During Tasting Collective meals, the host chefs talk about their background, influences, and the dishes they’re serving.

Nat Gelb grew up in a house off a dirt road in a tiny town in upstate New York. “Really off the grid,” he says. His family never went to restaurants; his parents cooked all their food. When he moved to New York City, he says, “I was blown away by all the amazing restaurants, but I missed being able to form a human connection to the people who were making the food I was eating.” 

Gelb solved the problem by getting groups of his friends together in private, reserved dining rooms at restaurants. “I’d ask the chef to put together a menu that tells their story, come out and talk to us,” he says. Interest grew to the point that the group was able to fill up an entire restaurant. Gelb realized that the idea had business potential, and about a year and a half ago he officially launched Tasting Collective in New York. He’s now expanding the concept: in mid-November the Chicago chapter of the organization began accepting members, and on December 6 the first Chicago dinner will take place at Split-Rail. (Eventually, Gelb plans to expand to San Francisco and LA as well.)

The business model is fairly straightforward: members pay an annual fee of $165 for access to the events, which are all the same price. Dinners are eight to ten courses and cost $50, plus tax and tip; brunches are about the same number of courses and cost $35. Only members are allowed to buy tickets, but they can bring guests (who pay $20 more per meal). Tasting Collective makes money from the membership fees, while all the money from the events goes to the restaurants. His goal, Gelb says, was to “create a different sort of restaurant experience that would foster a meaningful connection and dialogue between the people who eat and the people who make food.”

Tasting Collective focuses on holding events at small, independent restaurants that often prepare experimental food with a story behind it. When he was first starting out, Gelb says, he met with some reluctance from the restaurants he approached, which would typically expect to make $100 or more per head for private chef-led dinners. However, because Tasting Collective comes in on nights that tend to be slow or when the restaurant would usually be closed, the hosts make at least as much money as they would in a typical night, according to Gelb. He also guarantees that Tasting Collective will sell out every event. “There was this initial resistance at the price point, but all our restaurant partners have us back again and again,” he says.

Another incentive, he says, is that chefs are able to connect more with the diners than they normally would. “Restaurants really want to tell their story, but they don’t get to in the typical day to day. The industry is built on turning as many covers as you can in a night.” With these meals, the chefs come out several times to talk about their background, influences, and the dishes they’re serving. “It’s much more like going to a show than eating a meal,” Gelb says. Seating is communal, and many of the dishes are served family-style, with big platters being passed around the table. “It’s not a white-tablecloth tasting-menu experience,” he says. “It’s a big, lively dinner party.”

Zoe Schor, owner and executive chef at Split Rail, says that the atmosphere of the Tasting Collective dinners is one reason she wanted to participate. “We’re already a family-style restaurant. Me and Michelle, my general manager and partner—we’re in this for the people. The idea of sitting down as part of a group and getting to know new people and sharing food together appeals to me. It jives with everything we’re doing.”

Gelb says he’s seen friendships form and romances sprout at the hundred-odd events he’s organized. At first there was no membership fee and anyone could attend. But the membership component, he says, is what helped the concept take off. “It creates this sense of community that’s not there when you’re just going to an event. Everybody feels like they’ve bought into this concept.” Tasting Collective currently has just under a thousand members in New York and holds at least one event a week; Gelb says they usually sell out in a day or two. In Chicago they’ll start with one dinner every other week and build from there (and the membership price for the first 150 members will be an introductory rate of $99). The second event will be held at HaiSous the week of December 17, and Gelb has been talking to the chefs at Clever Rabbit, Daisies, and Quiote about the possibility of doing dinners at those restaurants.

Schor says that as a chef she gets lots of requests to do events, but Gelb impressed her with his passion and enthusiasm. “He could probably be doing anything,” she says. “I love when interesting, intelligent people lend that intelligence to the food service industry. There are easier ways to make money than doing anything with restaurants, to be sure.”