Dinner Lab Showcases Up-and-coming Chefs at Secret Sites
By Donna Cornelius
If you want to experience Dinner Lab’s first Birmingham event, you can mark your calendar for April 18.
You can also prepare your taste buds for an intriguing multicourse meal from a chef who may be a rising star in the culinary world.
What you can’t do is load the dinner’s location into your GPS – at least, not yet.
Dinner Lab is a membership-based organization that gives diners pop-up restaurant experiences and promising chefs opportunities to showcase their food. Francisco “Paco” Robert, a Vestavia Hills High School graduate, is one of the co-founders of the social dining network.
Robert said Dinner Lab memberships are $125 for Birmingham diners.
“That’s a membership for you and a plus one, and it gives you access to our calendar and other perks,” he said. “Then you pay for your ticket.”
Dinner Lab events are held in 25 markets across the U.S., Robert said.
For the April 18 Birmingham event, tickets will be in the $55 price range, he said. The price includes a five-course meal, drinks and taxes.
“No money changes hands at the table,” Robert said.
Ticket-holders will get an email disclosing the dinner’s location 24 hours before the event, he said.
While the destination may be unknown, it’s likely to be unexpected. Dinner Lab events typically are held at cool venues such an old churches or on rooftops.
“The first time we did an event, we were doing a pop-up in a restaurant during its off hours,” Robert said. “That fell through, and we were scurrying for a place.”
They ended up hosting the dinner in an old mill.
“It was cool and interesting, so we stuck to this model” of nontraditional dining places, Robert said. “We set up the kitchen at the site.”
Headlining Dinner Lab’s first Birmingham event is Chef Kwame Onwuachi, who grew up in the Bronx, studied at the Culinary Institute of America, and worked at high-profile restaurants like Per Se, Eleven Madison Park, and Craft.
After he competed in the Dinner Lab’s Chef Tour, members approached him with an offer to back his first restaurant. It’s expected to open this summer in Washington, D.C.
Onwuachi’s Birmingham menu includes beet-cured Hamachi with avocado puree and charred Romaine; split pea veloute with spring peas, smoked ham hocks and chicharon noodles; quail confit with black currant vinaigrette, pumpernickel crisp and turnip greens; a steak-and-eggs twist with dry aged sirloin, sauce Soubise, pickled quail egg and Marsala jus; and beet butter cake, cream cheese semifreddo, chocolate meringue and malt snow.
Robert said he and his Dinner Lab co-owners like giving undiscovered chefs a chance to serve their food in a restaurant-like setting.
“There’s no place in the restaurant industry for up-and-coming chefs to prototype their food and get feedback,” he said. “If I’m a Puerto Rican chef working for, say, Frank Stitt, I can’t just put a Puerto Rican dish on his menu. We provide a chef with a platform.”
Dinner Lab started in the summer of 2012 in New Orleans, where Robert now lives with his family.
“A couple of the co-founders and I had lived in large cities and were used to having a diversity of choices,” he said. “New Orleans is the culinary Mecca of the U.S., but you have a lot of the same choices – Creole, Southern. We found that if you wanted Thai or Russian food, the choices were limited to zero.
“We wondered, how do we inject NOLA with some diversity?”
To that end, Dinner Lab often sends chefs cross-country.
“We might bring a chef from New England to Alabama to do clam chowder or Korean food, and we might send a Birmingham chef to bring the best of Birmingham to New Orleans, Portland or New York,” Robert said.
Robert said his father, Francisco Robert, did his medical residency at UAB in the 1960s.
“I wasn’t born then, but my brother and sister went to middle school at Our Lady of Sorrows,” he said.
The family later moved back to Puerto Rico.
“I was born there in 1980,” Robert said. “We lived there until I was 9, and then my dad went back to UAB.”
The family lived in Homewood and then Vestavia. Robert’s parents – his mother is Maria Robert — returned to Homewood and live there now. His father is a UAB professor in the division of hematology/oncology and chief of the medical staff at the Birmingham VA Medical Center.
After graduating from Vestavia Hills High School, Robert went to the University of Virginia “intending to follow in the footsteps of my father,” he said. “Shortly before being accepted into medical school, I decided I wanted to be in the food business.”
Robert worked at restaurants in Spain, Vietnam, New York, Chicago and Boston as a chef de partie, sous chef and head chef.
“I had some managerial duties, too,” he said. “I moved to NOLA to go to business school. I became an operations consultant and met my Dinner Lab business partners. We started the business in 2012, and I went full time with it in 2013.”
Robert said his first restaurant job was a stint at Standard Bistro in Mt Laurel, where he worked for Alan Martin and Chris Hastings.
“After that summer, I knew I wanted a culinary career,” Robert said.
He and wife Lauren, a Texas native, have two children, Sebastian, who’s 2 ½ years old, and 3-month-old Penélope.
On April 17, Dinner Lab is partnering with the UAB Minority Health and Health Disparities Research Center and participating in the center’s gala.
“We feel that our missions are very closely aligned,” Robert said.
Dinner Lab, he said, nurtures young chefs and gives them the opportunity to grow, and the research center does the same thing for researchers dedicated to reducing health disparities.
The April 18 Dinner Lab event in Birmingham won’t be a one-time thing.
“We will plan to do one to two events for the first four to six months and then ramp up to two to three events for the remainder of the year,” Robert said. “We ramp up operations as the market grows.”
To buy Dinner Lab memberships and tickets, visit dinnerlab.com.
If you do buy a ticket, you may be surprised where you end up eating.
“You have a rich history in downtown Birmingham,” Robert said. “There may be a building you’ve passed a hundred times, and you don’t know what’s inside it.”
On April 18, it may just be dinner.