This is not a potluck.
In Joe Che and Margaret Gere’s Bushwick apartment-turned-temporary-event-space, known as Page Not Found, every guest is a cook, and every cook an eater. Think of it as a culinary flash mob.
On the stove, a pan of spiced green lentils sizzles in a pool of fat rendered from a thick slice of slab bacon, the aroma mingling with that of sautéing onions, peanut rice noodles and mapo tofu occupying the other three burners.
When somebody struggles through the hungry crowd to open the oven door in search of a place for his black currant pie, the scent of at least five more dishes rushes out. Che named the concept “Chaos Cooking,” and the description is accurate. Tonight, 50 cooks—many of whom were strangers an hour ago—somehow co-create a meal using just four burners and one oven. The living room becomes a makeshift prep station, crowded with tables. Mise en place is out the window; people are chopping, chatting, mashing, meeting. Guests are already eating Thai winter melon salad. The Serrano-wrapped, Gorgonzola-stuffed dates are on their way from the kitchen, and the Stone IPA–cheddar soup and the Brussels sprout shooters with pickled cauliflower chasers are nearly finished.
The cacophony of voices, blender motors and popping corks is getting louder, and the crowd is commingling in the collective warm buzz that can only result from cooking, conversation and everyone’s third glass of wine.
Some dishes won’t be ready for hours. But for most people here, the food itself is secondary—cooking is just the catalyst for forming connections and community. Here, strangers don’t slowly come to a simmer together so much as get dropped into a rolling social boil. People who have met while vying for a burner have become friends, roommates and siggos.
Social interaction becomes easy when you’re bumping into each other, asking, “Anyone have any extra garlic?” or “Where’d that blender lid go?” and “Oh my God, what are you making? That smells amazing!” Before long, everyone’s eating out of each other’s hands—literally.
Once you’ve stood elbow to elbow with a guy helping him chop chilies, or now that he’s shoved a homemade Persian-spiced truffle in your mouth because you’re currently wrist-deep in raw lamb, social interaction becomes easy.
And you’re definitely going to remember the name of the girl with the pot of milk and the thermometer, because you’re going to want to be next to her in half an hour to watch it turn to cheese.
The whole social experiment was born of a birthday party Che threw for himself back in 2009. A tech professional by day, he’s long been involved in bringing people together as a community organizer, musician and artist involved in the Brooklyn underground art community.
“I had this longing for that feeling you get when you are at home with your family for the holidays and you’re in the kitchen and everyone is just bouncing off each other and chatting and making food, and there’s too many cooks in the kitchen,” says Che. “It’s such an amazing feeling.” That celebration, with 18 friends cooking at once, was so memorable they organized another, upping the ante to 25. Soon so many people were asking when the next one would be that one night 80 people, some of whom they’d never met, were jammed into their apartment. Guests spilled out of the kitchen, prepping on the fish tank, on the hot-tub cover, on a camping stove.
After hosting more than 20 Chaos Cooking events at their apartment, Che and Gere decided to expand the project and get even more strangers cooking together across the borough and far beyond. Borrowing a few principles from CouchSurfing.com, Che launched a Facebook page, and then in 2010, a membership site: ChaosCooking.com.
One idea Che took from CouchSurfing is the vouching system, which allows users to anonymously vote on whether they trust someone they met at an event. But more importantly, the two projects also share the sense of crossing boundaries and forming bonds by sharing your home (or your cutting board) with people you’ve never met before. Members can host or attend an event in two clicks.
Within a few months, people in more than 15 cities around the world had registered, and as word spread—helped along by profiles of the parties in the NY Times and on NPR—Chaos Cooking communities now coalesce from San Francisco to Sydney. While Che and Gere dig the international enthusiasm, they are most delighted about the 2,000 people who’ve already signed up right here in New York. “We’re so excited about it,” Gere says. “Hopefully we can experience it, too.” Hopefully she means by attending other chaotic dinners—not by hosting all 2,000 at once.
Not all Chaos Cooking clubs cram as many people as they can into their apartments. Che says the idea works just as well with five guests as it does with 50, and many first-timers start with fewer cooks in the kitchen. While the conversation and the food at those smaller gatherings is likely just as good, there’s far less, well, chaos. And a smaller quantity of food, too. Any veteran of Page Not Found knows massive amounts of food will be passed before the evening is done—many is the guest who has endured a post-dinner food coma in the backyard hot tub.
Another benefit of a crowd is that, at the end of the night, you’ve got a big cleaning crew. At the end of the five-hour event I attended, many hands made light work, together returning Che and Gere’s apartment to its normal condition within a matter of minutes. Dishes were washed, pots scrubbed, surfaces wiped down, floors swept.
When they were done, the only difference you could see between Page Not Found and the home of Joe Che and Margaret Gere was a fridge stuffed with leftovers.
Chaos Cooking isn’t the only site to bring a culinary riff to the CouchSurfing concept.
Earlier this year, New York chef Chris Muscarella and German techies Lars Kluge and Borahm Cho launched Kitchensurfing.com. Unlike Chaos, there’s just one cook per party, but anyone—whether a sous-chef by trade or an aspirational amateur—can create a profile detailing prior experience (if any), hourly rate, photos (of your face and your food) and sample menus. Kitchensurfing vets the profiles and interviews the cooks, and soon thereafter clients—brides, bachelorettes or just brunchers—submit a budget, restrictions, a theme or nothing at all but a willingness to surrender their kitchen to the chef’s whims.
Sure, anyone can hire a private chef for the night. But Cho, who is in Berlin, the next city in Kitchensurfing’s global rollout, says food is just one part of the project.
“It’s really about the experience,” he says, of having strangers at your stove—or finding yourself at someone elses’s. Thusly, though Dan “The Renegade Chef” Kohler will make you gluten-free jicama slaw with citrus aioli while charging $50 an hour, he might also tell you about his former life as a bit part player on Law & Order for free.
–Joshua David Stein
Photo credit: Vicky Wasik