Ross Chestnut, a 30-something director of technology for a hedge fund, lives between the Brooklyn restaurants Misi and Lilia and visits them with his partner as often as possible. So when the couple saw that the chef, Missy Robbins, and her team at MP, were organizing picnic dinners on Governors Island this summer, they signed up—at a cost of $525 per person, plus tax.
The Governors Island series, which sold out within 24 hours, is just one example of the rise of extravagantly priced pop-up culinary events that have taken place since the beginning of the pandemic.
Many of these events have occurred in partnership with Resy, American Express’s dining platform. In October 2020, for example, Resy debuted the Resy Drive Thru at the Hollywood Palladium in Los Angeles. The experience allowed guests to drive from “restaurant” to “restaurant” to pick up each of the 10 courses of a meal created by chefs like Nancy Silverton, Curtis Stone, and Nyesha Arrington. The 600 tickets for the Drive Thru sold out in two minutes.
“Early on in the pandemic, we saw diners were still very interested in supporting restaurants,” says Vanessa Leitman, head of experiential & PR at Resy and the American Express Global Dining Network. “People might not have been able to dine in a restaurant, but the idea of being able to connect to the chefs and restaurants that love was very much of interest.”
In September 2021, after American Express updated its Platinum Card offerings to add new travel and dining benefits, Resy hosted Platinum Coast, a week of events on a 250-foot barge on the East River in New York City. More than 3,200 American Express Card Members dined on fare from chefs including Nancy Silverton, Stephanie Izard, Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo, Kwame Onwuachi, and Michael Solomonov.
A recent pinnacle for Resy, though, was bringing noma to New York earlier this year. The Copenhagen restaurant, which has been named the best in the world and is undoubtedly one of the toughest reservations to secure, brought its team to Dumbo, Brooklyn for five nights in May. Even at $700 per person, tickets sold out almost instantly and there were 20,000 people on the waitlist. Due to an unfortunately timed case of Covid, Chef René Redzepi did not attend, and as a result, American Express ended up refunding the entire price.
Tickets to separate full-day events at noma itself, which include daytime experiences with the restaurant’s test kitchen, fermentation lab, and sommelier team followed by a meet-and-greet with Redzepi and a multi-course dinner, also sold out almost instantly at $1,500 per person.
“The thing that we keep realizing,” Leitman says, “is that people certainly through Covid almost appreciate dining and restaurants and chefs a little bit more than they did prior and are willing to spend to engage with those restaurants in new formats.”
How These Events Started
After graduating from law school in the 1980s, Herb Karlitz was running entertainment and event marketing for Burson-Marsteller when he recognized an opportunity to unite his passions of food and wine. Karlitz’s parents owned restaurants, and he had deep experience in the industry. With his friend Shep Gordon, Karlitz produced the first South Beach Wine and Food Festival in the early 1990s. He followed it with the New York Wine and Food Festival and the Napa Wine and Food Festival. Since then, Karlitz has also launched a celebrity chef and friends golf tournament that benefits City Harvest.
“We were at the beginning of looking at culinary as entertainment,” Karlitz says, “and I always said celebrity chefs were entertainers, except the plate was their stage.”
Karlitz points out that culinary events build relationships. “No company needs someone to give them tickets to a sporting event. You can go see it, you can buy your way in, but it’s passive,” he says. “Anything culinary driven is different because you’re getting to know someone and you’re building relationships through a shared experience.”
“And it doesn’t always have to be caviar and champagne,” he continues, noting that at an event he produced with Nobu Matsuhisa, the chef made individual hand rolls for guests. “He’s an icon and they had a story to tell.”
What’s In It for the Chefs?
In July, restaurateur Will Guidara and his wife, the James Beard Award-winning chef and television personality Christina Tosi, hosted “Will, Christina, and Friends” at Blackberry Farm in Tennessee.
The three-day event—which had a $1,200 fee and featured guest chefs Wylie Dufresne and Brian Lockwood, wines from Peay Vineyards, and music by the Lone Bellow—had been rescheduled from the early days of the pandemic. “I was so excited we finally got to do this event,” Guidara says. “It was one of the things that was on the calendar and got canceled in 2020, one the the ones that made us the most sad when it was canceled. Therefore, it was one of the things we were most excited about when we realized we were finally going to be able to do it.”
It was Guidara and Tosi’s third event at Blackberry Farm, where, he says, “everyone learns from one another—not only the guests, but also the chefs, sommeliers, and restaurateurs, and the team at Blackberry.” Plus, he says, “to come together and connect and have a really, really fun, delicious experience and see everyone that excited to be together made the whole thing that much cooler.”
Philadelphia chef Greg Vernick had a similar experience when he brought his team from Vernick Fish, his seafood restaurant at the Four Seasons Hotel Philadelphia at Comcast Center, to the Jersey Shore for a five-day culinary activation at Steve & Cookie’s in Margate this August.
“Seeing this idea turned into reality is, in a word, humbling,” Vernick says. “My personal ties to Margate, a town where I was lucky to spend time during the summer months and landed my first kitchen job (shout-out to the beach grill at Lucy the Elephant), makes this a full-circle moment for me.”
The week concluded with a 50-seat, $1,000-per-person dinner under the stars on August 13 at Reed’s Organic Farm & Animal Sanctuary. A portion of the ticket sales benefitted a Meaningful Purpose at Reed’s Organic Farm.
Boston chefs Ken Oringer and Ming Tsai also had charitable intentions when they organized an April dinner in support of World Central Kitchen’s efforts to feed Ukrainian refugees. With tickets priced at $5,000 per person and 100 percent of the proceeds going to charity, the dinner raised more than $1 million thanks to two additional $250,000 gifts at the event. All 67 seats were filled, and Governor Charlie Baker and former Secretary of Defense Ashton B. Carter attended. The dinner included oysters with Ossetra caviar as hors d’oeuvres, a sampler of nigiri and sushi, tuna tataki with foie gras, lobster ravioli with short rib and smoked sea urchin, miso Chilean sea bass, crab butter fried rice, and blood orange crémeux with chocolate and hazelnut praline for dessert.
Is Culinary Tourism the Next Step?
In September, the travel company Modern Adventure will launch Paragon, a collection of some of the world’s top culinary and cultural travel experiences hosted by luminaries like Kyle and Katina Connaughton, the chef and head farmer behind the three-Michelin star, Japanese-influenced SingleThread Farm in Healdsburg, California.
“We want these to be the most extraordinary travel experiences you can have,” says Luis Vargas, the founder of Modern Adventure. “It’s one thing to go to one of the world’s best restaurants, but it’s another thing to travel with the chef, which unlocks unparalleled access.”
Demand would suggest so. The eight spots on the first SingleThread trip offering, a nine-day itinerary next April that includes Osaka, Kyoto, and Tokyo, sold out within 24 hours despite a $65,000 price tag. (A few spots remain on a second SingleThread Japan trip that Paragon added.)
“Luis approached me in 2019 about doing a trip to Japan,” Chef Kyle Connaughton says. “I told him that if I were going to do a trip to Japan, I really want to make it my trip to Japan and do things that would not be on your typical trip.”
That meant a higher price point than a traditional tour, but also the opportunity to go behind the scenes at the country’s best restaurants and meet the chefs and the craftsmen with whom they work. In Kyoto, for example, the itinerary includes a visit to Miyamaso, a two-Michelin star kaiseki restaurant and ryokan in the mountains. There, the group will experience “tsumikusa ryori” (gathered herb cooking), an ancient practice that involves foraging for ingredients like herbs, roots, and even salamanders. The itinerary also includes visits to the Akashi Bay fish market to see the live auction of the day’s catch and a knife-making workshop in Osaka with 600 years of history. Guests will stay at the Conrad Osaka, the Hiiragiya ryokan in Kyoto, and the Aman Tokyo.
“People know Japan is an amazing destination,” Kyle Connaughton says, “but it can be difficult to navigate and difficult to get bookings. To go with someone who can make all that happen and get you into unique dining experiences you wouldn’t normally be able to book is really great.”
Connaughton has also recognized an increased appreciation for these types of experiences, especially after years of having to delay plans because of the pandemic. “It made us recognize that we put things off and said, ‘I’ll get to that eventually,’ but now there is a real sense of, ‘I’ve always want to go to Japan, so let’s do it!'”
“That’s not just my personal opinion,” he continues. “We have an open kitchen at the restaurant, and every day I hear people say, ‘I’ve always wanted to come to California Wine Country, so I finally booked this trip.'”
“Now, more than ever, food and dining are becoming more and more a reason why people travel,” he says. “To have a trip that’s geared around food by someone who really has these relationships, is really discerning about these things, and has access to these opportunities, that would be really difficult to come by.”
Difficult until now that is—as long as you’re willing to pay a premium. Part of that premium cost of Paragon trips goes to a good cause though, because each trip includes a “giveback” component supporting a cause chosen by the luminary leading the trip. The SingleThread trip, for example, raised $50,000 for the Culinary Institute of America in Napa to fund scholarships for students to study in Japan.
In addition to the Japan itinerary, Paragon is offering trips to Mexico City and the Yucatán with Chef Jorge Vallejo, Friuli and Venice with Master Sommelier Bobby Stuckey, Champagne and Paris with Dom Pérignon and SingleThread’s Rusty Rastello, and Napa and Sonoma with Kyle and Katina Connaughton.
Events You Can Attend
The Ocean Club, A Four Seasons Resort (Bahamas)
This summer, The Ocean Club, A Four Seasons Resort in the Bahamas, launched a 007 Secret Menu guest experience. At $700, the seven-course menu celebrates the Ocean Club’s 60th anniversary and pays homage to the seven James Bond films released in the 1960s and 2006’s Casino Royale, which was filmed at the Resort. Each course is inspired by a different Bond film and paired with a unique martini from the Resort’s Martini Bar.
Eden Roc Cap Cana (Dominican Republic)
The Dominican Republic’s Eden Roc Cap Cana recently introduced high-end, multi-course dinners ( $1,200 plus tax for two) to meet a demand for unique outdoor experiences. Up to six guests can dine in the stunning cave, and the resort will even arrange for a saxophonist to serenade them while they eat overlooking a picturesque waterfall.
Twin Farms (Vermont)
Every other Thursday through the end of September, Vermont’s Twin Farms is hosting a Progressive Farm Lunch ($300 per person) during which guests travel from location to location for each course. The culinary journey begins with canapés and farm-fresh juice at the first stop and continues with a glass of Krug champagne and a dish created with house-grown onions in the recently restored lift shack at the top of the resort’s private ski mountain. Twin Farms’ resident beekeeper offers a tour of the hives and a cocktail made from locally produced Barr Hill Gin. After a main course served near the gardens and greenhouse, Pastry Chef Christopher Wilson serves a dessert crafted from the resort’s own sugar maples. Available September 1, 15, and 29.
Sam Dangremond is a Contributing Digital Editor at Town & Country, where he covers men’s style, cocktails, travel, and the social scene.