By Jessica Wolfrom
Shane Stanbridge and Marie Chia are redefining the supper club. Sure it’s social, and yes, there’s supper, but these newlyweds take issue with the notion that dinner’s mainstay must be meat.
They call this dinner series “Blind Tiger”, referencing prohibition-era speakeasies. It’s not exactly password-protected, but there’s something surreptitious about this event’s execution.
Guests purchase tickets online and wait anxiously for further direction (including the event’s location, which remains undisclosed until days prior.) There’s no guest-list to ponder, no dinner menu to salivate over, no hype to buy into. The whole affair seems a little hush-hush and yet, simultaneously obsessed over — like a wave about to break the surface and go mainstream.
It turns out that Stanbridge and Chia have always been ahead of the culinary curve.
The couple met at the Natural Gourmet Institute in New York City where they bonded over a shared interest in vegan food and a desire to bring health-supportive cooking to a larger audience.
After graduation, the couple transplanted to San Francisco. But after a few months of dabbling in the local restaurant scene, they found their vegan career options scant and their recently honed skills underutilized.
“We felt we felt frustrated by the lack of vegan eats in the Bay Area,” said Chia, “so we started S+M Vegan.”
S+M Vegan, a clever sadomasochistic riff on their first names, Shane and Marie, is now their full-time focus and passion project.
What started out as a small-scale cream-cheese making operation, called Fromagerie Esseme, has evolved into a fully fledged company, doubling as a creative outlet for these vegan chefs to showcase inventive multi-course meals and ethical cooking through events like Blind Tiger.
“Our dinners are low-key and aim to bring people together around craft beer and tasty, fun, vegan food served family style” said Chia.
This was invitation enough to investigate further; I bought tickets and I waited.
Then one day in late February my boyfriend and I were summoned by way of email to a large industrial gate in a more-or-less seedy part of town. We were met there by fellow ticket-holders, anxiously anticipating the meal to come.
The gate opened onto an old docking yard strewn with rusted scrap metal, wood slats, and a casually placed succulent or herb. This space was so true to Oakland that it seems to be a meme of itself: a renovated industrial warehouse-turned-hipster living quarters playing host to artists, metal workers, and the occasional vegan chef.
We climbed the stairs and entered the Chia-Stanbridge abode greeted with smiles from the chefs, and beer courtesy of Bison Brewing Company.
The first course is a Crostini Trio, delivered tableside by Stanbridge and Chia. These vibrant toasty treats are equal parts amuse bouche and conversation piece. Inventive combinations of sunchoke confit with caramelized onion, and oyster mushrooms paired with dill pickles are anchored by the couple’s house-made vegan cream cheese.
By the second course, shared salad plates of pea tendrils, little gems and sliced green apple turn strangers into fast friends. “It’s easy for vegans (and anyone, really) to feel isolated,” said Chia, “we try to set up most of our dinners in a way that encourages dialogue and exchange.”
A carrot currywurst comes next. Smoked carrots bathe in a chocolate-stout-ketchup -curry-sauce. It’s a little smokey, a little tangy, and everything a sauce should be: bold but balanced, complex without putting on airs. The dish is finished with a potato chip gremolata enhancing every bite with a satisfyingly salty crunch.
The fourth course is curious take on tradition. It’s called “Heaven and Earth” or, Himmel und Erde, keeping with the German theme. This dish originated in the 18th century and gets its name, unsurprisingly, from the ingredients. Apples from trees point to the heavens, while potatoes are rooted firmly in the earth. These are baked together and served with thinly crisped eggplant “bacon” and Seitan sausage. There’s no meat to be had here, but this dish makes vegan purgatory seem like a worthy alternative.
Since their first pop-up in December 2013, Blind Tiger has attracted a loyal following of regulars who make these dinners routine. Their incredible food becomes a bonding agent and an emulsifier; bringing people from all backgrounds and all eating habits to the table.“Building a community and encouraging good times are more important to us than making systematically fancy food,” Chia said, “but, of course, the food is important.”
Chia sees each meal as an opportunity to do less harm in doing more good. And it is this mindset which permeates the entire atmosphere here — feeding more people, with better food, better nutrition and better practices. “Almost any vegan chef will say that the aim is to prove that vegan food can be all the things non vegan food is,” said Chia, whether that is “tasty, fun, upscale or casual, beautiful, diverse — all while avoiding the unnecessary cruelty to animals and damage to the environment.”
But what these chefs are really proving is that their dinners defy definition. These Blind Tiger events are not cultish speakeasies for the meat-eschewing types — but something much different. Something bigger. There are no passwords, no codes, no secrets surrounding these dinners — Shane and Marie leave everything they’re about in plain sight. You just need to pay attention to what’s on your plate.
The next Blind Tiger supper is on May 31. Visit the S+M Vegan website for information on that and other S+M Vegan events.
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