When BravoTV.com's new digital series Going Off The Menu launches on Monday, April 18, it will bring viewers along for a wild ride through L.A.'s underground food scene. And one of the hosts for this incredible journey is chef and culinary adventurer Russell Jackson, who's been involved in his share of underground dinners and pop-ups. We're not just talking about the same trendy ones you always read about online; we're talking about super-insidery experiences that give food-obsessed guests a taste of some of the most fabulous dishes they've ever tried, in the most unexpected and secretive places around town.
Here, Russell, who has created countless elaborate and clandestine dinners in California and New York, shares his rules on how you can track down some truly under-the-radar places, and enjoy once-in-a-lifetime meals in places you'd never think to look.
1. There are no rules
"What the f*** is an 'underground restaurant?'" Russell asks, laughing. "It can be anything!" As Going Off The Menu will show, that can mean a dinner in a tire shop, a warehouse, or anyplace where food is not normally in the mix.
2. Whatever it is, it's going to be entertaining
"We're performance artists creating an interactive entertainment platform," he explains. Need proof of how hot this can get? Check out the delectable Cuban sandwiches, made with the help of a flamethrower, that Russell and co-host Liza De Guia track down on the show!
3. You'll have to be an investigator to find them
"They often hide in plain sight," he warns, "so you'll have to become an investigator. The Internet is an obvious place to start, but then you'll need to dig deeper. Russell suggests a tried but true method of talking to people face to face, for instance food purveyors at farmers markets — some of whom may be supplying those underground chefs with produce. "Everybody has some connection to something," he says. "It's a small world!"
4. Understand that you will not be in control once you're there
"You go to a conventional restaurant, you talk to the waiter, you read a menu and place your order. You're basically in charge of your destiny within that environment and you are in control," he says. "With an underground restaurant, you have zero control. You're essentially along for the artistic ride that the chef or a group of people have put together."
5. You also probably won't know what's happening at any point
"Strap in and hold the f*** on until I tell you to get out!" he teases. "You're along for the ride and you're not going to know whether we're gonna take a right or a left and change up as we go along." Russell says he always goes in with an open mind, but you'll see that even he had no idea what awaited him when he and the crew went to a certain seafood spot in L.A., one of his favorite stops featured in the show.
6. Be willing to try new things
"Eliminate 'no' from your vocabulary," he advises. "You will be out of your comfort zone no matter what, but it's about the entire package, the experience, the conversation—not just the food." Russell has fond memories of cooking a carnivorous meal for vegetarians and getting them to "jump the fence" in a way where they really enjoyed themselves.
7. Familiar foods might surprise you
"Prepare to see, smell and taste in a different way." He remembers a dinner last year where he served a chocolate cinnamon ice cream with pig's blood to terrified diners, and ended up winning over a 12-year-old fan in the process.
8. R-E-S-P-E-C-T, find out what it means
"You have to pay respect and homage to the people who have gone to such extremes to put themselves artistically and emotionally out there," Russell says. Diners should respect any boundaries that the chef might have set, such as not geotagging any social media photos to maintain the secrecy of the location and keep the surprise intact.
9. Feel the love
The best events put love into their food and into the entire experience, and that's something you'll be able to feel in your gut. And it's something to acknowledge in that moment. Whether you're the chef or a diner, Russell says, "The best experiences are all about having soulful intent — about love and joy and entertainment."
10. If you're single, you might meet your mate
As Russell puts it: "When you put people in a position where they have to let go and open up to experiences, and to sharing this common experience with a group of people that maybe they've never met, all of a sudden—I don't know how many babies I should get credit for with my dinners!"
Tune in for the first three episodes of Going Off The Menu, April 18 on Bravotv.com. The remaining three episodes will be live on April 25.
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