Men's Supper Clubs on the Rise
After whipping up a delicious coq au vin to share with his family one Sunday, his girls looked at it and said, "Can we have hot dogs? I hate this."
Frustrated, Sunstrom, an Austin, Texas, realtor, posted notices in a couple gourmet grocery stores looking for "a few good men" to get together and cook once a month. Within days he received more than 30 emails, and the Austin Men's Cooking Club was born.
Today, the club is still going strong, with a core group of about 15 members meeting the third Thursday of each month at a rented commercial kitchen. Attendees include small-business owners, high-tech executives and a retired pilot.
Although men's cooking clubs have a rich history in other parts of the world, they're only now popping up in greater numbers in the U.S. as men who've spent years watching food TV try to hone their own cooking skills and bond with other guys over beer and a blazing hot stove.
"The food is phenomenal," says Sunstrom, 44. "I've made some great long-term relationships with guys I wouldn't have otherwise gotten to know."
To be sure, the amount of time men spend in the kitchen is at an all-time high, says Harry Balzer, chief industry analyst of the market research company NPD Group. Forty-one percent of men are cooking on a regular basis, and that's up from 31 percent in 1998, Balzer says. And 13 percent of all meals are being prepared by a man.
Food blogger David Latt, of Men Who Like to Cook, attributes this rising interest in cooking to the stove-to-table competitions of reality television, which have made cooking seem more macho -- more tattoos and knives than aprons and affect.
"It's become almost as good as other [traditionally male] things like athletics," he says. And just as competitive, especially among a younger generation of men, like Latt's son, who cooks to impress.
Sunstrom says he wanted the cooking "fix" he wasn't getting at home. "I needed a night out. And I didn't want to sit at a bar eating chicken wings."
In the Kitchen
Here's how Sunstrom's club works: Each month, one member takes the helm, planning the recipes and buying all the food, beer and wine for the event. Everyone who attends throws in $20 to cover the kitchen rental and reimburse the planner $50 of his total tab, which can run as high as $200, depending on the menu.
That outlay may sound like a lot, but given the number of members, each guy only bears the cost of everyone's meal about once a year, Sunstrom says.
As the men start trickling in after work, they find brown paper leftover bags with attached recipes. Each guy chooses a station, noshes on some gourmet cheese and salami, and gets to work chopping vegetables, making sauces, sautéing fish, or prepping dessert. The planner, who has cooked the dishes before, looks on and lends a hand as needed.
"We make about four to seven dishes, depending on the time each takes," Sunstrom says. A lot of dishes don't make the cut, such as braised or smoked meats, because they only have about three hours to make the meal and another hour to eat it.
The group's skill level varies: There are members who attended cooking school and those who didn't know how to boil water when they started. Some have stayed with the club, some have gone, and plenty of guys have brought in friends. Sunstrom has never had to advertise to keep the club going.
Their meals have run the gamut from French and Asian cuisine to traditional German and Italian dishes. They've learned how to smoke their own bacon from back fat and are planning a foray into Norwegian cooking this month.
"I've eaten a lot of food that normally wouldn't have been my choice to cook and liked it," Sunstrom says. He's also sharpened his knife skills, learned how to make innumerable sauces, and a good Cajun roux. He's also been "forced" to make desserts, something he had avoided in the past. "I liked to eat desserts; I just didn't like to make them," he explains.
Of course, there were a few failures, such as the sausage that didn't have enough fat and came out tasting like "sawdust in casings" and a bulgur dish that was so awful it became a running joke. But most everything else has come out well, even with less-than-precise measuring, giving the club's novice chefs' confidence.
The grand meals are served at a big stainless prep table and never fail to spark great conversation. Sunstrom says the diversity of the members keeps things interesting: from straight to gay, conservative to liberal, and with different nationalities and ages, ranging from early 30s to 50s. "The only thing we have in common is the food," he says.
Every once in a while, he gets a call from a woman asking to join the group. He politely declines and offers to help her start her own club. "Some of them are pretty offended by the fact that we don't allow women," Sunstrom says. "But I think it would bring a different dynamic."
That refusal doesn't mean that he doesn't like to cook with women. Some of his favorite sous chefs are his three daughters, who now have an appreciation for more than hot dogs. "My 12-year-old really likes to cook with me," he says. "She's really gotten adventurous."
In fact, the pair cooked up the cover meal from Bon Appétit last weekend, trekking to their local gourmet grocery store to track down obscure ingredients such as ancient grain faro.
Here's one of Sunstrom's less-complicated recipes that proved a real crowd-pleaser with his group:
Tom's 12-Hour Tri-Tip
1 cup lime juice
1 cup vegetable oil
¾ cup white sugar
¼ cup soy sauce
½ cup black pepper
¼ cup garlic salt
¾ cup chopped garlic
½ cup chopped dried onion
2 lb. tri-tip, trimmed
For the marinade, mix all the ingredients except the meat in a large bowl. Place tri-tip in a large freezer bag. Pour marinade over tri-tip, seal and refrigerate for 12 hours.
Heat grill to medium heat and place tri-tip on grill. After 4 minutes, rotate tri-tip 45 degrees to establish grill marks. Cook about 35 minutes for medium rare, turning and rotating once to establish grill marks. Remove tri-tip from the grill and let rest 5 minutes before slicing.
SecondAct contributor Melinda Fulmer writes regularly about issues of health and wealth for publications such as the Los Angeles Times and web portal MSN.