SHREVEPORT, La. (AP) — Anthony Felan learned an invaluable lesson after graduating from Le Cordon Bleu culinary institute and working on the ground-level of San Francisco's dining scene: If you're not invited to the exclusive, secret dinner parties, throw your own.
In Shreveport, Felan is revered as a seasoned chef. For seven years, he was the executive chef at the former Wine Country Bistro before breaking out to open his food truck, Fat Calf Boucherie, two years ago.
On Nov. 6, he officially opened his first brick and mortar restaurant, Fat Calf Brasserie.
However, in 2005, Felan was fresh out of culinary school and paying his dues doing the grunt work in the kitchens of popular restaurants on the West Coast.
It was there that he learned the concept of guerrilla dining — also known as underground supper clubs — and that the chefs he worked for were hosting the events in secret and away from the traditional dining room setting.
"It was more their way to break away from the restaurant and do their own thing," Felan said. "They were setting up in houses — illegal restaurants out of their house or a friend's house. I always thought it was the coolest thing but I never got to attend any because I was just a young cook back then. They didn't let us in."
The dinners were by invitation only and acted similarly to a speakeasy of Prohibition days. It served as an informal, creative outlet for the chefs who were fatigued from preparing the same dishes from restaurant menus day after day.
After 15 years of climbing the ranks in San Francisco and San Diego and nearly a decade in traditional kitchens in Shreveport, Felan decided it was his time to break out and flex his culinary muscle.
Two years ago, Felan and his wife, Amanda, spearheaded the 2nd Act Supper Club in Shreveport.
Entry into the avant-garde (and legally permitted) dinners is by ticket only, which are accessible to individuals who are invited by other members to join the private 2nd Act Supper Club Facebook group.
Once accepted into the group, members wait for the Felans to announce the date for the next dinner and the time when the online ticket sales will go live. Then, there's a mad rush as members claim their seat before they sell out — on average it takes less than an hour.
Ticket prices range from $60-$80, which covers expenses, such as ingredients, venue rentals, and paying the staff of cooks and servers. Felan is intent on keeping prices reasonable, opposed to comparable dining experiences that can sky-rocket to more than $140, he said.
The supper club doesn't work as a conventional dining experience.
Ticketholders know the time and date, but learn the location just hours before the event. The venue may be a historic and/or defunct building or another place where people wouldn't think of sitting down for a meal.
The mystery continues to the plate. Diners don't know what will be served until they take a seat at the table.
"I've always loved the concept of a dinner club. It's something unique where there's no menu and you don't know the location," Felan said. "It kind of takes you back to what dining originally was meant to be. No one wants the chandeliers and they don't care about the million-dollar bartop you're putting in. It goes to two things: that's quality of food and atmosphere."
Diners are encouraged to get back to dining roots by being in the moment, sitting at communal tables, and holding conversations with strangers.
"People forget about going to eat, slowing down, and not looking at your cellphones and interacting with people you might not normally interact with on a day-to-day basis," Felan said. "It sort of started as a social experience and it was really a way for us to bring people together."
Felan curates each dinner from the first to the fourth course and dessert. Diners partake in rich delicacies not commonly seen — if ever. He dares guests to eat outside the box by introducing particularly peculiar ingredients or dishes.
In September, the second-course dish was a chilled lengua — or beef tongue — salad with salsa verde, charred onion soubise, shaved radish, and micro wasabi.
"I try to throw one weird thing in there that people normally don't eat. It's a dinner club so have fun with it, right?" Felan said.
The 2nd Act Supper Club diners have little say about what goes on their plate — some modifications may be made if dietary restrictions are expressed ahead of the event.
Going blindly into a meal is a testament to how much the diners trust Felan's culinary skills and judgment. It also speaks to how hungry guests are for a new tasting experience.
"I know some dishes, they're probably like, 'Oh, what in the world? What is this?' But it's the point of having fun with it and taking people out of their normal grind of going to a restaurant," Felan said. "One of my biggest pet peeves, when people go out to eat, is if they go there so much that they don't even have to look at a menu anymore."
Felan respects the traditional restaurant framework, as it's his foundation. But the 2nd Act Supper Club is where Felan truly is free to unleash his wildest culinary dreams for those willing to sample his vision.
The covert dinners Felan once overheard his superiors discussing were usually hosted in a private house-setting.
In July 2017, the Felans hosted the first official 2nd Act dinner at the Calanthean Temple on Texas Avenue in downtown Shreveport.
In the 1900s, the vacant, historic landmark was in the epicenter of the booming black business neighborhood. The Calanthean Temple was founded by four black women and housed black-owned businesses, such as law and doctor's offices and gas and oil businesses.
The 2nd Act members dined on the rooftop, which was once a garden used for entertainment and social events and where Duke Ellington is reported to have performed.
While many may not know the history of the century-old building, diners were invited to explore the building and hear tales of its glory.
The 2nd Act venues rotate with a new site selected for each event. They are selected with consideration made to how diners may experience the locales from a rare, intimate point-of-view which they may not have had a chance to experience otherwise.
Last September, diners sat on the stage of the historic Shreveport Municipal Auditorium, where countless legendary performers from Aretha Franklin to Elvis Presley have performed. Although the theater is still in operation, rarely does the audience get to see the auditorium from centerstage — and while eating a gourmet meal.
"Everyone got to be a star that night," Felan said.
Running an underground supper club has been a huge undertaking, to say the least.
Anthony and Amanda Felan have been married for nine years, having met when she was a server and he was a chef at Wine Country Bistro. For about five of those years, Anthony repeatedly brought up the idea to launch an underground supper club, he said.
The couple already had a lot on their plates, working full-time jobs and raising their young son, Jaxson. But as the chef transitioned from leading a kitchen to opening a food truck, the couple agreed it was time to take yet another leap of faith.
"It's hard to do. You've got to take a gamble. You've got to jump out on your own. And you've really got to put yourself out there," Felan said. "I said, 'We're just going to do it.' And we've done it and been successful at it."
The opportunity presented itself for them to host a test dinner and she was on board with doing it, despite the challenges, such as lack of time, funds, and resources.
"I was willing to jump out on my own, but we didn't have the money, didn't have the materials, and we were running it out of the house — which was chaos," Felan said. "If you knew how much energy goes into one of those dinners."
In the two years, the Felans have been in the venture together every step of the way. Anthony cooks and manages his growing staff of cooks in the back. Amanda, who has 15 years of service industry experience, manages the front of the house — from the servers to enhancing the personal guest experience.
The couple has come a long way from when it was just the two of them prepping, cooking, serving, hosting, and cleaning tables and washing dishes until well past midnight.
Now, they employ a full staff of about 12 service industry workers, which allows the hosts some sanity and breathing room.
"That's why every event we start off thanking the staff because otherwise, it'd be me and Amanda and no way to pull that off. We wouldn't be able to do it," Felan said.
As the venues are not restaurants, the Felans have to make accommodations for a kitchen and dining room to serve 50 to 95 guests.
Now, the culinary team works on a decked-out 40-foot mobile cooking trailer that's equipped with four Green Eggs, flattops, smokers, ovens, a deep fryer, a stereo system, and cooling fans.
Not long ago, the chef had the daunting task of cooking a five-course meal for 50+ guests on a 32-inch portable, gas flattop.
The flattop was owned by Felan's father, Ed, and given to the chef by his mother after the patriarch's death three years ago.
It was losing his father that became the catalyst for Felan pursuing his dreams in the traditional and guerrilla dining arenas.
"I watched him work for a man for 25 years just to get a two-second speech," Felan said. "At that point in time, as I sat there listening to the two-second speech, I (thought), 'I don't want to be that. I don't want to work for somebody for 25 years, give them everything I have, just for tomorrow to be forgotten about."
Amanda Felan saw the importance of the life-changing career move and was on board to support her husband's vision.
"It was something he talked about for years and at the time I knew how badly he was struggling with the loss of his father and the realization that he was living a similar path of dedicating his entire life to his job and missing out on so much time with his family and friends," she said. "He was in a dark place at the time and I needed to help him gain hope and belief that he could create the life he wanted and deserved. Creating this project allowed us to have something together when so much of our time was spent apart."
Anthony Felan set out to carve out his own culinary legacy and continues to leave a lasting impression with diners who dare to pull up a seat at his table.
The 2nd Act Supper Club events are hosted each month, typically, but the Felans will take a hiatus from now until Feb. 2020 to focus on opening the Fat Calf Brasserie.
"I really believe 2nd Act and the people who supported it gave him the confidence to take the leap to go in business for himself," Amanda Felan said. "Without 2nd Act, I am sure we wouldn't have Fat Calf Brasserie at this point. Who knows where we would be?"
Information from: The Times, http://www.shreveporttimes.com