Most guests come for the night, but I’ve just spent the latter half of a week hanging out with Ben Portman, founder and executive chef of the supper club Porkman’s Table. We went grocery shopping at the Buford Highway farmer’s Market after work on Thursday, he fielded my questions about his background and favorite Atlanta restaurants while grilling vegetables midday Saturday, and we spent Sunday evening and night at his house on the Westside while he prepped for and hosted his weekly Fight the Fright Sunday night supper.
Talk about dedication—but not mine. I, at least, was doing my job, taking notes and pictures for this blog post. Ben, on the other hand, runs a successful almost-weekly supper club in his spare time, which is to say in the time that he’s not busy with his full-time job as a financial advisor. So yeah, dedication.
Within moments of meeting Ben, it becomes obvious that his commitment to this side project and willingness to spend most of his free time working on it are a product of his passion for cooking. Even while grocery shopping, his enthusiasm is evident. He surveys the rows of vegetables with much more purpose than the lazy contemplation I’m used to; rather than viewing the produce in the basic terms of what will pair well with whatever dish he’s planned, he’s thinking about every aspect of the vegetable and its effect on the meal as a whole: how he can cook it, what it will add to the eventual dish & meal, how it will look on the plate, etc. Perhaps it’s obvious to write that a chef thinks carefully about his produce, but I’ve never seen such intent grocery shopping. It was a harbinger of the care he puts into every aspect of his demanding and passion-fueled side project.
Ben and his supper club are part of a wave of non-traditional dining options sweeping our city. Underground supper clubs have been a vital part of the local food scene for several years; a 2011 article from Airtran’s in-flight magazine reads, “In Atlanta, the whispers about underground supper clubs have risen to a dim roar.” (And if Airtran’s in-flight magazine writes about it, it’s got to be a big deal.) They’re called supper clubs because they can’t be called restaurants—they lack the proper permits to be true restaurants—but it’s really a matter of semantics. The Porkman’s Table, for example, serves its guests four courses and three cocktails at a communal table in Ben’s dining room. The food is as upscale as any you could expect, replete with obscure ingredients, exacting plate aesthetics, and complex flavor profiles.
Restaurants like Cardamom Hill, Better Half, and (soon-to-be restaurant) Staplehouse are all brick-and-mortar incarnations of popular supper clubs; it’s clearly proven a valid way for a chef to build a fan base in anticipation of an eventual restaurant launch. While that may be the bottom line for several Atlanta supper clubs, there is more than just professional ambition behind these underground restaurants. Running one’s own supper club is also a way for young chefs to exercise their own creativity at an otherwise early stage in their career; rather than (or in addition to) spending time as a line cook and cooking someone else’s recipes, the chefs behind supper clubs are able to create their own menus while interacting with customers in a more approachable manner. Less Chef Ramsey and more Julia Child—elegant food, friendly people.
For Ben, the Porkman’s Table is all about creativity and fun, and not at all about financial gain or career advancement. He has a job that he loves, thank you very much, and doesn’t plan on leaving it any time soon—not even for the opportunity to establish his own restaurant. As it is, the Porkman’s Table is something of a very happy accident. The short version: he worked as line cook throughout high school and college (at Bucknell in Pennsylvania, not at a culinary school), but never wanted to be a professional chef. When he moved to Atlanta, he took a few cooking classes, but his real culinary training came when he coerced former Pushstart Kitchen owner (now Better Half owner) Zach Meloy into allowing him to help out in Pushstart’s kitchen. He was inspired by Meloy in more ways than one: he’ll tell you that he learned how to style a plate from Meloy, and it’s obvious when you read their menus that they share an affinity for complicated yet playful dishes. Most importantly, he was inspired by Meloy to start his own supper club. He, along with friends Emily Morris and Payne Midyette, bought a domain and created a website for the Porkman’s Table. It was a modest operation until Urban Daddy wrote about it; the day the article about them was published, they saw their list of subscribers grow from 40 to 400. The choice was out of his hands—Porkman’s Table was a real, publicized supper club, and it’s only gained more followers (and more media attention) since.
For all his reluctance to establish the Porkman’s Table, Ben is having a ball running it. My notes from the night I hung out in the kitchen during a Sunday night supper read, “As energetic and excited as he is, Ben is sometimes reminiscent of a little boy at play.” As clichéd as that comparison is, I stand by it; he’s like a kid playing with a science kit or inventing a really great game to teach his friends. In fact, exchange the words ‘science kit’ and ‘game’ for ‘flavors’ and ‘recipes’ and you’ve got a fairly accurate description of how he constructs the menu every week: he decides on the main ingredients and flavors he wants each dish to contain, writes what he describes as not-very-exact recipes, and improvises the rest.
Of course, since he’s not a child, the improvisation itself is careful. For example, he doesn’t practice plating dishes (let alone cooking them) before the ones he prepares for guests on Sundays, but he is meticulous about the plates’ aesthetic. When planning the meal, he anticipates wanting color and garnish on every plate, and buys ingredients like watermelon radish and kumquats as additional decorative aspects. (For the record, those garnishes aren’t always merely decorative: he soaked or cooked the kumquats in a sugary mixture before placing them atop dessert. The result was similar to a candied fruit, but still moist from the liquid sugar mixture rather than hardened like candied ginger, and they were my favorite aspect of the entire meal.) Then while actually plating, he observes a strict aesthetic ideal, carefully placing and layering the dish’s components for visual effect.
Of all the factors that contribute to the success of the Porkman’s Table, I would count the duality of Ben’s culinary playfulness and fastidiousness as chief among them. The menu reflects the fact that he has fun creating it—how could you not be enamored of a Bahn Mi samosa—and his culinary training ensures that the result is not a weird cross-cultural mishmash, but a successfully tasty cultural fusion.
The other significant factor in the Porkman’s Table’s success is the people who help Ben run it. As he puts it, the Porkman’s Table is a dream come true for him, and he’s just lucky to have people in his life who are willing to help and enjoy doing it. When Ben decided to make the Porkman’s Table website and see what happened, Payne, who acts as sous chef, and Emily, who might be best described as the host of the Porkman’s Table, jumped instantly aboard. They were soon joined by Whitney Robertson, who acts as bartender, and Jonathan Myers, an architect who designed the Porkman’s Table logo. The most recent addition is private chef Jason Assenmacher, who’s become another sous chef.
Excepting Jason, who met Ben this past New Year’s Eve and already has inside jokes with the rest of the PT crew, the people who staff the supper club don’t have professional restaurant experience. Ben’s taught them to wipe spots off plates and to serve plates so that each dish is displayed the same way, but I believe that the real value of the Porkman’s Table team goes beyond clean plates or serving help. It’s clear when hanging out with them that they are all in friend love with one another, which is what makes dining at the Porkman’s Table such a compelling experience as a guest. Of course, the food and drinks are superb, but what makes people really enjoy an evening at the Porkman’s Table is the happy, relaxed, and laughter-filled space they enter when they walk into Ben’s house. It’s no surprise that people want to come here to sit around a table full of strangers—it feels like home, even though it isn’t to the guests.
And then, of course, there’s the food. Cue the pictures.
If you’ve gotten all the way to the bottom of this post, you’re probably interested in signing up to eat at the Porkman’s Table. Sign up for their mailing list here, and respond to the weekly email immediately if you want a spot at the table–the 10 spots available go fast.
Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that Ben Portman worked for a year as a sous chef at Pushstart Kitchen. He occasionally helped out in the kitchen, but never held the title of sous chef.
From the Woblet blog, February 26, 2014. Read it at Woblet.