“I grew up in a tiny town in Upstate New York called Chatham,” Tasting Collective founder Nat Gelb says. “On a dirt road in the middle of nowhere, where there were no restaurants at all — but my parents are awesome cooks and we were surrounded by farms. I grew up eating really well — but never going to restaurants.”
Years later, living in New York City and frequently dining out, Gelb felt there was something missing from the typical restaurant experience, that homey touch of entertaining that he’d grown up with. So he started booking restaurants’ private rooms with 15 or 20 friends, groups large enough that it was worth the chef’s time to come out of the kitchen and share stories about their recipes and inspiration. Eventually, it grew by word-of-mouth,
“It grew to the point where we were able to fill up an entire restaurant and create an experience where the chef would come out and talk — especially at incredible, chef-owned independent restaurants,” Gelb says. “Not super-fancy places with white tablecloths, where the chefs are just kind of a cog in the system. That’s when the lightbulb really went off.”
So, in May 2016, Gelb turned his idea into a business. Tasting Collective was born. Members pay an annual subscription that allows them to buy $50 tickets to their 1-hour-and-45-minute, family-style dinners. Only members can buy tickets, although they can also purchase a guest ticket for $75. Alcohol is typically a la carte, via a dim sum-esque system in which diners get cards stamped for every drink they order — $9 for beer, $12 for wine, $14 for cocktails, tax and tip included — and then pay cash at the conclusion of the evening. Members also get a membership card, so when they venture out to Tasting Collective’s partners on their own, they can show it and get a free cocktail to offset the cost of a membership fee.
It’s a value-driven alternative to the standard tasting menus, which can run into the hundreds of dollars, Gelb notes. Because Tasting Collective fills every seat in the house — almost always Sundays, Mondays, or Tuesdays, when restaurants are either slow or closed outright — their partners like working with them.
“I was very focused on not trying to make money off the restaurants,” Gelb says. “That’s a losing battle to go up against. And we don’t make money off our events; we break even.”
The vibe is such that if a dinner starts at 7:45 p.m., the doors open at 7:15 so there’s never a line forming outside. People mingle and order a drink, and when 7:45 rolls around, the first savory courses are dropped and the chef comes out to talk about them. Serving eight courses in rapid succession, family-style, creates an atmosphere without a break in energy.
“From the moment people sit down, it’s just this whirlwind of amazing food constantly being dropped,” Gelb says. “People are constantly eating — it’s a crescendo up until dessert, which is when we replate. We don’t replate after every course.
“It’s not a formal tasting menu, it’s a feast,” he adds.
Dessert is individual, however. (“We found that people do not like sharing dessert,” Gelb says.) And Tasting Collective provides all the serving utensils so that nobody’s sticking their personal fork into a shared dish. There are shared tables or people can sit at the bar, but the other constant is a high level of engagement. It’s not a dating club, but a food-driven experience with a lot of back-and-forth between diners and chefs. Tasting Collective also passes out comment cards for people to provide feedback, which restaurants appreciate more than a negative Yelp review that may live online forever.
Having debuted in New York and expanded to Chicago, the first San Francisco event is June 18 at Tawla. Members only learn about events one at a time, which retains an element of surprise and allows some breathing room for any cancellations. (The restaurant world is sometimes fickle, as everyone knows.) But Gelb reveals to SF Weekly that Hawker Fare and Alba Ray’s are in the mix, too. The rule of thumb is that dinners happen every other week.
Ultimately, it’s about making top-tier food even more widely accessible.
“It’s a great event for the restaurant, and a great event for us,” Gelb says. “We have a lot of fun with it.”