Crisp sourdough bread, kale, and roasted mushrooms flavored with black garlic vinegar and pickled mustard seed. Soft–shelled cavatelli pasta made with parsley cream cheese and tossed with skillet–seared eggplant. Warm slices of olive oil cake garnished with fresh figs, with a side of fior di latte gelato that adds a pure, sweet aftertaste.
These dishes sound like they belong in a restaurant with four dollar signs on Yelp, but they were actually made in a Harrison kitchen. At Supper Club, Penn students can experience extravagant, experimental, multi–course dining in the comfort of a college dorm or off–campus house, starting at $20–$30 per person.
Penn’s Supper Club began in February of 2018 as a way for co–founders Leah Sprague (C ‘18) and Jennifer Higa (C ’20) to build a strong community around good food.
“It was really to have an excuse to invite people over, cook a lot of food, because it’s so much easier if you can invite a ton of people and see who comes,” Leah says.
She started a closed Facebook group, Supper Club, that anyone can join with admin approval. In the beginning, the events were mostly casual. People came to potluck parties, bagel picnics, cookie bake–offs, and a Pi Day celebration featuring home–baked pies. For most events, people could either bring their own recipes or pay a small amount of money, like $2 for the cookie bake–off. Leah and Jen also invited group members to fun events off–campus, like last year’s taco crawl through the Italian Market on 9th Street.
Today, the Facebook group has grown to 144 members, with events occurring one to three times a month. Leah says a unique mix of people (anywhere from a handful to as many as 25 hungry foodies) come to every event, their only commonality being their appetite.
Last semester, Supper Club changed the game of cooking at Penn as dedicated chef Xander Gottfried (C ’21) began hosting multi–course, fine dining events.
Xander was a freshman when he joined Supper Club last year. Frustrated with his limited kitchen options in the Quad and bored with dining hall food, Xander used Supper Club’s events to reconnect with the love of cooking he’d developed back home in Chicago. For Pi Day, Xander stretched his resources to bring a quality pie to the event, determined not to let his lack of a kitchen define him.
“I made the filling literally on the table in my dorm room,” he says. He evokes the mental image of a young Xander shoving everything off his desk and coating the surface with flour, flattening pie dough with his chemistry textbook.
Now in Harrison College House with his own kitchen, Xander has gotten the opportunity to take his cooking to the next level. In addition to casual events, Supper Club has added “Vol. II” to the Facebook group’s menu, a series of fancy dinners made from scratch by Xander and other helpers. Leah, now graduated, is still an active member and often helps Xander with planning and executing his dinners.
For Vol. II events, Xander brainstorms the menu with friends as far as a month or two in advance. He usually crafts three to six courses from appetizer to dessert. In the weeks leading up to the actual event, he spends upwards of 20 hours shopping, preparing ingredients, taste–testing dishes, and actually cooking the meal.
For the dinner, Xander, Leah, and friends replicate an authentic dining experience by acting as servers, complete with individual plating and water refills. Leah even lays down a white tablecloth (sometimes improvising with bedsheets).
The elegance of Vol. II has garnered attention on campus and elsewhere, leading to interesting and experimental collaborations. For Vol. II No. II, the Supper Club’s second multi–course dinner, Pennsylvania–based Keepwell Vinegar donated six bottles of its best vinegar.
Xander used a different bottle for each of the six courses, resulting in some funky, innovative dishes. This included bitter lemon vinegar ice cream sandwiches with black pepper macarons for dessert, a combination of flavors that many in the Supper Club had never experienced before. Alongside the vinegar–infused dishes, the chef also offered straight “vinegar shots” from the bottle for his guests to sample. Xander laughs as he mentions that not many took him up on the offer.
For Vol. II No. III, Xander collaborated with Nick McManus, a line cook from Serpico who found the club on Instagram. Since the Supper Club is not affiliated with Penn, Xander says Nick was surprised to find out that it was a student group. The two chefs' combined four–course meal featured dishes like pork belly lacquered in pomegranate kombucha syrup.
Although Vol. II takes a lot of time and preparation, Supper Club only charges enough to essentially break even.
“Ultimately, I just want to get people together and have a lot of great food, so the cost doesn’t really matter,” Leah says. If people find the price of Vol. II too steep, there are still plenty of other events that only cost a few dollars.
Supper Club has shaped the way Leah and Xander think about cooking. Leah credits the events with allowing her to experiment with new foods and grow her love of baking. She has fond memories of staying up until 3 a.m. making bagels for the group’s bagel picnic in Clark Park last year. Leah says that she was “mildly delirious at the end” of the night, but learning a new recipe and sharing it with her friends made it all worth it.
Xander has also gotten the opportunity to develop his improvisation skills.
“Supper Club has really helped me with coming up with different recipes, working with different ingredients, using new techniques,” he says. Although he was always good at following recipes, cooking for Supper Club has allowed him to fully create his own menus, encouraging ingenuity in every step of the process.
For both Supper Club hosts, being involved with the organization is just a small part of the impact food has had on their lives. Xander also works as a line cook for Abe Fisher and serves as the managing editor of Penn Appétit, Penn’s student–run food magazine. A biochemistry major, he is considering combining his passions for cooking and STEM through a career in food science.
Leah was creative director for Penn Appétit last year, and she currently works on the marketing team for Starr Restaurants, a restaurant group with dozens of restaurants in Philly and throughout the East Coast.
“Whatever I do later, I want it to revolve around food and restaurants,” she says. “At the end of the day, I think food just brings people together, and that was my inspiration for Supper Club.”