Top (Secret) Chef

Chef Efrain Cuevas started Clandestino about a year ago in order to provide a community-based, high-quality alternative to gourmet restaurant cuisine. The underground dining organization meets every few weeks to enjoy a themed menu, at a location that is disclosed only 48 hours before the actual event. This past weekend, Cuevas served five cheese-inspired courses to a crowd of 50 or so hungry guests in a beautiful multi-media exhibition space situated in Chicago’s South Shore neighborhood.

Evan Glassman’s Studio E was the perfect mix of living space and gallery to achieve the right mood for Cuevas’s event. “I’ve always found the fine dining scene to be a little cold,” Cuevas explained on Saturday night, just before a salad of endive, asparagus, and caprioli goat cheese “pearls” was served. The guests nodded in agreement: a woman described how she felt a restaurant’s reputation could be completely undermined by a “stuffy” atmosphere. Cuevas’ solution, the dinner party, encourages chatter among the guests through communal seating arrangements, and often includes a musical or artistic component to further conversation. Live painting was provided by local artist Rex Floodstrom, whose futuristic urban landscapes were displayed throughout the gallery.

Guests could develop their own artistic tendencies, as Glassman had put aside some wall space for a group mural. Upon entering, guests sipped wine (all dinners are BYOB), networked, and added their touch to this rapidly growing artwork. The first course, a grana padano crisp filled with queso fresco mousse topped with fresh chives, was passed out as guests took in Glassman’s unique interior, which included a Zen-like walk-through garden and a high ceiling tiled with doors.

The pace of the meal was relaxed, but an open kitchen allowed one to watch the busy all-volunteer staff. The first hot dish was a spicy pesto made from morita chilies and Michigan ramps, which generously coated a homemade linguini. The cheese in this dish truly captured the “underground” nature of Clandestino: this crumbly, salty, raw-milk cojita was made by Cuevas’s uncle in Mexico, and travelled across the border packed in his family’s suitcases. The pasta was followed by a rib-eye and short rib burger, topped with Wisconsin cheddar and served on a pretzel bun. Finally, the long awaited dessert arrived: a Meyer lemon pound cake with a scoop of rhubarb cream cheese ice cream, which was deceptively smooth before a delightful rhubarb tang.

Clandestino holds dinners in different spaces all over Chicago, and is developing a large and diverse following. Anyone can get involved by visiting their website and signing up for their mailing list. A community of people has sprung up around Cuevas’s original idea, drawn together by their love of good food, conversation, and unique, one-of-a-kind experiences.

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