A Self – Indulgent Interview With Mike Lee of Studiofeast

Last year, Gadling’s own Grant Martin wrote about Studiofeast, a New York-based underground eating club. Since then, Studiofeast has thrown several more semi-secret culinary events that have occasionally included guest chefs such as Ilan Hall (winner of Top Chef Season 2). This past weekend, Studiofeast joined forces with four other eating clubs to throw the two-night Undergrounds Unite event at a secret location in Manhattan.

Now seemed like the perfect time to revisit Studiofeast and learn more about the seductive world of underground eating. And what better way to do that than with an interview with the creator of Studiofeast, Mike Lee?

(Full disclosure: I am friends with Mike and his Studiofeast partner, Derrick Yuen. I usually help out at Studiofeast events and get drunk for free with great regularity.)

For people who have never heard of an underground eating club, give us the simplest definition you can. The bastard child of your next door neighbor’s dinner party and a restaurant.

Now describe your eating club, Studiofeast, in a haiku.
Two Asians cook food
Thirty one people enter a loft
Mike Barish is here?

How did you end up joining forces with four other underground eating clubs to throw Undergrounds Unite? The girls at Homeslice West approached me about bringing Studiofeast to this event they were planning, Undergrounds Unite. I’m not sure how they first heard of Studiofeast and I didn’t know a lot about Homeslice West at the time, but I think we quickly passed each other’s basic, level 1 foodie litmus tests with a shared love for quality BBQ, Mac & Cheese, and Fried Chicken. From there, I started throwing ideas into the pot about Undergrounds Unite, created the logo and website, etc. But they were the marshmallow of the rice krispie treat the whole time. They did great work pulling everything together, and getting our hands all sticky.

So was it more like the Justice League or Voltron? The other supperclubs cook with a decidedly more western style, while Studiofeast leans heavily on the Asian side. So I guess it was the Justice League granting a work visa for Voltron to come over from Japan. I have 6 more weeks left in the group, unless I marry one of them.

Is the underground food scene in New York as competitive as the restaurant business is? I don’t think so, and I hope it doesn’t get that way. The thing is, we aren’t actually restaurants where we should be fighting tooth and nail for customers. It’s all about fostering something with more of a communal feel. Even though we seem exclusive with passwords and guestlists, it’s only because we: a) operate occasionally, so we’re limited in terms of capacity, and b) we need a little more control over who gets into the door because it’s a clandestine sort of operation (and to filter out douchebags).

In the end, we’re all rooted in making something that’s interesting and connects people. Even though we strive for great food to hit the table, this isn’t about Michelin stars, Zagat ratings, or getting Frank Bruni to love you. It’s about packaging an experience that’s uniquely compelling and honest.

How is Studiofeast different than the other clubs out there? The collection of people that help me run Studiofeast as well as the people that end up at our feasts. That’s the difference. I’ve been very fortunate to have chanced upon some great individuals over the course of this project and it’s those people who put the color in Studiofeast. One of our hosts (who shall remain nameless) recently quipped to a guest that he’d “bring out farm animals” to the table just in case his attention waned between courses. How great is that? What a commitment to excellence. It’s too bad the offer was made after the beef entree was served. Old Bessie was cute (and tasty).

People throw the word “foodie” around a lot when these clubs come up in conversation. And foodie has taken on a bit of a pretentious connotation. I guess my question is, Why are you so pretentious? I am so totally above this question.

Gadling is a travel blog, so let’s talk travel a little bit so that my bosses don’t get too pissed off. What place that you’ve visited has the most interesting food scene? Japan all the way! For me, one of the most notable examples of how interesting Japanese food culture is comes from visiting a department store Depachika in Tokyo, like Isetan or Takashimaya. There are probably a hundred or more food counters in one of those, each just focusing on a narrow category of food. I love that, because they’ve just committed themselves to one thing and doing it really, really well. And since they’re all in one place, you can literally graze for hours and pick up so many new things in one spot. It’s so opposite to what we have in America, where we have the mall food court, and it mostly sucks. If I told you to visit New York and have a serious meal in the basement of Macy’s, you’d laugh your ass off. There’s simply nothing like a Depachika in the States, and there are probably only a few dozen equivalents to it around the world in other countries.

Underground eating clubs are, by definition, not mainstream. How do you find similarly clandestine activities when you’re outside of New York? I’d suggest visiting the Ghetto Gourmet site to see what’s happening underground eating club-wise in your area of interest. They’re a great resource for this sort of thing and have a wide reach across the country. Also, to the extent possible, latch onto someone who’s a local and just follow without asking questions for a while. Even if that person has no idea what he/she is doing in terms of food, you’re bound to gain some kernel of truth about how other people live. This especially applies when traveling internationally. Talk to your Japanese bartender, or the Icelandic girl at the fermented shark counter and you’ll rarely be led astray. And if you do, then it makes for an even better story, doesn’t it?

Let’s play food word association. I’ll name a place and you tell me your thoughts on their food in one word.

Italy: Delicious

Spain: Reallydelicious
Japan: Reallyreallydelicious
Your kitchen:

If you could take one dish that you’ve eaten from each place you have traveled in order to create your ultimate international menu, what would you pick?
This is by no means a complete list, but from recent travels:
Spain: Jamon Iberico & Manchego Cheese
Morocco: Merguez sausages straight off the grill in the central market
Iceland: Skyr & an Icelandic Hot Dog with remoulade and crunions
Sweden: Fish stew from Salu Hall and the meatballs from Pelikan
Tokyo: Daiwa Sushi and, of course, the Ramen.
Osaka: Okonomiyaki and Takoyaki
Sterling Heights, Michigan: The shrimp fried rice and egg roll from my parents’ restaurant, the Golden Wheel. I’ve been eating this all my life and it keeps me centered.

When you’re not being a pretentious foodie, what foods do you slum it with?
My girlfriend makes the best Buffalo Wings with the Blue Cheese baked into skin. It’s only categorically slumming it, because they’re absolutely amazing and I’d pay top dollar for them anywhere. Also of note are Spam, Slim Jims, Cup of Noodles, General Tso’ Chicken, and Gray’s Papaya.

And to close us out, an SAT-style analogy for you. Studiofeast is to food as ________ is to sex.
A Caligula-style Roman orgy…with farm animals.

You can sign up for Studiofeast’s mailing list at their website. And you can read more about the first Undergrounds Unite event here.