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Members-Only Club Wants to Give D.C. Diners Bonding Time With Chefs

Tasting Collective takes over restaurants for private prix fixe dinners

Chef Ashlee Aubin addresses diners during a Tasting Collective dinner at Salero in Chicago.
Courtesy of Tasting Collective

A membership-based events company that takes over restaurants for private tasting meals is expanding to D.C. this month, choosing Washington as its sixth city because of the array of small, chef-owned businesses it targets as partners.

Tasting Collective started in New York in 2016 and has branched out to Chicago, San Francisco, Philadelphia, and Austin in the past year or so. The company sells annual memberships for a $165 fee, but the first 250 members in D.C. will have access to reduced rate of $99. Members can access tickets to events in which chefs offer a six-course meal and interact with the crowd at a price of $50 per person ($35 at brunch) plus tax and tip.

That model, Tasting Collective founder and CEO Nat Gelb says, ensures that restaurants receive $45 of every $50 ticket. His company makes up its end on the memberships, and the other $5 from events goes toward paying a company representative at each meal.

Events are typically held on Sunday through Wednesday, the slowest nights of the week for restaurants. That’s when it makes the most sense to close to the public, let Tasting Collective in, and try something new. Gelb says the company is up to nearly 2,000 paying members in New York.

The idea, Gelb says, is that members get a more communal experience than a typical night out, and chefs get a chance to fill their seats with an enthusiastic audience that wants to hear the stories behind the food and provide constructive feedback on experimental dishes. In that way, Gelb is pitching the experience to chefs as the opposite of Yelp.

The first tasting dinner in D.C. is schedule for Monday, January 28, at Mola, the Spanish restaurant in Mount Pleasant that Michelin tabbed as a Bib Gourmand on its latest guide for D.C. Gelb says the first three months of meals in D.C. are already planned out, including dinners at Kyirisan with chef/owner Tim Ma in Shaw and Whaley’s with chef Daniel Perron in Navy Yard.

A Tasting Collective membership card.
Courtesy of Tasting Collective

Early on in the first night at Mola a bell will ring to draw attention to executive chef and co-owner Erin Lingle, who will grab a mic from a wireless PA system and give diners a spiel on her culinary background and the restaurant’s approach. She’ll make two more appearances throughout the meal, one to explain another set of courses, and another to answer questions that members have written down on comment cards.

Gelb says so far chefs in other cities have enjoyed the opportunity to get more personal time with customers than they would on a normal night.

“A lot of them are really in it for hospitality,” he says. “And that’s kind of what’s broken in the business model, in my opinion, is that the business model is so driven by turning as many covers as they can per night.”

An event lead from Tasting Collective is present at every meal to assign seating and ensure that no solo parties are stuck with larger groups. Communal tables and meals that are frequently served family style add to the atmosphere.

“It’s much more like a big dinner vibe than like a fancy tasting menu vibe,” Gelb says.

Members will receive a card, but they won’t have to present it at events. Instead, they can flash the card at Tasting Collective partner restaurants on non-event nights to receive perks — like a free drink or dessert — that could ultimately make up annual fee. Members can also buy tickets to events in other cities, which Gelb says is pretty common.

Gelb concedes that soliciting off-menu inventions from chefs sometimes leads to failed experiments, but he said each meal usually includes two courses of “greatest hits.” The ultimate goal is to drive discussion with a memorable evening.

“From my experience, if the diner loves every single course, then they don’t really love any of them,” Gelb says. “You want to have a course or two in there that you don’t really connect with, because that makes you connect more with the ones that you do.”