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    The Ten Tables Facebook page is mostly a medley of photos— primarily small, color-driven plates: honey-colored butternut squash soup with a slick of buttermilk; a scallop poised on a dark purple smear of indigo potato, criss-crossed with two delicate sprigs of watercress; green gazpacho decorated with curls of crimson carrot and pale slips of radish. Dishes like these— intensly flavored (and photographable) bites— are served in quick succession, forming an eight-course meal made at the hands of four well-known Louisville chefs. 

    But only if your name gets chosen.

     
    That’s the intrigue. Unlike a typical reservation-system, Ten Tables operates as an exclusive dinner club (one of the first in the city) with a lottery system handled through their Facebook page. The concept is trendy, fun and overwhelmingly popular, but how long will the appeal last, especially with other local chefs following suit? In other words: at what point will “exclusivity” be another trend that passes on like all-kale-everything and artisan cupcake shops on every corner? 

    The original Ten Tables team (Dustin Staggers, Eric Morris, and Griffin Paulin) announced the creation of the dinner club in December of 2014, with the first Ten Tables dinner to be held at Roux in January 2015.  Within 24 hours of the announcement, over 480 requests were made on the Ten Tables Facebook page, and the demand hasn’t slowed. At any given time there is a pool of several hundred people waiting to be chosen for one of the ten tables. 

    Currently a pinned post at the top  of the Facebook page reads: “TEN TABLES RESERVATION REQUEST LINE- If you'd like to put your name in the lottery to attend a Ten Tables event, simply comment below with the estimated number of people in your party and Good Luck!!” Below is a steady stream of comments; many featuring multiple exclamation points, all-caps and heart emojis to augment their pleas. A night at Ten Tables costs $75 per person. Wine or beer pairings are available, but optional for $40 or $30 respectively, drinks and cocktails are also offered for purchase à la carte; meaning the price tag of this meal isn't insignificant. So what is it about Ten Tables that caught Louisvillians’ attention? Easy answer: the combination of quality and exclusivity, though arguably some value the latter more.  

    “To some, I think they almost look at [it] as bragging rights. It wasn't our intention— especially because the amount of requests for seats far exceeded our wildest expectations— but we've definitely seen people flaunting it around with photos from dinners,” said Ethan Ray, the chef de cuisine at Roux and one of the current Ten Tables chefs. “They're excited— from getting invited, to the dinner itself, to the general nature of it— it's not like sitting down for a regular meal in a restaurant, nor is it like a special wine dinner a restaurant is hosting.” 

    Social media, Ray pointed out, has been one of the biggest boosts to Ten Tables’ popularity. As I said when examining the city’s predilection for #foodstagram in early March, “Food has always been a status symbol (think the mythical ‘Feast of the Gods’ and massive Elizabethan banquets) but over the past decade, aided by the emergence of social media, it has steadily evolved into a photographable, calorie-laden prop. High-profile models and social media mavens alike stage photos of expensive products around sugary and savory treats— ice cream cones, pastel-frosted cupcakes and pizza slices dripping with toppings seem to be favorites— which, in all reality, they probably don’t eat. But it doesn’t matter. The point is that the photos are a representation of a lifestyle to which many aspire, and the accounts have the followers to prove it.” 

     
    A photo from a Ten Tables meal is a status symbol in itself, a token from an experience singular to a select group of Louisvillians. Yet the Ten Tables chefs would argue that the momentum can be sustained long past the flash of the camera because of the quality of the meals; if the food wasn’t good, attendees wouldn’t rave to their friends as they have. “Small scale allows attention to detail from the food to the service. You are getting the absolute best of what we have to offer,” said Eric Morris.

    Any Ten Tables attendees with whom I’ve spoken are inclined to agree. “We arrived early and enjoyed a cocktail and chatted with the bartender Matthew Farley [Farley is responsible for the wine and beer pairings at Ten Tables]...once we were seated, the feast began.” recalls George Polling, a September 28 attendee. “Every course was magical— inventive, wonderfully balanced flavors, visually stimulating, fresh and diverse ingredients, and just plain delicious. The wine pairings were absolutely perfect— and one member of our party had the beer pairing (which of course I had to taste!) and they were equally well-paired.” 

    He continued: “I rather like the method for getting a reservation.  I think it adds some mystique and heightens the anticipation of the fabulous experience that folks have at these events.”   

    According the Ray and Morris, it turns out that the mystique involved in the lottery system actually just comes down to two things: time and numbers. “The lottery was Dustin’s idea and it works really well. It gives everyone a fair chance to join and makes it kind of exciting. The system is run by our Ten Tables manager, Mike Lau. I’m not quite sure on how he runs it but it involves a spreadsheet,” Morris laughed. 

    Ray added: “It's really the only way we can be objective and fair. Sure, there are some exceptions to the rule— company employees, close personal friends and family, etcetera, but outside of the dozen or so people we've personally invited over the past ten months, it's always been, and always will be, random.” 

    “You essentially ‘throw your name in the hat’ by leaving a comment on our lottery list post on Facebook with your name, email and estimated number of guests in your party. And then you wait,” Ray explained. “Some people get picked for a dinner days after they sign up. Some still haven't gotten picked. We are making a conscious effort to put priority on requests who have been on the waiting list for a long time. It's not entirely first come first serve, but we're trying to be as equally fair for requests both old and new.”

    Regardless of the backend of the system, the message from the chefs is clear: anyone and everyone can get an invite, it’s simply a matter of when. However, this leaves some disgruntled potential diners waiting in the virtual wings. One such person (who asked to remain anonymous because he was worried “appearing in print would affect [his] chances for an invite”) spoke with me via Facebook Messenger:

    Me: Hi, thanks for agreeing to chat. So how long have you been waiting for a Ten Tables invite?
    Him: It feels like forever. But I guess a few Months. Maybe More!
    Me: Why are you so eager to get an invite?
    Him: I feel like [sic] everybodyelse in the City has gone. It looks good and would be different than other places I typically go to. Feels like favoritisms for the people who have gotten to go. 
    Me: So how do you think that people are chosen for slots? 
    Him: I thought at first that it was totally random. But now I’m starting to wonder. 
     
    Worth nothing: It was at this point that he blocked my Facebook profile— perhaps he feared he said too much? Perhaps he was fearful of jinxing his chance at a coveted spot at one of the ten tables, and all the Instagrammable glory that follows. 
     
    At least to the chefs’ faces, people are a little more tactful. “We’ve had people jokingly ask us ‘When are you going to pick me?’ but it’s all in good fun,” Morris said. “Again, everyone has a chance and when people can’t make it that particular week we always fill the seats with another lucky party.” 
     
       

    And Ten Tables isn’t the only player in the exclusive dining game (or horse in the race, if you prefer Kentucky cliches). 

    After Midni9ht is a collaborative project between Griffin Paulin, now the chef at Over the 9, Ming Pu, and Meta owner Jeremy Johnson. If you haven’t heard of it, don’t be surprised; any information about it is behind the wall of a secret Facebook page, visible only to those with an invite. Once in the group, members can invite friends with the permission of the page admin, Paulin. 

    “It is not widely known yet. We really want to grow it organically. None of us are hypebeasts, we just want to put out a quality product for the people who work second shift or are night owls like us,” Paulin explained. “Dinner starts at 12:30 a.m., so you can imagine the crowd. Mostly service industry, be it Vincenzo’s, 701 Fish House, or Dairy Queen. A few degenerate miscreants like me, which is also awesome.” 

    So far, After Midni9ht been an insider's pop-up dinner club, with Pu and Paulin handling the food and Johnson doing the drink pairings. “So far, we've really only done five course Prix Fixe menus, and only at Over the 9, but we have plans to do other things. For our next dinner (which will be this Thursday) we are abandoning the prix fixe menu, opening it to the public, and doing a themed, order as you please type of dinner,” Paulin said. 

    “Also, Jeremy [Johnson] has a passion for food, and as we've spoken about before, I have a passion for drinks. There is a tentative plan to do a role reversal of sorts, with Jeremy doing food and I'd do the drink pairings. But that's a ways away. We are going to start switching up the venue as well.”

     
    Overall, according to Paulin, After Midni9ht has been successful. However, one of the downsides of such exclusivity is that no-shows create a big problem. 
     
    “People think it sounds great, make a reservation, and then blow it off. Hey, I get it. I'm the same way at times. We don't have much of a plan to combat it. It's part of the industry,” Paulin said. “The cool thing is, we are only getting busier. There's nothing in town like what we are doing. You just can't get quality food after 12.”

    Paulin notes that with the exception of The Holy Grale, Asiatique, and LocalsOnly (another pop-up group), second shifters don't get to have many satisfying dining experiences. He said that most of the past guests are now regulars. 

    “We are confident that this thing will continue to grow. We had a Halloween party pop-up after a dinner and probably 150 people showed up. Maybe more. We want to grow organically,” he said. “Not do the same scripted dinner every week, spend as little money as possible, and call it a day. That's monotonous and boring. We're putting a huge emphasis on quality, and not burning people out on what we do. When people show up, they show up. If they don't, their loss in our opinion. We all love what we do.”

    Another chef in Louisville who is mixing up the status quo when it comes to the current dining scene is chef Madeleine Dee, former personal chef at No Place Like Home and current owner of Fond, a specialty food store on Frankfort Avenue. Her approach to exclusivity is a bit more relaxed though— it’s more like a themed dinner party at communal tables; reservations are available at a first come, first serve basis. 

    Fond is based on a restaurant called Beast in Portland, Oregon, where chef Naomi Pomeroy serves prix fixe meals at a certain time a few nights a week with two communal tables. She basically puts on incredible dinner parties for a living, which, Dee said, was certainly the seed of inspiration for Fond. 

        
     
    “Eating at Fond is like having a dinner party in a beautiful, but rustic, French farmhouse. It looks nice, but it’s not stuffy. There’s no dress code or starched white napkins. You don’t have to whisper. I do everything in my power to make my guests feel comfortable, special, and loved,” Dee said.

    According to her, dinner takes two to two and half hours, so guests have to relax and just enjoy themselves. 

    “Fond is elegant but casual, and everyone is welcome. Having only 12 seats does make it ‘exclusive,’ but it’s not in a snobby way - it’s only because I’m cooking by myself! Plus, 12 is a perfect number for a dinner party,” she said.

    While there is no particular cuisine to which her cooking specifically adheres, Dee is inspired by French, Asian, Italian and soul food: she serves up her five-courses for $75 per person, and for the remainder of 2015 if all 12 seats are booked, guests only pay $50 in total. And so far, the emphasis on small party sizes has served Dee well.

    “The reception has been amazing,” she said. “I’ve already started taking bookings for 2016 even though no menus are planned yet. I worked hard to come up with creative dishes and all of the diners so far seem to have been quite pleased with their meals.”

    Cover image courtesy of Ten Tables. All other images credited in caption. 

    Ashlie Danielle Stevens's picture

    About Ashlie Danielle Stevens

    I am a freelance food, arts and culture writer. Among other publications, my work has appeared at The Atlantic’s CityLab, Eater, Slate, Salon, The Guardian, Hyperallergic and National Geographic’s food blog, The Plate.

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