Saffron Supper Club, which bills itself as "a roving pop-up dinner club exploring the food and culture of the Middle East," started out of friendship and necessity by South Florida food writers Maude Eaton and Sara Liss.
According to Eaton, the two women met at a media dinner about five years ago and discovered their mutual love of Persian food. Eaton, who was married to an Iranian and has three children who love Persian cuisine, enjoyed cooking her kids' favorite meals. "I told Sara I wanted to cook for her, so three years later, we got together, and like two peas in a pod, we bonded over a pot of steamed basmati rice and Persian stew."
Liss, whose mother is from Iran, considers herself Persian. "I grew up speaking Farsi and eating many of the dishes we've made." Living in Miami Beach, she lamented to her friend that there was a lack of Persian restaurants in the immediate area. It was then that they decided to start the Saffron Supper Club, with Eaton as chef and Liss as the historian/storyteller and marketing person. The duo also decided to invite local chefs to join the experience, hosting the dinners and cooking alongside Eaton. Each dinner also centers on an event or ingredient-driven theme.
The first dinner, held in January 2013 at the Miami Beach Botanical Garden, saw the pair teamed up with chef Michael Shikany for a pomegranate-and-roses-themed dinner, with dishes using those key ingredients. The dinner was a success and was followed by collaborative meals at Josh's Deli, the Hidden Kitchen, Paradise Farms, Bocce Bar, and, most recently, Fooq's.
At the Fooq's wedding-supper-themed dinner, Liss and Fooq's owner David Foulquier greeted guests with a cocktail provided by the Corner. While guests were seated at long communal tables, Fooq's chef Nicole Voltano and Eaton prepared the meal, based on what is served at a traditional Persian wedding. The food was served on communal plates, beginning with a traditional welcome dish of dates, feta, pistachio, almonds, and honey.
Dishes ranged from a hearty stew of chicken and sour cherries to a refreshing salad of pickled rhubarb and strawberries.
The plate that drew the most attention was the shirin polo b'tahdig — crisp rice with oranges, carrots, pistachios, and almonds. This jeweled rice is served at wedding receptions as a wish for the newly married couple to have a life filled with happiness and prosperity. Dinner guests at tables who had finished their dish too quickly asked neighbors for a few extra helpings of the rice, which boasted a caramelized crust and an exotic fragrance courtesy of aromatic spices.
The Saffron Supper Club is also a full-on multimedia experience. Between courses, Liss read Persian love poems and explained the origins and meanings behind each dish. Liss says that while researching the dinners, she uncovered some interesting pieces of Persian literature. "In the course of preparing for these dinners, I came across these amazing parables and poems, and I felt that they added another dimension to the dinner. For us, it's not just about the food, but about creating an experience through the food. Sharing these stories, which are often very strange and a little unexpected, are things I would do if I were hosting a dinner at my home. I'm somewhat obsessed with the power of texts. These dinners are an extension of that," she says.
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"I've always wanted to explore my Middle-Eastern heritage and delve more deeply into the food and culture," Liss continues. "So in a way, I am educating myself about the food and traditions that I took for granted growing up. I felt an instant connection with Maude and her enthusiasm for the cooking." Eaton adds that the act of making and sharing food is a culture unto itself. "Sharing food is ingrained in all of us, no matter from where we come from. These are the threads that bond us. Persian and Middle Eastern food encourages this formation of a beautiful connection because of the soulful flavors and history and familiarity it provokes."
Liss has long-term plans for the bimonthly supper club. "We would love to go big with these dinners — not necessarily in the number of guests, because we like to keep them somewhat intimate, but in terms of how creative we can get with the execution. I've got a wish list of things we'd like to do — Bedouin-style meals in a tent, flash-mob picnics in the park, inviting authors for readings, etc. We'd also love to partner with a food festival and work on events with nationally recognized chefs."
For now, there are more food and stories to share at the next Saffron Supper Club, where the ladies will partner with Yaniv Cohen of Shiraz Catering. The dinner will focus on Cohen's project, the Spice Detective, which delves into the healing and medicinal properties of spices through his blog. Though the date and location haven't been firmed up, the pair is already considering the creative possibilities, according to Liss. "We've been friends for a while and wanted to collaborate. Cohen's Israeli background and experience with Middle Eastern food make him a natural match for us. We're thinking to build the menu around exotic spices and have each dish relate to that theme. It's going to be exciting!" Follow Saffron Supper Club's Facebook page for updates about the next dinner.