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Dinner party pop-ups are helping millennials make new friends, so I tried one out

WORDS BY GENEVIEVE PHELAN

How degustation and conversation are helping us come together again. 

Connection, togetherness, food, wine and the liminal moments where strangers turn to friends. This is what the groundswell of DIY ‘dinner experiences’ in Melbourne over the last year has brought its attendees (as well as lots of Instagram-worthy photos of pillar candles atop white table linen).

These self-run pop-up dinner parties are a microcosm of all that we crave in life: friends, food and frivolity induced by too many fizzy reds. Their explosion in popularity can be traced back to the emptiness and loneliness we all experienced during lockdown, an experience that left us yearning for genuine connections and communal meals.


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Melbourne foodies like Ellie Bouhadana, the founder of Ellie’s Table, and Sophie McIntyre, the founder of Club Sup, found a way to make one-night dinners of their own, turning their kitchens portable and networks city-wide in a mission to rekindle us all. 

And while I adore my friends, it’s a sad reality that a lot of 20-somethings subconsciously (or consciously) reject the idea of making new connections with like-minded people because they have their own circles established at high school, university, share houses and work.

What sets these dinner parties apart from a local pub night or dinner in the CBD is that you talk to people you’ve never met before. You make new friends. You have rich conversations that aren’t sad, forced speed-dates or job interviews (something you can partially attribute to the lubrication the handpicked wines provide). 

To be quite honest, I’ve never been interested in investigative journalism until now. But after keeping up with the inimitable Jenna Holmes of Pasta Mama fame on Instagram and doting over gargantuan one-off spreads in backyards and rentable studios around Melbourne, I decided it was time to pull up a chair (quite literally) at the dinner party renaissance table. 

Last week, I went to the third pop-up of newcomer Club Sup. The majestic Sophie swanned around with beverages in hand, ready to water an intimate party mix of 12 strangers (or so we thought). The idea is you go alone, but I knew two people unexpectedly at the table (thank you six degrees of separation etc). Amongst the ones I’d never met, there were young art buyers and DJs and other very cool creative minds. Everyone was warm and willing – we’re all just hungry humans after all.

 

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A post shared by SUPPER CLUB (@clubsup_)

The evening was broken into fresh bread baskets, Le Creuset pots of slow-cooked salves and gallons of natural, locally sourced wines. There’s a soft glow of candles that will leave a wax-stamp of the night on your mind, taking you back days later to the space, the flavours, and the conversations.

I met a guy named Ollie who was at sea for 26 days in peak pandemic, being baffed by New Caledonia and Fiji as he sailed home to Australia from San Diego. We also went around the table at midnight telling an elaborate personal anecdote and letting the room decide if it was true or false – it was surprisingly entertaining. 

We were served a menu exquisite in its simplicity, bespoke to our club night. It started with anchovies and moved to communal share-pots of almighty meatballs and big leafy plates of weirdly good greens. Then, with the help of Sophie’s gem of a mum (a former pastry chef), our inebriated bodies clumsily found their way around a semifreddo in silence, stupidly joking about its likeness to a Freddo cake. The vibes were immaculate.

We reached for the sharpies that inscribed our names as placeholders bordering the table, turning the white canvas into a mural of caricatures and alcohol-fuelled artistry. Later, my stone ring was dipped into a candle to seal the rolled-up scroll for Sophie to safeguard and look back on in years to come. We even kicked on to a pub on Brunswick Street after – this was at around 1am on a Friday morning – and there’s already another pub night for us all to get together again soon.

Sophie explained to me that while the first Club Sup dinner was just last month, it’s already become exceptionally popular. “Coming out of 2020, people are craving new and old connections, and a big dinner party facilitates that intimacy. The club works by joining 12 strangers one or two Thursdays a month. Guests are encouraged to come solo but coming with a friend or partner is welcomed. After the night, I enter everyone into a Facebook group so everyone can stay connected for Pub Sup.” 

Describing cooking for large groups of people as her ‘love language’, she has always felt happiest when making other people feel good through food, and Melbourne’s harsh lockdown showed her that there was a real desire for authentic social connections with people outside of our immediate friend groups. She knew that dinner parties could provide that. 

“I was cooking for my roommates in lockdown, and we started to have big dinners each week coming out of that. We were posting them on Insta and our friends were like, ‘we want this!’ Then, I noticed a lot of friends’ circles had changed because their mates had either moved away or some friendships didn’t survive the distance of last year.”

Sophie says the magic is most palpable when people’s nerves dissipate just after the mains and “everyone naturally gets up and moves around the table”. Ellie Bouhadana of fellow food project Ellie’s Table worked the same charm via her summer trattoria pop-ups. She traces her voracious appetite for cooking back to growing up in a Jewish home where food was always very central.

 

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A post shared by Ellie Bouhadana (@ellies.table)

“I started Ellie’s Table as a way to bring to life the food dreams that lived in my head. After an extended period living overseas communally with a bunch of friends and then travelling in Italy, I knew I wanted my day to day to revolve around food, produce, events, gatherings of people, creating experiences.”

When Ellie returned to Melbourne, she hosted a lush dinner for her friends at an old church mid-reno. There was no electricity, so she forged a makeshift kitchen downstairs. From there, she gathered long tables to split the space, lit candles and cooked up big plates of handmade pici pasta for everyone to enjoy. 

“I remember at the end of the night thinking ‘I want to find a way to make this my life’s work’. I started holding more of those types of events and sharing them to Instagram. That was the beginning of Ellie’s Table.”

Starting from April 28, Ellie will be leading the kitchen at Hope St Radio, a new wine bar in Collingwood, where she will be cooking with heart most nights of the week. Her work is deeply connected to her heritage, the seasons, local suppliers and a process of trial and error she carries out in her home kitchen, and this care and consideration lends a magical quality to her pop-up experiences (and everything she cooks).

And if you’re wondering why you should go to a pop-up dinner or food experience soon, I’ll leave you with this from Ellie: “It is important to be generous with yourself and others and put an emphasis on food as a thing that can bring you closer to the people you love surrounding yourself with.

“I think when people come together over food and wine, the ice is broken very easily and the potential for a unique connection is formed. In that sense, I think it is important to invest in throwing lush feasts [and] eating beautiful food and drinking wine with the people you love (and with strangers!)”

Wanting to throw a dinner party of your own? Try these handy tips.

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