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Connection — with both food and people — is at the forefront of Tasting Collective’s mission.
Nat Gelb’s reasons for starting Tasting Collective are surprisingly straightforward. Growing up in Chatham, New York, he rarely had the opportunity to dine out at restaurants. As a result, he developed a “strong connection” to the food he ate — he learned about all the ingredients that went into it; his classmates’ parents farmed it and his own parents cooked it. When he moved to New York City following college, he was blown away by the diverse and overwhelming selection of food available at any time of the day or night. But he felt that the connection to the food — and the people responsible for making it — that he had become so accustomed to was missing from the restaurant experience.

Gelb, a self-described “expert community builder,” saw a general disconnect between restaurants and their diners. The former were overly focused on increasing covers and staying afloat, while the latter were often preoccupied with distractions, like cell phones, during meals. He envisioned creating an experience where passionate chefs could share stories about themselves and their food with interested diners, fostering personal connection and encouraging further dialog between the two communities.

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Delaware & Hudson’s chef speaks to the members-only crowd before a recent Tasting Collective event.

To execute this concept, Gelb sought out somewhat affordable New York City restaurants that were also critically acclaimed, at first filling up private dining rooms that would have otherwise gone unoccupied for the night.

As Gelb’s vision materialized and he realized that these rooms were scarce (and that the restaurants that had them tended to be higher-priced), he shifted to full takeovers for each event, selling individual tickets priced at a moderate rate of $45 to $50 per person (exclusive of alcohol) to a growing list of friends and email subscribers, and coordinating with restaurants to serve a family-style menu of 9 to 11 dishes. All proceeds from ticket sales — and subsequent alcohol sales — go to the participating restaurant.

After successfully spearheading around eight events, Tasting Collective began offering a members-only service for $145 per year. Members can buy tickets to events for themselves and guests and can take advantage of certain perks (such as a complimentary dish or cocktail) should they return to the restaurant on their own at a later date. Dinners range anywhere from 20 to 50 members — with communal-table seating — and are planned in advance at around once per week at any one of 25 to 30 partners. While restaurants tend to turn over the entire space to Tasting Collective, some will insist on the event taking place later in the evening so they can seat guests beforehand, or on leaving the bar open for walk-ins throughout the night.

Feedback cards are passed out to members at the end of meals to help restaurants develop their menus.

In addition to working with restaurants that have already garnered critical praise, Gelb places a high priority on hosting events at smaller, independent venues where the chef is an owner and can talk about his or her inspiration. Recent events have taken place at Miss Lily’s, Noreetuh, Huertas, Edi & The Wolf, Jeepney and Delaware & Hudson. The chef typically addresses the roomful of members before the meal and goes over the night’s menu, which often includes a dish or two not regularly offered for dinner. Tasting Collective’s members offer opinions at the end of the night via a feedback card that asks them to rate dishes on a scale of 1 to 5 with comments. Gelb views this as a constructive way to maintain a two-way dialogue between chef and diner.

And it seems to be working. Gelb estimates that Tasting Collective is approaching 1,000 members — most of whom join by word of mouth — with a demographic that predictably skews younger, though he says there are members in their 70s and 80s.

So what does the future hold? Gelb speculates that there is a lot of space in New York City to expand — he talks about Queens, specifically. He also discusses the possibility of offering two seatings in one night and expanding to other cities. For now, however, he seems content to sit back and let Michelin-starred chefs like Eduard Frauneder trot out his greatest hits for diners in rooms that are quite a bit fuller and more boisterous than the ones he grew up eating in in upstate New York.