It's been a few weeks since the holiday party season ended, and it's about time to get back into the social swing of things. A dinner party with homemade vittles and free-flowing drinks is a good way to reconnect with old friends and expand your social circle. Cheapism.com has discovered an innovative way to organize an inexpensive dinner party. It's bound to be messy and maybe a little awkward at first, but it makes it easy to try new foods, meet new people, and have a feast on the cheap.
Chaos Cooking started in 2009 in Brooklyn, New York, with a birthday dinner for 18 people. The party went so well that Joe Che, the birthday boy, continued to host dinner parties with 25, then 35, then as many as 80 people in his small New York City apartment. Che's dinner parties are a bit like potluck meals in which every attendee brings a dish to share. But instead of bringing a prepared dish, each attendee brings ingredients and cooks the food onsite. Only one stove and 25 people who need to cook? That's why it's called Chaos Cooking.
An Idea Spreads
When Che's dinner parties received some press coverage, the idea spread and Chaos Cooking events began popping up around the world. Che received letters from people describing their own chaotic dinner parties, and he decided to create an online service to make things easier for everyone.
The free Chaos Cooking website enables members to post dinners they are hosting and to RSVP for other members' events. The website doesn't publish the host's address, which is given out only a few days before the event to those who RSVP. Anyone who is a member of the site can attend a dinner. Most parties take place inside the host's apartment or house, which means the dinner party begins with people who don't necessarily know one another. But the need to prepare the dinner (along with a few libations) quickly breaks down any social barriers, and hungry strangers soon become new friends.
The basic rules of Chaos Cooking require that everyone prepare something and help clean up at the end of the party. The event must be posted to the website so people you don't know can attend, although you can cap the number of guests. Hosts usually ask guests to bring containers for leftovers and extra kitchen supplies: cutting boards, knives, serving bowls, etc. Occasionally they may request a few dollars to defray the cost of garbage bags and other miscellaneous expenses.
A recent search found Chaos Cooking dinner parties in New York City; Raleigh, North Carolina; and Panama City. Chaos Cooking has members in about 50 countries and 600-plus cities. Some of the more active groups are in New York, Chicago, New Orleans, Austin, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., Amsterdam, Cambridge (UK), Paris, and Brno, Czech Republic.
Inside Chaos Cooking
I've attended two Chaos Cooking events to date. The first was on a rooftop in Brooklyn. A friend who lived in the building invited me, but not quite grasping the concept, I showed up with a premade dish in hand. Luckily I was a little late to the party so everyone's food was ready by the time I arrived.
At my second Chaos Cooking dinner, I was right in the thick of things. This time I didn't know anyone aside from my girlfriend. We brought the ingredients to make elotes (corn on the cob topped with salt, butter, cheese, and sour cream) and Pimm's cups, and we sliced mango and served it with lime juice and chili pepper. Our contribution cost us around $50, but $30 of that was because we purchased alcohol (and we brought about a third of the bottle home). In the end we sampled nearly two dozen delicious dishes.
Some of New York City's wonderfully diverse residents prepared foods from around the world and dinner was a lively success. Once again, the dinner party took place on a rooftop, but the host's apartment was open for all to use two flights down. On the rooftop grill, our corn shared space with chicken satay, a humongous piece of steak, tuna, and a pile of roasting veggies. In the small kitchen we found a cutting board and knife to prepare the mango, while five people crowded around the stovetop preparing their contributions.
There were never any formal introductions, and we met the hosts only after meeting five or so other guests, but everyone smiled and introduced themselves. The hosts provided disposable plates and silverware for everyone, and guests happily put a few dollars in a donation bucket. Food was passed around and eaten as soon as it was ready, creating an interesting dilemma in which one has to decide how much room to save for the next dish without knowing what it will be. We ate and mingled for several hours, took some time to wash a few pots, and then headed out. The party continued after we left; one of the last dishes we saw come out was a watermelon with a bottle of vodka sticking out of it.
A Shared Experience
In a recent interview, Che summarized the purpose of Chaos Cooking: "It's about getting people together to share an experience that's really comfortable." It may seem strange to welcome strangers into your home, but Che points out that, ""It filters out certain types of people. You have to be a giver to go. Everyone who shows up contributes." You don't need to be a foodie or even a good cook. You can make something simple, or you can try to make a complex dish knowing there will be plenty of people to lend a hand.