As if we had entered one of the hidden gems of New York City’s forgotten streets, all ambivalence about the past few minutes disappeared.
The abandoned side road, the shady-looking garage we parked in, the dimly lit corridor we walked down.
Our guide ushered us in. “Welcome to Dinner Lab ladies,” he said. We were in a boxing gym, but it was transformed. String lights hung from the ceiling, candles glinted from the tables and lined the raised boxing arena on the side of the room.
We may have been at Sweatshop Boxing & Fitness in East Atlanta, but we were about to sit down to a five-course Hungarian dinner curated by one of Atlanta’s well-established sous chefs. We had arrived at Atlanta’s newest underground supper club: Dinner Lab.
“We push our limits on where we can have these dinners,” said Executive Chef Dustin Sandell. “Our goal is to put people out of their comfort zone. When we walked into this space earlier today, it was smelly and sweaty and there was boxing gear everywhere. Now it is transformed.”
That’s Dinner Lab’s concept. The membership-based social dining experiment challenges its members to try out new cuisines in unconventional spaces. The day before Dinner Lab, members get an email with an address, the chef and style of cuisine. The rest, is left to chance. Every week is a different location, a different chef and a different menu.
“You really have to enjoy each experience as its own because it will never happen again,” said Brittany Norton, the New Market Development Manager. “The next time, everything changes.”
This was the third Dinner Lab in Atlanta and we had the privilege of having Chef David Zboray, whose culinary resume included working in the kitchens of Restaurant Eugene, Bacchanalia and Empire State South.
“It’s different from a restaurant in every way you can imagine,” Zboray told me. “You have to think on the fly, adapt to different cooking equipment (there aren’t usually full service kitchens), and work with brand new people. I just met them yesterday but its cool to just jump in and execute dishes you’ve never done before with people you don’t know.”
The chefs work with Dinner Lab for up to two months in advance. Then there is two days of shopping and prep, and one day of execution on-site. Ten feet from our communal table was the “kitchen,” where we could see both chefs and their crew sprinkling microgreens on our seared potato dumplings and drizzling a cranberry citrus chutney on the side of the plate.
“I’m a Southern boy at heart, but Dinner Lab encourages diners to get out of their comfort zone, so I wanted to try something I have never done before,” said Zboray of his Hungarian-themed menu.
There was a venison goulash with liver and sausage and butter poached turnips with carrot confit, plated with the same precision and portion size you would see at one of the high-end restaurants Zboray came from.
That’s the beauty of Dinner Lab. It offers esteemed and motivated sous chefs from Atlanta’s restaurants the chance to take the reigns completely.
“It’s their menu and their story and we are just there to support them,” said Sandell. “I get to network with amazing chefs from around the country, and it allows me to learn a lot about different cuisines and products that I may not be familiar with.”
Dinner Lab is an out-of-the-box experience for both the diners and the chef. If you are interested in becoming a member, you can check out more information on their website.