Kevin Meehan had climbed the ladder of the culinary scene, but yearned to be his own boss. Now he's broken out and is pioneering a whole new movement in dining.
Chef Kevin Meehan, 35, did all the right things for success in the restaurant world: He studied at Johnson & Wales, apprenticed at a Michelin-starred establishment in Europe, and worked his way up at chic Los Angeles restaurants such as L'Orangerie, Bastide, and Patina before landing the executive chef job at Café Pinot. Why did he decide to give it up to launch a 10-seat pop-up called Kali Dining in February? To find success on his own terms. His roving "dinner party" concept (which has monthly runs in one residential location moving on to the next one) has been sold out since its inception and is now on its fourth installment. He seems to be well on his way.
So, roving dinner parties? What was your motivation for doing something no one has ever done before? I was working at Café Pinot for a long time. The restaurant was going through some changes as was myself, and I wanted to take some time away. I went to Japan and Korea with my wife for three-and-a-half weeks and was inspired by the cuisine and the small restaurants. I wanted to fall back in love and rejuvenate my culinary arts.
Walk me through the logistics of starting-up. I made an initial investment and bought a glasses, plateware, and things because I wanted to make it a fine-dining experience. I had friends help out as servers and design the website. A friend of mine, who I go hunting with, donates meats; farmers give me a discount because they know what I'm doing. As for locations, people come and they love the idea and they're like, "Hey, I’m leaving for Hawaii, why don't you use my space while I'm gone?" Right now I'm renting from twins and they said, "Just pay my rent for a month and we'll stay at our boyfriends' house." The first one was in my guest house and I had a little induction burner and a little minibar fridge. It was so Mickey Mouse, but I put out four-star meals.
Did you feel something was lacking in your previous experience? I was in a corporate environment, and it was very busy. Its main focus wasn't presentation and food. It was a business, and it was a great business. It served its purpose and I had a great time in my last job. I really have nothing bad to say, I left on good terms. But for me to get my own restaurant and do the next thing, I needed to do this. And I don’t regret my actions so far. Kali Dining is a way for me to be the best I could be.
What's the inspiration for your dishes? I read a lot of books, I look at a lot of websites, I dine out, I go to the market. Lately, I've been foraging in the wilderness. I have a big Ikea bag just full of things from the woods. Last week I discovered something new: You know when you go to a freshwater pond and you see something that looks like a hotdog on a long reed that looks like bamboo? On the base is what looks like a leek. And if you peel back the layers that are fibrous, the heart of it is really tender and juicy and tastes like a raw cucumber. Not only is it local and fresh, it's wild and it's something that people really can't get anywhere else.
Another thing about Kali Dining that really winds my clock is I get to create an environment that people really don't have an opportunity to do anywhere else. Tonight I have eight people coming in and they don't know each other and they're gonna sit down and get to know each other, network, have a couple glasses of wine. I have had 50, 60 installations by now and I haven't had one night where it didn't work out. It's fun for me. I'm a host—I don’t really see myself as a caterer by any means—and it's a great way for me to meet new people and explore the art of cooking at the same time.
What's next? I've been talking to investors about possibly a permanent thing, which is what I'd really like to do. Until then, I have a great job and I'm my own boss. I never want to be an employee ever again.
CLARISSA CRUZ is the Fashion Features Editor of O, The Oprah Magazine. She is the former Style Editor of People magazine and has written for Entertainment Weekly, InStyle, Food & Wine, and Budget Travel. @clarissanyc1