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Underground Gourmet

Arts & Culture | April 27, 2010

The dinner party is an art infrequently practiced among college students. Lack of space, money, and enthusiasm are the recipe for resorting to dining halls and restaurants rather than cooking for friends. But two Tufts students, who have found more than enough enthusiasm and a way to get around the money and space issues, have successfully brought the dinner party where it’s (probably) never gone before: 76 Curtis Ave.

The blog dinnersat76.blogspot.com, started by two Tufts students who shall remain unnamed because their enterprise is technically in violation of FDA regulations, extends and open invitation to ten diners on Friday evenings. For $25, guests get a creative and expertly executed five-course meal with wine, as well as the chance to meet these innovative chefs and nine other interesting people who share an interest in inexpensive fine dining.

The dinners began last January, but the idea had been stewing long before. George, a senior, had studied abroad in Buenos Aires the previous spring semester and had witnessed such dinner parties being held among locals there, and decided he would like to replicate such dinners in his house back at Tufts. He and Harris had a farm-share in the fall semester, where they got fresh ingredients that they then turned into creative dishes. These turned out to be delicious, and they decided it would be even more enjoyable to share their creations with others. During the first semester George and Harris toyed with the idea of inviting guests, and then come January they decided to throw caution to the wind.

“We were like, fuck it, let’s do it!” George said. “We said that on a Tuesday, and we hosted the first dinner that Saturday.”

Both chefs have family background in the food industry; George’s mother attended the Culinary Institute, and Harris’ mother is a food critic, currently the editor of the food section in the Boston Globe. Harris learned cooking skills while apprenticing at an Italian restaurant owned by a family friend in New York City, but he says, “I mostly just play around.” George is mostly self taught, though he also picked up skills watching his mother. Both described their upbringings as teaching them to be adventurous with food and also to discern the mediocre from the truly gourmet.

In their inception, the dinners were organized around ethnic themes: there was an Italian dinner, an Indian, a Mexican, and others. (Both claim that the Mexican-themed dinner was their favorite to date, including a soup that included all of the ingredients of a burrito.) All of the dinners are vegetarian, and while both do or have incorporated meat in their diets, both agree that vegetarian meals actually tend to be more creative and outside the box, and not to mention cheaper.

Recently, when they were unable to enter into an Iron Chef competition because they were hosting a dinner, they decided to make their dinner an Iron Chef experience instead, asking every guest to suggest one ingredient that they would incorporate into the meal. The result was so successful that they decided to make it a continuing component of the dinners.

“We get a lot of good reviews,” Harris said unabashedly, “but we also like getting critiques. We even hope for negative comments sometimes, but we don’t get a lot of them.”

It’s not for nothing that the dinners are so superb; hosting dinner parties has become something of a full-time job for the two. On the Tuesday before the dinner, which occurs on Friday night, George and Harris sit down to plan their menu, on Wednesday they go shopping for the necessary ingredients, on Thursday they prepare whatever needs to be done in advance, and on Friday they spend much of the day cooking then actually hosting the dinner parties, which often last between three and four hours. How do they find the time?

“I have virtually no class schedule,” George smirked. Harris nodded but could not exactly say the same.

“Do I have time for this every week?” Harris wondered aloud. “No, but I prioritize it. I make time for things I really care about.”

Toward the end of one such dinner party, after several glasses of wine, Harris revealed that sharing his creations with others are his favorite part of the meal.

“There’s nothing better than cooking food and seeing people enjoy it,” he said, beaming at his guests.

And enjoy it we did. I attended a vegan Iron Chef dinner party this past weekend and found the experience simply heavenly. Not only was I not bothered by the fact that the meal was made without eggs or dairy (I had had my doubts), but I had a more varied and innovative meal than I have in any omnivorous restaurant recently. I suggested the ingredient jasmine and was eagerly anticipating the result, but even my most creative imaginings were surpassed. Jasmine first appeared in a soup, where the tea was used as the broth in an intriguing take on a miso soup, and then, even better, it appeared alongside my roommate’s ingredient (ginger) in a spicy-sweet vegan ice-cream!

While George and Harris’ cooking is certainly a cut above what many college students eat on a Friday night, they don’t claim to be the sole proprietors of this ability.

“Everybody should cook. Always.” Harris insisted. “As long as you have the basic skills, like knowing how to cut and sauté, you can make really good meals in relatively little time. You have to be an idiot not to know how to follow a recipe.”