You get an email inviting you to a private, multi-course dinner at an undisclosed location, and you reply back in seconds flat with a resounding “yes!” because all you’ve heard about this thing is that it’s incredible. So while you wait to see if you’ve made the list, let’s go behind the scenes with Ryan Moss, who runs Salut, a well-reviewed supper club here in Seattle. We recently chatted with him about the time it takes to pull a secret project like this off in addition to having a day job, menu planning and how to run a restaurant out of your home.
First off, what is Salut? How do you like to describe it?
Salut is a Seattle food experiment designed around community. At the surface level, it’s usually a prix fixe 10-15-course plated dinner with drink pairings for ten or more guests around a community table. We tell folks that Salut is about three pillars — our love for food and a desire to take some of the mystery out of it and encourage curiosity about how it’s produced and where it comes from; our passion around hospitality and our desire to share our space and ingredients; and our love of community.
What made you decide to start a supper club?
Salut started as, and continues to be, an experiment — and really came together in a weird way. In 2012, my wife and I had been hearing about “supper clubs” in people’s homes and how there had been an age-old tradition in Latin America where the concept operated more as a restaurant and less as just a gathering of friends. We were introduced to a couple in San Diego running a successful popup series out of their tiny apartment and were really taking it seriously and so people were taking them seriously and we were like, “this could totally work in Seattle.” And we hadn’t heard of anything like it — this was before Kitchensurfing and Dyne and all of that. I had always had this dream to open concept restaurants but there’s so much risk and balance is tough, and this seemed like a good compromise. So we (my wife and I) did a lot of research and decided what we wanted it to be and invited all our friends. Within a few months they were signing up their friends, and it took off.
What’s your day job? How much time does that leave you to spend on Salut?
By day I’m currently in digital strategy for a Seattle marketing agency, and my background is in creative. I love my day job, too — both definitely get in the way of each other.
We haven’t managed to establish a regular cadence, but when we’re running events back to back they take up a ton of time. I’m menu building and planning and experimenting and prepping — I’m always afraid to add up my hours because I don’t even want to know, but each series takes weeks and weekends and evenings of planning. We also have a ton of help from friends prepping and serving.
How do you plan the menu?
People ask me this a lot, and I imagine it’s similar to how most creative people would respond about their craft — it’s a totally random and iterative process that draws from dozens of places and is really hard to pin down.
For me, I try to frame out and nail down a narrative thread that will tie the night together — sometimes it’s obvious and feels like a “theme” and sometimes it’s subtle — but it’s always there. Then I try and hack out a shell of a menu: amuse, soup, cold items, hot items, palette cleansers, starches, proteins; I play with textures, I draw from recent experiments, I look at what’s in season, I get inspired by new techniques and weird ingredients and pictures of really stunning plating, and I look at what will push me creatively. When that first menu gets penned to (usually digital) ink, it looks like an entirely different menu than it does once it’s finished. I have a lot of ideas that don’t work but inspire something else. We cook a lot with an immersion circulator and it’s surprising how there are so many ideas that are still out of reach of a simple Google search — so you buy ingredients and you play around. You read forums and see what others have tried to do. You read menus. You skim cookbooks. A lot of my ideas are a derivative of a technique from ChefSteps or a pairing inspired from Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page’s The Flavor Bible.
So what staples do you always have on hand in the pantry?
I always keep several tubes of San Marzano tomato paste, a bottle of sherry, anchovies, an extra box of Maldon salt, and weirder things like citric acid and xanthan gum. Lately I’ve been keeping black garlic on hand — maybe that makes me too trendy? And of course we always have tons of different nuts, grains, beans, oils and vinegars.
And what about kitchenware? What pieces do you really depend on?
I couldn’t live without my knives (Shun, Global and Schmidt Bros), my Benriner mandoline, my Microplane zester and a digital scale. My immersion blender is indispensable. We cook with almost all All-Clad and Le Creuset cookware, but our All-Clad 10″ sauté and our Le Creuset enameled cast iron skillet get the heaviest use. We use the KitchenAid attachments more than probably the KitchenAid mixer on its own.
Favorite toys right now are our Vitamix, PolyScience Immersion Circulator, and the PolyScience smoking gun which I think is totally underrated.
What do you want the vibe or experience to be for your guests?
The presentation and nuanced detail is a big part of it, for sure. But I think the community aspect is what makes this experience so unique.
We made a point early on of not allowing parties of more than two, and I think that has really defined the experience. We didn’t want people to clique up at the end of the table and exclude the rest of the table with “how is your sister doing” conversation.
Maybe this sums it up, though — we wanted to create a situation where the roar of laughter from a bunch of strangers can be heard over the house music and the mechanics of a noisy kitchen.
It always surprises me that after a 2-3-hour dinner people still stick around another hour or so to keep hanging out with their coffee and new friends.
How would you describe the style of the food you serve?
I mean, everything is “New American” now, right? I’m probably still defining my style. I tell people it’s a modernist play on Northwest ingredients, and we’re definitely influenced by trends. But more than that, we are telling stories through food and using ingredients to surprise and delight guests. People have such an emotional relationship with food in so many ways, and I think chefs so easily forget that. There has to be a story — you have to feel it. You have to respect the history and the roots of the ingredient, the technique, the tradition.
How do you choose the wine and beer pairings?
Don’t forget cocktails! Again, part flavor pairing, part story. We quickly learned that part of what makes our experience more fun is that people have a drink in their hand the moment they sit down. So what will kick off the meal but not get in the way of the amuse-bouche? I wish I could say we always have the luxury of tasting the drink and item together but often times we don’t. So we are thinking about what will complement or contrast the best.
Since we’re doing such small bites, I tend to try to pick flavors that add to the dish — so I almost think of it as another component like a sauce … Is there room for more acid? More body and richness? More bitterness? That’s where we start. Then it’s easier. And sometimes the drink is part of the story — maybe there’s an evergreen thing happening in the dish and we nod to it with an evergreen liquor. It’s a fine line between good storytelling and coming across as gimmicky, and I know we don’t always get it exactly right. It’s the experience that you feel, and it has to be understated.
What have you learned about hosting these dinners since you started?
So many things. At first it was little things — most of our dinners are out of a small galley kitchen, so space-saving and time-saving tricks were big. We have played with having a printed menu or having everything be a surprise.
But mostly we have learned how to say no and how to simplify and cut courses. I get really stuck on a course and sometimes it’s hard to let it go. But I’ve never regretted cutting or simplifying, and it always turns out better. The chefs I admire most seem to use the fewest components.
What would you like Salut to be in the future?
I think in the near future you’ll start to see more collaborations with venues and producers and other chefs and maybe pop-up picnics or movie nights or classes. We are playing around with how to scale the concept while maintaining the small community vibe we get from a single table. We are also talking to folks about a lot of other, bigger ideas that look nothing like what we have now. So we’ll see.
In my mind, Salut was always more than these dinners. Our email signatures refer to us as purveyors of culinary experiences; that will always be the foundation, but it could look like a lot of different things.
Do you think of what you’ll do after this?
I believe everything we are learning with these dinners will contribute greatly to the next culinary adventure. It’s impossible for me to avoid marrying food and marketing and brand experience into whatever comes next — but for now we are building a great community of people who love adventure and food, and we are having a lot of fun along the way.
Thanks, Ryan! So have any of you guys ever been to a supper club? What was it like?
(All photos courtesy of Salut)