Underground supper clubs have increasingly become a tantalizing alternative to the conventional dining experience. Often held in secret locations and helmed by notable chefs, they offer daring participants a chance to partake in a less-structured, but often more luxuriant, foodie adventure. Often priced extravagantly and restricted to a limited number of attendants, supper clubs provide patrons a level of excitement and intimacy that traditional restaurants can’t maintain, and offers the hosting chef the space and time to experiment and expand upon their culinary oeuvre.
The love of underground eating is international, and supper clubs have been popping up in cities across the world. One of the most notable so far is L.U.S.T., an acronym for Luke’s Underground Supper Table, named after its founding chef, Luke Hayes-Alexander. L.U.S.T. has been serving small-plate dining adventures for nearly two years in secret locations across Toronto, with the menu completely spiked with fresh seasonal produce and ingredients acquired from the vibrant neighborhoods of Kensington Market and Chinatown.
“I decided to do a supper club because it brings a whole new level of intimacy, excitement, and sexiness to the dinner table,” says Hayes-Alexander, an exceedingly knowledgeable, wide-eyed and ambitious twenty-something-year-old. A prodigy of sorts, at age eleven Hayes-Alexander began seriously immersing himself in the world of food, at 15 becoming the executive chef of his family’s Kingston, Ontario restaurant, which he’d run for the next 8 years.
Relocating to Toronto at the age of 23, Luke Hayes-Alexander was quickly inspired by the metropolitan hub he now calls home. “Place has a huge influence on cooking and eating,” says the young chef. “Toronto is so multicultural and diverse and all of that is celebrated and embraced… I have so many different influences, ingredients, and stories culminating at my front door.”
Occurring twice a month, each L.U.S.T event is uniquely themed – ranging from “A Touch of Laos” to “That 70s Dinner” – and the secret location, usually a small-ish space fitting 15-20 people, is only revealed once you’ve bought a ticket. We shadowed chef Hayes-Alexander during his shopping, preparation, and cooking, and serving of a “Southeast Asia Adventure”, a dinner consisting of 5 plates (including two desserts) with dishes like: “sexy laksa” with kaffir, fried shallots, and ginger; seared beef cheeks with hambal, cucumber-Asian pear salad, and coconut rice; and a Mandarin-coconut sorbet with lime jelly, candied ginger, and chocolate cake sauce.
Like all other L.U.S.T.’s, the evening was defined not just by the innovative eats, but by the especially close quarters, the specially curated playlist, and the effortless charm of the chef and his longtime assistant – his mom. Yes, L.U.S.T. is an exclusive yet laid-back affair. The plates are paper, the cutlery is plastic, its BYOB, and the price tag is (compared to other clubs) a relatively economical $55. What one gets in return is “a night without pretension,” where the wall between chef and consumer crumbles, and deliciousness reigns supreme.