Welcome to Mr. Jones Supper Club, a chef’s choice experience in a cozy apartment that’s completely free of charge. Operating out of a one-bedroom tucked away on a side street in NYC’s trendy Greenwich Village, the restaurant is as intimate as it is exquisite.
The conventional definition of a supper club is a gathering spot where strangers share hearty meals and imbibe fine wine and cocktails. And while Mr. Jones Supper Club offers a high-end meal, it is uniquely distinct because it’s an entirely one-man operation. Vincent Woo, the founder and cook behind Mr. Jones, does all of the menu planning, meal prep, cooking, serving, and clean-up solo. In between courses, Woo rejoins the seven guests eating at his dinner table.
I had a chance to spend a day with Woo. We wandered through 13 different market stalls and shops across downtown Manhattan to prepare an elaborate feast. If you spend even a few hours with him, you’ll quickly realize that he’s as meticulous as he is inventive. He is almost obsessive in his hunt for specific items — whether it’s a specialty maitake mushroom at Chelsea market or a sweet pork jerky from a small Malaysian store.
The meal consisted of lychee martinis, copious amounts of wine and six courses:
black ink scallops with coconut milk and Thai basil
hen of the woods mushroom with porcini and miso-cured egg
six-hour pork belly with chili caramel and apple slaw
egg custard with black truffles, uni and umami
28-day dry-aged rib-eye steak
Chinese dried mushroom salad with sichuan oil
Falling in love with cooking
For Woo, cooking did not begin as a passion project; desperation led him to the culinary arts.
Woo, who did not want to disclose his age, was born in Malaysia, raised in Australia and ended up in Finland 10 years ago for a short-term job opportunity. It was there that he found himself spending a lot more time in the kitchen.
“It’s not because Finland has the greatest cuisine in the world; I actually found it to be one of the worst. They don’t know what to do with their food and there’s very little seasoning, and with no good Asian food in Finland, I forced myself to learn how to cook purely out of survival,” he said.
One bright spot, he discovered, was the country’s fresh seafood and local fish markets. Woo took to watching cooking videos on YouTube, a new platform at the time, and dabbled with everything from sushi and sashimi to a variety of curries.
After his one-year gig ended, Woo decided to extend his stay to refine his newfound cooking skills and burgeoning obsession. During one of his visits to a small seafood hall, he even stumbled onto an opportunity to work as a sushi chef. “There was a lady there, and she saw me shopping for fish one day and she asked me, ‘Are you making sushi?’ And I said, ‘I’m trying to learn.’ She then asked me if I wanted to come work for her,” he recalled.
Little did she know, Woo went home to re-watch several YouTube videos. After studying tutorials for a week, he returned to accept her offer.
Operating at a small stand in the Helsinki market hall Hakaniemi Kauppahalli, Woo said it was the most popular sushi place there, but that he felt like he was playing make-believe.
“It was pretty bad, but I was the only one who looked authentic … It was all a facade!”
Why a supper club?
After his stint in Helsinki, Woo moved back to Melbourne and started regularly cooking for friends. When he moved to New York in 2015 for a job as a mergers and acquisitions consultant, he didn’t have anyone to cook for.
“I was completely by myself, facing a new life and a new job. I thought it would be a good way to try to meet people and introduce them to Australian and Asian flavors. It was important for me to start meeting people and get myself out there. And it’s actually quite hard in New York because people keep coming and going.”
His first guests were acquaintances he met at parties or events. When he would invite them over for dinner at his place, people responded with a heavy dose of apprehension. When folks did agree to come over, they were even more perplexed.
“I think people got really confused at the start … They thought that I was going to order pizza or takeaway, and then when they came here and I would start cooking, they were like, ‘What’s happening? I didn’t know you were cooking. No one cooks in New York.’”
After a few months of testing the concept, Woo officially launched Mr. Jones Supper Club, named after his street address, Jones, in April. Guests found out about it via word-of-mouth until one diner posted about her experience on Yelp.
“Intimate dining setting where you meet new friends while enjoying finely prepared food of supreme quality and freshness,” writes Joanne L. of New York.
Woo currently has 19 reviews — all five stars (a rarity among Yelpers, who can be some of the Internet’s harshest critics) — praising his hospitality and culinary prowess.
“Soon after the first review, the emails came pouring in, and I could have never imagined the level of interest. It’s actually a lot to deal with at the moment,” Woo said.
Until now, he had guests email him directly and he could accommodate them within a month or two. Now, the waiting list stands at 300 people. Woo recently changed the reservation model into a lottery system in which hungry diners join a distribution list and wait to hear if a spot has opened up.
The Mr. Jones charm
Lucky guests start to trickle in around 7:30 pm. Woo greets everyone with homemade cocktails and serves the first course a little after 8:00. The meal wraps up around midnight. But for Woo, the food is merely one attraction of Mr. Jones.
“I think the cooking’s only the halfway point … What everyone has said that they find really unique about this place is how much they learn about people’s lives, what they want to do, their work, and just really understand all those things you’d never be able to by just going to clubs or bars. So I think you actually get to know someone quite intimately and learn quite a lot over the best thing in the world — good food and good wine,” Woo said.
Some guests enjoy the banter and experience so much that he’s had quite a few fall asleep on his couch after a long night of eating and drinking.
Perhaps the most interesting facet of Mr. Jones is that Woo works on a donation basis and merely asks that guests pay however much they believe the experience was worth. He estimates that the average cost is around $50 per person, and typically, guests contribute $40-$60 each. Guests can make their donations via Venmo (PYPL) that evening or after they leave.
The 100-year-old supper club phenomenon
While American supper clubs of today may seem elitist and perhaps a bit pretentious, the concept has very humble roots and first emerged in the US a century ago.
“During the Prohibition, supper clubs were the front for speakeasies in New York City. They were all speakeasies that served supper, and liquor was available in the back. Once Prohibition ended, they just kept what they were doing,” Ron Faiola, author of Wisconsin Supper Clubs, said.
“The heyday of supper clubs across the nation was the 1950s and 1960s. There were supper clubs everywhere. It was a destination for an evening full of dining, dancing, cocktails before and after dinner and entertainment,” he added.
Mid-century supper clubs were concentrated in middle America and weren’t intended to have a pretentious vibe at all, according to Faiola. They were known for their hearty relish trays, fried chicken, fried perch, huge portions of steak and brandy old fashioneds.
“They were something I grew up with. As a kid and older, I went to supper clubs and fish frys with my dad. There weren’t celebrity chefs like we have today. Supper clubs started as a family business that got passed down to the next generation. They learned how to cook on the job, basically,” he explained.
The future of Mr. Jones
For now, Woo has no intentions to quit his day job to pursue a full-time culinary career.
“I’m not a chef. I would dread being a chef because you don’t get your Fridays and Saturdays. I’m doing this twice a month purely for enjoyment and to meet new people,” he said.
Woo is, however, mulling over the idea of opening up a pop-up restaurant in 2018 to cater to a larger audience.
While fried chicken might seem like a far cry from Mr. Jones’ exotic menu, Woo embodies the hospitality and humbleness of the first supper clubs. A five-star one that is.
Melody Hahm is a writer at Yahoo Finance, covering entrepreneurship, technology and real estate. Follow her on Twitter @melodyhahm.