Curator, The Loft Project
Faria, 32, turned her home into the Loft Project, a high-profile supper club that helps up-and-coming chefs reach a new audience.
"We set this up as a test kitchen for a restaurant that my partner, Nuno Mendes, was opening. It generated quite a bit of buzz for him, and we wanted to give that opportunity to other chefs and allow them to present their food — not that of a head chef they work under — to customers. Until recently, this was our personal space, but now it is the chefs' temporary kitchen and home. Each cooks for three nights and can stay for as long as a week — we've hosted 18 — and we provide a budget for food, serving 16 customers per night at $190 apiece. A lot of bankers and investors come to eat at the Loft, and many are looking to invest in new talent, which is why this is a great platform for young chefs without the means to open their own place."
-Online Extended Q&A-
Fast Company: What inspired you to launch the Loft Project?
Clarise Faria: My partner, Nuno Mendes, and I started this project over a year and a half ago. He’s a chef and was in between restaurants and in need of a space to be creative. We set up the project in our home as a test kitchen for his new restaurant. We were surprised when it took off and became a success. A year later when he moved on to the new restaurant, we had the idea that the Loft could be beneficial to new chefs, and give them the opportunity to express themselves creatively without the constraints of a head chef.
FC: How does this work? How long do chefs get at the Loft?
CF: They cook for three nights, typically a Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. Many do a ten-course tasting menu, but we’re trying to reduce that a bit. The chefs get very excited and sometimes it’s just too much food! We don’t like to put too many restrictions on the chefs; we try to encourage them to use a set up that works for their menu.
FC: Can anyone dine at the Loft?
CF: We serve 16 customers each night, for $190 apiece for the menu and wine pairing. The customers depend on whether the chefs are local or not. If they’re from out of town and don’t know anyone, it’s completely open. People ask if we only select from the creative industry, and we absolutely do not. It adds to the experience when there are many different people around the table, from shoe designers to other chefs to bankers. And if the chefs do know people in the area, they’re of course welcome, and eager, to invite them.
FC: Are you still living in this space, or has the project's success pushed you out?
CF: We lived here until recently. It just became too difficult. We’re attracting more and more chefs from abroad—we recently hosted a chef from Copenhagen, and two hours after he left a chef from South America arrived. So Nuno and I have made a nest not too far away, and the Loft is now the chefs’ temporary kitchen and home.
FC: It’s amazing that people are traveling around the world to spend three days in your kitchen—what’s the appeal?
CF: This is a way for them to show their food off in London. They can come for press events, but it’s not every day they actually have a space to cook in. It’s exposure, and it’s a new audience. It’s most exciting for up-and-comers. They don’t have the means to open their own restaurant, so they’re always working for another chef, cooking another chef’s food. A lot of bankers and investors eat at the Loft, and many are looking to invest in new talent.
FC: How do you select the chefs? Do they pay you for the use of the space?
CF: As this grows, we are getting more and more applications, but we invite a lot of chefs as well, based on word of mouth and recommendations from friends in the business. And we don’t take any money from the chefs. We, in fact, pay them. It’s not a huge amount, but it’s something. We also provide a food budget, and many chefs—especially the more established ones—will pass on payment in favor of a larger food budget. We’ve hosted world-renowned chefs including Mark Best and Mauro Colagreco.
FC: Aside from the top-notch cooking, what do customers enjoy about the experience?
CF: Communal dining is really important to us, as is the fact that the kitchen is completely open. Guests can watch the chefs prepare the food, stand, watch, ask questions, be as interactive as they choose. Some groups get completely in there, and others just chat at their table. I like that each experience is unique, and I think that sense of family and sharing has been lost a bit. There’s something so formal about sitting alone at a restaurant. But this is homey. This is someone’s home.
FC: Since the success of the project took you by surprise, how long do you think you’ll keep it going?
CF: We’re playing it by ear for now. We always thought this would be temporary. We even used the term "pop-up" when we started. And we haven’t marketed at all—it’s been all word of mouth, bloggers, press. But the exposure was so helpful to Nuno as he was opening his new restaurant, and created so much buzz. That’s what we want to offer to other chefs.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
A version of this article appeared in the December 2010/January 2010 issue of Fast Company magazine.