confessed to devouring not one but two cans of duck before the event had even begun. Still, he did not turn down one woman’s forkful of foie gras. No doubt, they would have gladly drunk the last drips of wine from even the most food-encrusted glass rim.

As with most foodie matters, the only annoying element of Charlie’s Burgers was the occasional know-it-all-but-really-know-nothing guest who intellectualized—often inaccurately—what is, in its most wondrous form, an emotional experience. Or the rare ungracious guest. One man, who name-dropped local restaurants he’d patronized like a C-list celebrity attempting to prove his place in Hollywood, had this interaction with a courteous host asking how the charcuterie tasted, especially the goose rillettes. “Eeeehhhhh,” he moaned between gluttonous mouthfuls, “Not bad.” The host, seemingly put off by the apathetic response to what was undeniably delectable, responded coolly but cordially: “Oh really? Most of it’s from France. I’ll let them know.”

Don’t ask who runs this show or why. Though rumors are mounting like a sauce (last week, one food blogger offered a five-point argument as to why it might be JK Wine Bar’s sommelier Jamie Drummond. By the way, he was there this night, wearing head-to-toe red and black leather. Eloquent and wacky, he likened “elegant” and “reserved” wines to Catherine Deneuve and quipped about a bad experience with Viagra. ), it doesn’t matter. The mystique is the secret ingredient.


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