Aaron and I have been wanting a host a dinner club for a while now, dating back to our Asia trip in 2016. Since we love travelling and it’s not possible to do that all the time, we were hoping this will be a travel-themed dinner with a small group of friends around once per month where we can try different recipes from various countries. We will then decide on a theme and a date for the next dinner at the end of each dinner so we always have something planned that we can look forward to. We were excited to try some new recipes or old ones that we need to perfect, some of which are from our cooking classes in various countries that we’ve travelled to.
We went through a few iterations of what we thought would be the most engaging for everyone. At first, we thought we would just host a dinner every month where we could cook dinner for our guests. Then we thought it’ll be fun that each guest brings a dish to share so everyone can enjoy the process of cooking new recipes. We finally committed and sent out an invitation in February. As I was also reading “The Little Book of Hygge” at that time, we also offered for others to use our kitchen for any prep work, if necessary, to create a more hyggelig experience.
Unfortunately, we’ve had to postpone our very first dinner club in March due to physical distancing. We thought this will have to be on hold for the foreseeable future but one of our friends reminded us that we can try to set-up an event virtually. Aaron and I did some brainstorming once again and thought about how we can create a fun and engaging evening. We could order in or each cook our own food. That is when I came across this Food Ranger’s YouTube video in which he was taught how to make Nasi Lemak by his friend and listened to this The Next Big Idea podcast episode where Priya Parker, author of “The Art of Gathering”, talks about the art of gathering apart and baking the same recipe virtually with her family. This gave us the idea for our first (virtual) dinner club! We were thinking that it’ll be fun to have everyone cooking the same meal and we would stream us making it. Sort of like a cooking show with friends. All that’s left to do is to send out the email and hope for the best. Fortunately, the group was all up for it!
As most of us are still getting our groceries via delivery or contactless pick-up, we did not want to choose recipes which include very exotic ingredients that will be difficult to find. At the same time, we want the experience to be hopefully new and exciting for our friends. We originally thought about a roasting recipe but it will require a lot of waiting around so we thought it should be something that is cooked on the stove-top instead. We finally decided on a 3-course Vietnamese meal incorporating some items that we cooked frequently as well as a recipe we learnt from our trip to Hanoi, Vietnam.
Course 1: Vietnamese Noodle Salad
Course 2: Pork Spring Rolls
Course 3: Vietnamese Pork Chops
We sent out the recipes ahead of time so everyone can gather and mise-en-place the ingredients ahead of time.
Lights, Camera, Action!
Since we had some tripods, various webcams and phones to work with, we experimented a little with the set-up. If you don’t have all of these, it’s ok too! Just one phone would be sufficient in most cases. We did some brainstorming again and finally decided on one front-facing camera and another overhead camera. We used Google Meets but you can really use any video-conferencing app. We also thought about cooking indoors vs. outdoors but we figured the lighting would be better indoors and also as most people would be cooking indoors it’s be better to be consistent with cooking time amongst our guests.
It was less than an hour before our live stream and we did the camera set-up and prepping of the ingredients. Even with our mandolin, the prepping took longer than we had expected but it was time to go live so we just had to go with the flow.
Just like with most video calls, there can be some technological challenges but after some adjustments of video angles and waiting for everyone to connect, we got started. Because everyone prepped their ingredients already, the cooking process went relatively smoothly. We started with marinading the pork chops. Then prepped the ingredients for the noodle salad. Once that is done, we had to moved our cameras to do the spring roll wrapping station before heading back to the stove-top to fry the spring rolls. When Aaron and I cook, we are so focussed on our own tasks, that I did not realize that he puts so much thought into the temperature and readiness of the oil etc, so I also learnt a lot during this experience. Once the spring rolls are fried, we cooked the pork chops. Another challenging point here is that everyone’s pork chops may not be the exact same thickness or different cuts of meat, so we had to improvise in terms of advising on everyone’s cooking time. Everyone’s stove-top of course is also different so that will require some adjustment as well. After the pork chops are done, we did the final assembly of the noodle salad and we’re ready to eat!
And now for the best part. It was time to enjoy the fruits of our labour! It was really nice that we were all eating a variation of the same meal. Compared to usual dinner parties, this allows guests to adjust the menu according to their preferences. They can make some or all of the menu items. They can substitute one ingredient for another depending on their dietary restrictions or limitations on the ingredients they can find. It was nice that everyone made the meal their own.
Now that I’m reminiscing about the whole experience, I am super excited about our next dinner club! Hope you are able to spend time with your friends and family in your own way during this time. It might take some creativity but it’s still possible to create shared experiences even with physical distancing!
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