Photo by Ryan Green

Culinary Chemistry

have to admit—just hearing the word “lab” throws me back to those awful high school afternoons of science class: uncomfortable lab partners and experiments that were supposed to gurgle and bubble, but just spat and died. So my innate bigotry against that three-letter word was in full effect when I heard the Dinner Lab was coming to town. I can get behind dinner…but lab?

Dinner Lab is, basically, a members-only pop-up that started two years ago in New Orleans. You would think the Crescent City has enough food shenanigans already, right? Nope. Zach Kupperman, co-founder of the project and chief business officer, explained that it was difficult to find great food after 11 p.m.

“New Orleans is the culinary capital of the country, but for late night food? There are some nice ethnic cuisines, but…” The first dinner lab took place at midnight and was, in Kupperman’s word, a disaster. “Everyone was already drunk, no one way paying attention to the food,” he laughed. “Now we have it at dinner time … we’ve changed the model here and there.”

The model is simple: Dinner Lab charges an annual fee ($125 in Columbus) to pay for costs such as employees, space, and equipment rental, and there are dinners throughout the year that cost $50 and up, each held in unique locations that are released at midnight the night before the event. Past meals have taken place on piers, a motorcycle factory, an abandoned 18th century church, and a helipad, according to Kupperman. Diners sit at communal tables to facilitate community and conversation.

Dinner Lab proved so popular it has expanded all over the country—from New York City to Austin—and now Columbus. Even in jaded New York, meals routinely sell out in minutes. “We picked Columbus as our first stop in Ohio because we heard all about the burgeoning food scene there and wanted to roll with it,” said Kupperman.

Besides dining while surrounded by the night sky or motorcycle chrome, the hook is that the menu is completely up to the chef of the night—certainly allergies and whatnot are taken into consideration, but other than that, chefs have creative control.

“The distinction is that diners will be exposed to what’s new in food. The chefs get to create to their inspirations, serve what they are passionate about,” Kupperman said. “This is a platform to showcase their talent—everything is totally up to them. We want to show the food story through the eyes of the chef, the menu from their dreams.”

Dinners feature up to 10 courses and include cocktails and tips. And just as science experiments can offer differing results, such is the case at Dinner Lab, too. Too much garlic…not crispy enough…right amount of bitter…love the texture—at the Dinner Lab, these aren’t just whispered commentary; the chef is actively involved in receiving feedback from diners in real time, from giving a pre-meal talk to a post-meal critique. Post-meal, participants are presented with a feedback form online, and this detailed information goes into a data bank. Chefs who routinely score well enter the pantheon of Dinner Lab favorites and are flown to various cities to dazzle.

I know now to expect something much better than my high school nightmare: the scientific method applied to cuisine. Seriously though, scientists work in white coats, chefs work in chef whites; scientists use special equipment like beakers, chefs use special equipment like sous vide machines; scientists test and tweak theories; chefs test and tweak recipes…

Poof…mind blown. Maybe I’ll have to rethink this whole “lab” phobia.