Moveable feasts: underground restaurant feeds passions
The underground restaurant movement, a hit in London, popular in New York City, big in Chicago and San Francisco, has practitioners in Cincinnati as well.
Sandy Kesner and Sasha Hart aren't giving up their day jobs, but on a regular basis they produce interesting and unusual meals for guests of It's a Secret, their own moveable feast of an underground restaurant. Like most underground chefs, they are fresh food advocates and locavores whenever possible.
And what exactly is an underground restaurant? For starters, it's in the home of the cook, who may or may not join you at table. It's something like a dinner party, but not quite, as guests are expected to pay a fee. It's a Secret's “donation” is $60.
“We started at $45, but were losing money. Now we're breaking even,” says Sandy, who first heard of underground restaurants from a 2007 NPR program, the idea then still relatively new. “I didn't immediately think 'I want to do that,' but I was intrigued. And at that time Sasha and I were becoming better acquainted, discovering our shared interests in food and cooking.” It's A Secret's first dinner was in July 2009, the secret then as now being the menu.
Guests sign on without knowing exactly what will emerge from the kitchen but with the expectation that it will be memorable. (Vegetarians and people with food allergies can be accommodated if the chefs know in advance.) Dinners take place in either the Kesner or the Hart household and start with cocktails in the living room, accompanied by soft, delicious, made-by-hand crackers each embedded with a sprig of rosemary. In summer, dinners are likely to be at the Kesners' in Hyde Park, where the table can be set on the generous rear porch overlooking the garden. Winter dinners are more often at the Harts' house in North Avondale.
At the table, things may begin with an amouse bouché, a bite-sized hors d'oeuvre that sets the tone for the rest of the meal. Four courses will follow; recently the menu was: mezza-rigatoni al modo mio, then “cashew-crusted cod with braised fennel and grapefruit vierge sauce,” summer squash with squash blossoms and a dessert of “macerated strawberries with clotted cream and black olive caramel.” Each course had its own wine, and coffee ended the meal. Everything was served on white dishes, squared off in interesting shapes, bought for It's a Secret.
“We're not chi chi,” says Sasha, “but we do consider presentation like a piece of art.” Sandy adds, “We get excited about how it looks. It's fun to set the table. . .the white dishes, white table cloth, what color napkin this time? The experience of food is visual -where you place the beets in relation to the grain, for instance - it's like assembling a picture.”
Talk at these dinners veers in all directions, and ideally is among people who've not met before. This is the special twist of It's a Secret, the mixing of strangers. Sandy and Sasha's husbands are adept at picking up the conversation and in fact are “terrific help” in ways the chefs had not expected. They clear plates at a signal (Sasha puts her finger to her nose), print the menus, and Jim Kesner has made a data spread sheet for the project. Like their wives, their daytime careers are nowhere near the kitchen. Sandy Kesner is a nurse practitioner, Jim Kesner a research biologist. Ballet dancer Sasha Hart has her own dance studio and Jim Hart, on the music faculty at Xavier University, also plays cocktail piano in the Netherland Hotel's Orchid Room every Saturday night.
At the Harts' house the grand piano is in the dining room, for easy access, which made for a memorable It's a Secret incident. With conversation dwindling one evening, Jim Hart slipped over to the piano and began to play. A woman guest pushed back her chair, took an easy stance in the curve of the piano, and sang. Expertly. A music enthusiast, she turned out to be a long-time member of the May Festival chorus.
The chefs don't cook by the book, although they have many cookbooks. “With them, we're just beginning,” says Sasha. “We tweak to make our own dishes.” They shop at Findlay Market, Lunken Farm Market, at Jungle Jim's, sometimes together and sometimes separately, for menus that reflect the season. In summer, herbs and flowers come from their own gardens.
“We always shop for wine together, looking for the little secret wines that are so delicious but inexpensive. Expensive wines would make our price too high,” says Sandy.
They start planning a meal at least three weeks ahead. “It all takes time and effort. Grinding spices. Checking on what we have in hand, such as stock in the freezer,” says Sasha. Sandy adds, about cooking collaboratively, “You must get along. You have to be in each other's heads when the plate goes on the table. It's been an education.”
The dinners proceed in unhurried courses, Sasha and Sandy serving in white jackets embroidered with “It's a Secret” and their individual names, gifts from Jim Hart. They avoid the over-sized portions of lesser restaurants. “I've always said, if I had a restaurant I would call it 'Just Enough,'” says Sasha. Apparently guests find the portions perfectly enough. They repeatedly ask to return “and they're not just foodies,” the chefs say. “The greatest thing about this is the way it brings people together,” Sasha says.
“I love what we do for people,” says Sandy. “Even cleaning up the kitchen afterward, we're smiling at the memory.”
Dinners take place approximately once a month. More information and reservations are available from Sandy, 513.533.0637 or firstname.lastname@example.org; or from Sasha, 513.861.0666 or email@example.com.