In the kitchen of a high-rise apartment building in New York City, chef Ajesh Deshpande drops small cubes of foie gras into a pot of braised lentils, folding it in to melt it and enrich the legumes. A native of India who enjoys incorporating South-Asian flavours in his French-leaning cuisine, Deshpande fashioned the lentils as a nod to black dal. The legumes will be paired with duck, and by the time he’s done cooking and plating, he will have composed more than a dozen dishes. Joined by a server, he walks them out to the an open-air terrace, and sets them before guests. Then Deshpande stands and delivers, describing the course and answering questions, before his diners dig in, and he returns to the kitchen to ready the next course.
Courtesy of Resident
This isn’t nostalgia for pre-pandemic dining, or a fantasy of 2021. It’s a scenario that’s playing out right now, in select residential buildings in New York City.
Resident, a venture that produces tasting-menu dinners by ascendant chefs in luxury high-rises, was launched two years ago, but seems special-ordered for this moment, and the immediate future that will flow from it.
It began with a distinctly New York transaction: Brian Mommsen, a hedge-fund founder putting in long hours, offered his often deserted Brooklyn home to a fledgling chef seeking a venue in which to stage a regular pop-up, sometimes referred to as a supper club. (The chef was Jonah Reider, who had attained some prominence a few years earlier staging his supper club, Pith, out of his Columbia University dorm room.)
Brian Mommsen / Photo by Nico Schinco
The dinners were a crash course in the plentiful attractions of the restaurant business. As Mommsen met enthusiastic diners and up-and-coming cooks and sous chefs who assisted, and took in the spectacle of Reider conjuring restaurant-caliber dishes from a home kitchen, not to mention the rapturous reception in the dining room, he envisioned similar dinners in other residential settings, across the river in Manhattan.
That spark led Mommsen to found Resident. The company recruits a roster of participating chefs, usually functioning at the sous-chef level in their kitchens of employment (Michelin-level experience is de rigueur), to create dinners of at least five courses. Mommsen partners with real estate properties and companies to stage the dinners in vacant apartments or show units, with tickets available to residents and often to the general public. The company also sells and orchestrates private dinners that follow the same format.
The concept isn’t so much revolutionary for its parts as for combining them: Pop-ups have been a thing for at least a decade now, and for longer than that, real estate companies have listed nearby name-brand restaurants and chefs on their roster of local attractions, often at the top of those lists.
Resident fuses these tendencies, partnering with buildings and chefs to stage dinners.
Photo by Nico Schinco and Lizzie Munro
Even before this time when the dysfunctional economics of the industry have come under intense scrutiny, Mommsen also saw an opportunity to create a new hospitality business model that would reduce such top-line expenditures as rent.
The idea was sound before COVID-19 upended our lives and threw the restaurant world into devastating, existential disarray. But now that we’re living through a dining limbo, the concept seems perfectly tailored to the moment. Over the summer of 2020, ticketed Resident dinners were staged on outdoor terraces, and private events adhered to attendance limits and other protocols dictated by local authorities.
Ticketed events at Resident are $195, plus tax. Chefs take home a minimum of $450 per dinner. That number can climb north for special or bespoke events.
That doesn’t seem like much coin for planning and serving a five-course (or longer) dinner, but aspiring chefs eager for self expression, name recognition, and Instagram bait will often break their backs to stage a pop-up, doing all the work themselves, from marketing to wine pairings to sourcing dinnerware. And after all that blood, sweat, and tears, they often lose money or scarcely eek out a profit.
With Resident, all details are taken off the chefs’ plates: The company pays for a sous chef or culinary assistant, provides a sommelier to curate wine pairings, enlists a server, and even a professional photographer, making the photos available to the chefs.
As winter encroaches on the northeastern United States, Resident still has some dinners scheduled, but Mommsen says they will adjust plans as constantly-shifting regulations and protocols dictate. But once spring dawns, and a vaccine circulates, the future for this dining model seems bright. Mommsen and his colleagues are eyeing other cities for future expansion.
For chefs, Resident offers a chance to spread their wings and strut their stuff. Those employed as sous chefs might be honing a concept for their own restaurants and menus in their free time, but when they’re on the clock, are confined to the style of the chef and restaurant that employs them.
Photo by Lizzie Munro
Eric Huang, who has cooked at Café Boulud, Gramercy Tavern, and Eleven Madison Park, was readying his own restaurant when the pandemic struck. While he bides his time operating a fried chicken concept (Pecking House) out of his family’s restaurant in the outer borough of Queens, NY, he’s also begun doing dinners for Resident. In addition to supplemental income, the dinners give him, “a chance to cook your own food and express your own ideas and express your philosophy of cooking. Those opportunities don’t come around a lot.”
Ajesh Deshpande, most recently employed as a sous chef for The Baccarat Hotel and Gabriel Kreuther in New York City, has been sustaining himself during the pandemic with private chef work, much of it for the same client. It provides him welcome stability, and was more sustainable than his other lockdown side hustle—serving private clients with custom dinners that he made at home and personally delivered by biking around the city.
Deshpande signed with Resident during the lockdown (the company requires pop-up exclusivity while chefs collaborate with them). Since July, he’s done about half a dozen dinners.
He loves the interaction with guests—not just for the feedback, but to see their faces as they enjoy his food. One emerging signature dish is a carrot that’s put through a series of cooking methods (roasted, glazed, grilled) and served with carrot jus and a carrot puree. Others draw on Southeastern flavours, like those lentils with foie gras, or a duck dish that features a jus based on garam masala.
“These are fun plays on things I’ve grown up with and experienced, being in India when I would visit, the things I love to eat outside of work,” he says.
For guests of Resident, the dinners are a fresh spin on the traditional dining experience. Will Madden, an attorney for a midtown Manhattan firm who knows Mommsen from their days at Tufts University in Massachusetts, attended a few dinners at Mommsen’s home, before they were branded as Resident and exported to Manhattan.
Photo by Nico Schinco
Madden appreciates a good meal, but doesn’t characterise himself as a foodie. He respects and enjoys the food served at the dinners, but for him it’s not the main attraction: “The main reason I go is the experience of sitting around a table in most cases with a bunch of people I’ve never met and a chef I’ve never met. The idea that the chef is there and is talking to you throughout the night about what’s showing up on your plate and that feeding into conversation you get to have with a bunch of strangers—it’s just a fun and unique experience.” (Before the pandemic, Resident had guests switch seats midway through the dinner to up the social ante.)
Just as the chefs appreciate the chance to express themselves, receiving that expression delights Madden.
“I admire that this business is a kind of intermediate step potentially for a young person who is trying to develop their skills and improve themselves and put together a full menu that they can’t express in their regular job,” he says. “I can’t say enough about how impressed I’ve been by the amount of thought they put into their food. It seems they have ideas that are bursting out of them and they’re able to do it on a manageable scale. At a normal restaurant, the same creative process may be going on, but you don’t have the opportunity to talk to the person about it.”
Most recently, Madden attended a dinner by chef Ross Florance, with a coastal Maine theme. Madden relished hearing the inspiration for each dish, and the story of how Ross had moved to Maine during the lockdown, and how those months registered in his cooking.
“That really adds quite a bit of value,” says Madden. “Even though I don’t know much about food, it’s fun to be in this environment where the level of access to the process is so much more granular.”
At a time when human connections of any kind are evermore precious, this spark seems to be the secret ingredient for both chefs and diners.
Says Deshpande: “A lot of time you’re stuck in a kitchen doing 100 or 200 covers a day. You put a lot of work in but don’t see the final product on the table in front of a guest. Just being able to see that is very fulfilling.”
“I think of the compensation as an added bonus,” he adds. “You do it for the passion, and the platform.”