BACK OF THE HOUSE: GUERRILLA GOURMETS

The Only Things Predictable About
Phantom Dinners Are Great Food and Fun

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Nancy Sargent delivers bowls of roasted squash soup, the first course of the evening.

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BY EMILY MCKENNA • PHOTOS BY PAUL REYNOLDS

By the time I arrived for the Latin Phantom Dinner at the Hostel Tevere in Warren, Vermont, a small group was already gathered at the bar. Many sipped a special cocktail—a shakeup of tequila, rosemary-infused simple syrup, fresh lime juice and a splash of Mexican Coca-Cola—that Phantom Dinner series cofounder Matt Sargent created for the event.

Some folks stuck together in pairs along the perimeter of the cozy dark bar while others jumped into the growing crowd, a mix of singles, couples and groups of friends of all ages. The mood was boisterous, and there was a feeling of excited anticipation for the multi-course Latin-themed meal to come.

Nancy Sargent, Matt’s wife and partner in the dinners, walked around the dining room tidying the tables, smoothing the bright blue runners laid atop yellow tablecloths, straightening the silverware and the orange-patterned napkins and filling the jelly jar water glasses. Three long tables were set for 32 diners.

I peeked into the kitchen where Matt layered roasted plantain halves and thinly sliced red and green bell peppers onto planks of flattened-out flank steak from Boyden Farm in Cambridge, Vermont. According to the menu, this would be the final savory course of the night, served with tangy, spicy colorado sauce and puréed black beans. (See recipe for the steak and beans on page 30.)

Matt describes his Phantom dinners as underground dining and releases the details for each dinner bit by bit on Facebook—first the date, then the menu, the price and, finally, the location a few days before the main event. When I asked him to define “underground dining,” he admitted that for fun he looked the phrase up on Wikipedia. Here is what he found: “an eating establishment operated out of someone’s home … [a] paying dinner party. They are usually advertised by word of mouth or guerrilla advertising.” Matt explained that underground dining creates opportunities for cooks who don’t own a restaurant and want to bring their food to the public.

“A lot of folks in my position have the desire and ability but not necessarily the means—i.e., a physical space,” he said. “I want to create a stage to present my food but don’t want to charge an arm and a leg for it. And I don’t have to because I don’t have the overhead of a restaurant.” Case in point: the Latin Phantom dinner, which cost $75 for eight courses with flowing wine pairings all night and a live music show. It is not a bad deal.

In the past couple of years, moveable feasts like Matt’s Phantom Dinners have become commonplace in the food world. You will see them called underground dinners, where a professional or self-taught cook (like Matt) serves food, often from a private home and under some guise of secrecy. There is also the pop-up, where a cook or chef opens up a temporary restaurant in a space that is not normally used to serve food (think art gallery, wine shop, outside in a field). Whatever you call it, this new way of eating out has created opportunities for the dining public to connect with cooks whose food they might not otherwise have tasted. Winooski’s own Misery Loves Co. is a perfect example of how this model can work. After a good run as a popup that bounced around in Chittenden and Washington Counties, Misery Loves Co. bought a food truck then quickly opened a brickand- mortar space. They were recently honored as a semi-finalist in this year’s James Beard Awards.

Matt’s Phantom Dinners are a hybrid of the pop-up and the underground scene. Like a pop-up, he rarely hosts dinners in the same place twice, and he changes the menu from event to event. The dinners feel somewhat underground because he leaks the details slowly on Facebook rather than blitzing the public all at once. And if you visit the Phantom Dinners website (PhantomDinner.com), you will notice that he refers to himself and to Nancy as M and N. It is a secret, but one that is getting out.

Why the name Phantom? A phantom is an apparition—here one minute, gone the next, kind of like his one-night-only dinners. Matt likes that his guests do not know what to expect from him. There is no precedent, which gives him a fair amount of creative freedom. He can, essentially, cook whatever he wants. And he has, from a vegetarian plant-based Phantom to a Boston-themed Phantom to the Latin-inspired Phantom I attended. Judging by the fact that he now offers about one Phantom a month instead of four to six a year, diners do not seem to mind giving up control.

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Below: Matt Sargent preps flank steak from Boyden Farm in
Cambridge, Vermont, to serve as the final savory course of the evening.

This time Matt was working with a sous-chef, Marty Mullane, a local cook whose main gig is at the Inn at the Round Barn Farm in nearby Waitsfield. Matt admitted that he had been prepping for the dinner for three days straight, staying up until about 1am each night to get everything done. In spite of this, he was calm as he finished prep for the dinner. He instructed Marty on how to cut jicama into batons for the second course, a marinated and roasted vegetable board served with crumbled hard-boiled egg and a spicy avocado, lime and herb sauce.

As dinnertime neared, I left Matt to plate the first course, Roasted Squash Soup with Hominy and Crispy Serrano Ham (see the recipe on page 35). I found one of the few remaining empty seats and introduced myself to my companions for the night: Erik and Priscilla Nelson, Carolyn M. Heft and Elise Hotaling and her husband, Todd. Nancy said that she noticed only three repeat guests—a good sign that word about the dinners was spreading.

The dining room buzzed with chatter until Matt stepped out of the kitchen and the entire crowd said in unison: “Hi, Matt!” Matt offered a few words, gave a quick cheers and ducked quickly back into the kitchen. The soup came out shortly after this, and the noise died down immediately as guests dug in. The chewy kernels of hominy provided an earthy backbone to the sweet and creamy soup topped with paper-thin shards of salty Serrano ham.

The Phantom Dinner series is in its third or fourth year but has only recently picked up real momentum. In the early formative years Matt and Nancy held only a few dinners per year and never offered more than four or five courses or music (Abby Jenne and the Enablers played a set at the dinner I attended). Matt explains that he and Nancy have always been great at throwing parties. For years the pair has hosted a series of big get-togethers at their home in Warren.

“Three times a year, I’d cook a lot of good food, create a signature cocktail and invite over a core group of friends,” said Matt. “Afterwards, people often said that we should throw parties for a living.” Matt and Nancy took their friends’ advice. The Phantom Dinners are basically big roving dinner parties for an ever-widening network of friends. Even though I had only just met the folks at my table, the conversation flowed easily. Erik Nelson said that he loved everything about the evening—the setting, the atmosphere, meeting new people.

He qualified the night a success in no small part because of the food, especially the grilled baby octopus with creamy celeriac pur

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