Historically, there have been two options for dinner parties: You can DIY, or you can cater. The former allows you to impress your guests with your culinary skills (if you have them) but generally leaves you exhausted by the time the party actually starts. The latter lets you throw money at the problem, with the caveat that “catering” usually evokes steam tables of flavorless salmon that’s developed some sort of weird film over it. Though there are plenty of good catering options out there, the branding sucks.
As in-person socializing continues its comeback, the concurrent return of the dinner party has engendered a new slate of companies that will, in effect, hold dinner parties for those who don’t want to do the cooking. But if you scroll through their websites and Instagram accounts, you will never see the word “catering.” Instead, customers can “reserve a feast” for up to 12 people from critically lauded restaurants around the country. They can host an “intimate dining event” with a chef from Per Se or Tatiana in the kitchen of a private penthouse. They can “turn [their] home into a restaurant.” Welcome to the New Catering. Or, at least, welcome to it being easier than ever to eat a restaurant chef’s food in your home. It’s an arrangement that many chefs and restaurants are hoping is the key to their survival.
Some companies, like Resident, connect chefs to new employment opportunities. Resident offers two services: You can book a private party, which includes choosing a chic New York venue to turn into your personal hangout for the night, with either a sit-down dinner or food served from stations (the estimated cost of a five-course dinner for 25 with wine pairing is around $8,500). Or you can buy a ticket to a dinner at a private apartment, which costs $195 per person. For customers, the sell is easy: The list of chefs on the Resident website is full of résumés with familiar restaurant names like Olmsted, Eleven Madison Park, Gage & Tollner, and Le Coucou. The best restaurants in the world, now made even more exclusive as a private experience, sometimes in your own home.
It’s also an easy sell for the chefs involved. Luis Herrera, the executive chef and partner at Ensenada in Brooklyn, New York, has been working with Resident since 2021, mostly on its more lucrative private dinners. Although he acknowledges that “the word ‘catering’ is attached to, like, a chef with a dish on Sterno,” Herrera says that the dinners have provided a valuable source of income. “People think that you can make a living out of having a restaurant,” he says. “For me, that’s not the case.” Through his work with these private chef services, he’s also been able to promote Ensenada and has seen some private dinner customers at the restaurant. “I think more and more chefs are shifting into [private work], because working in a restaurant is — I don’t think it’s sustainable long-term,” Herrera says.
Supporting chefs in a volatile industry is also the mission of Moveable Feast, which hires chefs to prepare meals for up to 12 people that are then shipped around the country. Co-founder John Stubbs says the idea for the business came directly from the pandemic, as he worked on restaurant legislation with the Independent Restaurant Coalition and looked for more ways to support chefs.
But it also came from basic logistics: Restaurants are tied to a physical location. “You have to travel to a specific room in a specific building, if you are lucky enough to secure a reservation,” says Stubbs. Depending on where you live, that isn’t going to be an every day, or even every year, occasion. “Why can’t you enjoy these experiences at home?” he asks. “And wouldn’t it also be great for restaurants to have new opportunities for revenue?”
Jen Goodall has used Moveable Feast three times, both for date nights and to host a dinner party with food from the San Francisco restaurant Octavia (which costs $1,155 for 12 people). “We wanted to impress [our friends] with a high-end meal and not be stuck in Friday night traffic going out,” she says. Although she still enjoys going to restaurants, it’s hard to beat the convenience of getting restaurant-quality food without even having to put your shoes on. Especially when “going out for a subpar meal in town often costs the same, if not more,” Goodall points out.
Kim Alter, the chef and owner of Nightbird in San Francisco, notes that it is work to create a meal for Moveable Feast: A chef has to figure out restaurant-quality food that will be easy to execute from a home kitchen. It’s a tall order, and Alter has worked with the company on everything from sustainable shipping methods to building playlists to match with each meal. But all in all, she says, “it wasn’t that much extra work considering what I hope and think [Moveable Feast] will be one day.” And along with that, there’s “the hopeful return” that Alter might get in the form of new customers and attention.
Ideally, the reward is worth it. “What if we could do this and not only get money in these restaurants’ pockets, but get their name to someone who had never heard of them?” Alter says. Foremost, the restaurant earns 10 percent of gross sales of the meals sold. But in the best-case scenario, business trickles down, with customers wanting to visit the restaurant of origin if they’re in the same city, or at least order again and tell their friends.
Goodall, for one, reports that thanks to Moveable Feast, she has a running list of restaurants to visit across the country. And Alter says she noticed increased social media engagement after her last meal went out, though time will tell if that translates into increased restaurant sales.
But the emergence of these companies, and the sentiment that it’s more desirable to eat at home than deal with the “hassle” of going out, also highlights the compounding struggles restaurants have faced since 2020. Restaurants closing this year still cite the pandemic as a core cause; Fort Defiance owner St. John Frizell recently told New York Magazine that the closure of the beloved restaurant was due to mounting pandemic debt. “This might be the first time you hear this, but it’s not going to be the last,” Frizell said. “There are people out there in the same boat as us, who are experiencing those [Economic Injury Disaster Loan] payments for the first time in the last few months. It comes as a shock.” For many, the math just isn’t working.
These services are making catering seem not only accessible for diners, but also cool. But more than that, they’re making this line of income more accessible for chefs. Catering has always been an option for restaurants, but COVID and inflation and everything else pressing at the bottom line mean that these services are a more logical, or sometimes necessary, choice for chefs. A choice that, perhaps best of all, no longer has to come attached to a chafing dish.
Cha Pornea is an illustrator and designer based in the Philippines.