Stand Clear of the Closing Doors; Next Stop, Dessert
By Ivana Kottasová
Jim Kelly enjoyed his lunch. Creamy potato puree was spread across a shiny square plate. Four cubes of filet mignon were soaked in bordelaise sauce and topped with asparagus tips. Silver cutlery shined. The sauce was dark and delicious. He could have been in any high-end restaurant in New York. But he was on the L-train, traveling across Brooklyn. His next course, cheese, would be delivered a few stops down the line.
Kelly was one of 12 guests invited to a six-course meal on the L-train, organized by an underground culinary collective called A Razor, A Shiny Knife. The group, run by New Yorkers Michael Cirino and Daniel Castano, brands itself as theatrical culinary experience. This is invitation-only dining, a rising trend in New York City.
They are known for surprising their guests and taking the idea of dining a few steps further. Or, in this case, a few stops further.
Cirino and his team had been planning the subway event since December. It was while they were in Los Angeles, driving around the city and throwing out ideas for events, when a friend of the collective said: “We should do something on the subway.” Cirino recalled five minutes of thinking, “And then we all knew we will do it.”
Planning and preparing took months. Cirino and his team rode the L train several times, taking notes on the intervals between stops, scribbling into notebooks and spreadsheets, jumping on and off the train and making brief sketches of each of the stations, noting vital information —Where is the bench, where is the garbage, how wide is the platform? Every detail mattered. “We must have looked really shady,” said Mike Lee, the captain of the team in charge of the main course.
Gradually, the team grew to 60 people. Friends, people from other culinary groups and supper clubs, their friends. Yet Cirino and his pals managed to keep it secret. None of the guests had any idea about the journey ahead of them as they gathered on Sunday afternoon. They bought their $100 tickets weeks in advance and were promised a nice lunch by a famous culinary group. The tickets were sold on first-come, first-served bases to those who responded to an invitation send to the group’s mailing list.
“When I came to the meeting point, I assumed there was a building around somewhere,” Jim Kelly, a guest on the train lunch, said. “When they took us to the train, I though we were getting to some other destination but then I realized the train was the destination.”
The guests were escorted to the train and seated on two benches in the middle of the second car of a Brooklyn-bound train. Four provisional tables with holes for water glasses were hanging from the poles, secured by a complicated mechanism involving several strings and pieces of wood.
The first course was fluke with bone marrow.
Meanwhile, on Morgan Avenue stop in East Williamsburg, the team preparing the main course was getting ready for their turn. They spent two hours practicing the serving of the most complex dish of the ride. A friend of a friend provided an apartment near the subway stop that became the base camp for the main course team.
But it wasn’t just the guests who had no clue. It was not until two hours show time that one of the volunteers, Ben Lambert, found out what was going on. “Michael just asked me if I could help out with a picnic.”
Lambert was one of a handful of professional chefs (he is soon opening a restaurant in Manhattan) involved in the lunch. The majority of people were from other fields – healthcare, marketing, art. “We just like eating,” Laura Huben, another volunteer, said, as she prepared the desert, featuring cocoa, raspberries and lavender.
At 1:45 pm, about 15 minutes after the train took off from Manhattan, Huben and her team were lined up on the Morgan Avenue station in East Williamsburg.
Six people, dressed in matching outfits (blue jeans and black shirts) rehearsed every move involved in plating and serving the dish: Take the plates. Put them on two trays. Spread a bit of mashed potatoes on each plate. Place four pieces of beef on top of that. And finally add an asparagus tip on each piece of meat. Board the train. Pretend that this is the most normal thing for you. All in under two minutes.
Just before the train arrived, the group calmed down. Nobody joked anymore; everybody concentrated on a task. The train came. The door slid open. And the party was not on it.
Sense of panic took over for a minute. Lee was worried either the police or the MTA dissolved the event. Even though eating on the train is not illegal, everybody knew that causing havoc on the subway could potentially get them into a trouble with less a sympathetic officer.
But they were just running late. When the next train arrived, it was go time.
Everyone jumped on the train so the serving could start. The volunteers had to deliver the plates as quickly as possible, so that the guests had enough time to enjoy it before it was time to pack everything up and leave the train to make room for the cheese course. After all, the train ride is only about 40 minutes long.
On Halsey Street station, the main course crew got off the train. The atmosphere was euphoric and full of hugs, high-fives and shoulder pats. “This was ridiculous,” Mike Lee said. “I wish I could have stayed on for longer,” Soo Baik, another volunteer, added.
Meanwhile, a few stops ahead, the next team was preparing the dessert.