Every week Joe Sochor packs up his kitchen and brings it to a new location. Last November Sochor started FoodRave, a floating restaurant offering constantly changing menus with sometimes telling and sometimes not-so-telling names like “Tribute to Charlie Trotter’s” and “Invented in Chicago.”

Finding new hosts each week–volunteers who will open up their dining rooms to small groups of strangers–can be tricky, especially given Sochor’s rule that hosts can offer their homes only once every four months. So Sochor has created an incentive: hosts, and the occasional entertainer, get to eat for free. Prospective hosts may think the venture sounds like a party they can invite all their friends to, but Sochor explains that his restaurant is open to the public by reservation.

“People are not just tumbling in off the street,” he says. Occasionally an extra person shows up, but, according to Sochor, numbers have not been a problem. Kitchen equipment in other people’s houses is another story.

“You have to try and bring everything,” Sochor says. “You can’t assume anything is there. Like spoons. Paper towels. Some people have a kitchen, but they do not cook at all.”

At a December waffle breakfast, Sochor blew out the kitchen fuses five times before breakfast finally made it to the table. “I didn’t realize how much energy those big waffle irons use.”

Sochor introduces newcomers to regular FoodRavers while preparing the food. He’s observed that groups tend to get friendlier around food. One guest brought his elderly aunt, who got everyone up to dance and herded them all off to Goose Island for a beer.

The gatherings are informative as well as social. Sochor often does a short presentation on a featured midwestern food, peppering his talk with unusual food lore. Maytag blue cheese, he told one group, actually comes from “the washing machine family. The Maytag sons inherited Guernsey cows, and there are caves in the hills of Iowa where they age the cheese.” At a honey tasting Sochor brought out trays filled with eight kinds of bottled honey, and gave a short talk on honey production and the intricacies of bee spacing.

After graduating from the University of Chicago with a bachelor’s degree in English, Sochor tried various stage management jobs, including working the sound system for Cirque du Soleil. When jobs at the Census Bureau and the post office didn’t pan out, he decided to go to chef’s school. He received his certification in restaurant management at the Cooking and Hospitality Institute of Chicago, and, not wanting to be chained to the stove, he opened his floating restaurant.

One of the lures of FoodRave has been its unpredictability. A recent Lithuanian dinner was a success, though it wasn’t culturally correct. Sochor made a vegetarian version of kugelis (potato pudding) with wild mushrooms, leaving out the traditional bacon. “This is my experimental nature at work,” Sochor says. Sometimes experiments don’t work. At the honey-inspired dinner at Indian Boundary Park, the honey-laden muffins lost their bottoms. Sochor’s karidopita (Greek honey cake), which may have had too many nuts, stuck to the pan. A quick stop at a Greektown bakery rescued dessert.

At the same dinner, Sochor invited several Chicago writers to read poems and prose about food. Diners sprawled under an oak tree and listened to the readings. “Here’s an end-of-the-world poem with chow mein noodles in it,” one reader said by way of introduction. Meanwhile Sochor set up the table, fanned the flames on a charcoal grill, and hopped back and forth between the grill and the guests to introduce each reader.

Sochor charges barely a break-even price–meals don’t exceed $10 and are often less. Beer and wine cost extra. “If I wanted to make money I’d have to get into the marketing,” Sochor says. “It’s not the main thing.” To make ends meet, Sochor owns a catering business and works a day job at a food distribution company.

A recent dinner included a tribute to Papagus Greek Taverna, borrowing restaurant recipes like artichokes with pasta and lemon cream sauce, striped bass cooked in ouzo, and bread saginaki with olives. “We didn’t set any curtains on fire with the saginaki,” Sochor says. “We did it under the broiler.”

Unlike food clubs, you don’t need to know someone to get in, but you do need to reserve a space at least two days in advance. This Saturday Sochor plans a Filipino dinner on the north side, and next Saturday, July 29, he’ll hold a potluck picnic (“bring your own dish or bring a story”) at Montrose Harbor. Upcoming events include a trip to a farm, kids’ meals, and a collaboration with visual artists. For reservations or information, call 708-652-0146.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.