Secret Suppers, personal chefs, and vegan hot spots: GR’s nontraditional dining takes form

Grand Rapids is continually securing its spot as a foodie city with every new restaurant, café, and coffee shop ribbon cutting ceremony. The culture and community surrounding dining is continually growing, even for those without traditional brick and mortar locations, restaurant spaces, or typical dining environments. The local dining scene is embracing food pop-ups, intentional dining in nontraditional settings, and monthly dinner series inviting people to enjoy meals far from the normal restaurant place setting. 

Vegan Grand Rapids is a collective source of over 50 local businesses, restaurants, events, classes and workshops – highlighting vegan and healthy dining options locally. When Kolene Allen and Jon Dunn started Vegan Grand Rapids in 2010, there were only a handful of places with vegan food options. Today, they host many unique events, focusing on food and community, drawing in hundreds of vegans and non-vegans.

“It is just a way for us to support those businesses, and give them some exposure,” Dunn says. “The more the local restaurant community and food scene sees the local need, the more support they can get, and the more options they’re going to offer.”

Local chefs are also creating a sense of community, often times inviting diners into their own homes for a unique dining experience. Grand Rapids Grove Chef Evan Edwards created The Laurentian Supper Club, inviting guests to a thoughtfully-crafted vegan dinner in a quaint, private residence setting. Allen and Dunn assisted Edwards in launching this dining series. 

“Over the summer, we helped promote and co-host some events with Evan Edwards and the Laurentian,” Allen says. “His thing is vegan food with a Great Lakes focus. He approached us and wanted to do some private supper clubs. We helped him get going on that.”

“It was all limited ticket, very small, 20 tickets – and you got this very intimate dining experience in this home, where he’d come out and talk about the food. A really fun, nice experience for people to have a really incredible meal without having to go to a traditional restaurant,” Allen says. 

The vegan community in Grand Rapids has especially been welcoming in nontraditional dining, pop-up events, and unique pairing events in uncommon spaces. There has been an increase in local bakers, chefs, butchers, and artisans showcasing their goods as vendors in local pop-up markets and shops. The Vegan Grand Rapids pop-up market began with a handful of entrepreneurs and small business owners bringing their homemade products to Grand Rapids Coffee Roasters on a Saturday afternoon. Now, their annual holiday pop-up market typically includes 30-plus vendors, and brings over 1000 visitors. This year’s event takes place Dec. 14 at Calvin College. 

While veganism is a term that not only encompasses food, but an overall ethic of not harming animals or the environment, Allen and Dunn have found success in focusing on good meals. For them, it’s about gathering community together, rather than polarizing politics. 

Personal chef and owner of Turnip the Beet, Hilary Miller, knows the importance of a good meal. Miller wants to encourage people to slow down and step away from fast food and fast-paced mealtimes. She enjoys creating personalized, small details in her meals. With her new business, she has a mission to bring people back to the table. Foraged. Secret Suppers invites people back that table; it just so happens to be in a meadow, off of a woodsy trail.

Hilary MillerAfter taking cooking classes at her local tech center in high school, Miller realized she wanted to become a chef. She began taking culinary classes in college, while at Grand Rapids Community College. After stepping away to have her children, Miller went back to finish her degree, and start living out her dream. Someone recommended she take a personal chef class to better fit her schedule, so she did. 

“In that class is where I created my business, Turnip the Beet Personal Chef Services,” Miller says. “That was 2018.” She graduated GRCC with a degree in culinary arts, a certificate as a personal chef, traveled to Italy, France, and Germany for culinary trips, and received GRCC's Faculty Award.

For Miller’s Turnip the Beet clients, she gets to know their tastes and likes, creates a personalized menu, goes shopping for ingredients, and prepares and labels meals. Everything is packaged, labeled, and left with heating instructions. 

“I really like the pop-up personal chef service,” Miller says, “because I can meet with my clients on such a personal level. I liked working in restaurants, too, but you didn’t get to leave the kitchen very much to meet the diners. With this, I sit down with one of my clients, and we talk about food from where they’re from, and he even teaches me some things about food. It’s very personal, and personalized.”

Legally, personal chefs are allowed to create meals for their clients in their client’s kitchens, with groceries/ingredients paid for by the client. Miller also has liability insurance, enabling her to work out of a client’s home, versus a commercial kitchen – which requires more regulations.

Inspired by a similar business, Secret Suppers on the West Coast, Miller started Foraged. Secret Suppers right here in West Michigan. She began the business in May 2019, and held her first private supper in October 2019. The outing was harvest themed, and guests arrived at the secret location and walked the trail through the woods into a beverage tent area. There, they mingled and talked with the other 20 guests, then walked out into a meadow, surrounded by trees. After the mainly locally-sourced menu was revealed, and dinner was consumed, and guests ate dessert just as the sun was setting.

“Foraged. Secret Suppers is all about intentional dining in remarkable places,” Miller says. “I have plans for different locations, and dinners with the different seasons.” She is currently planning both private and public dinners with Foraged. Secret Suppers for the upcoming months.

Although the lack of a traditional white table cloth, polished silverware, or a standby menu might be the case in these events, the unique dining experience is anything but lacking.

“I think it’s more than just a dinner, it’s a total experience,” Hilary says. “Normally, people would go to dinner and a movie. You’re going to dinner, but you’re getting a total experience.”

Grand Rapids continues to embrace the foodie culture – thinking outside of the box, and outside of regular restaurant settings. Through the inventive use of secret menus, breathtaking outdoor ‘venues,’ and private, small, ticketed meals, dining has never been more of a special occasion.

Photos by Adam Bird of Bird + Bird Studio.

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Sarah briefly lived in Grand Rapids years ago, before moving back to Lansing, but that West Michigan love never really left her heart. Through her coverage on small businesses, arts and culture, dining, and anything mitten-made, she’s committed to convincing any and everyone -- just how great the Great Lakes state is. Sarah received her degrees in Journalism and Professional Communications. You can find her in a record shop, a local concert, or eating one too many desserts at a bakery. If by chance, she’s not at any of those places, you can contact her at spohn9@gmail.com

 
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