December 27, 2012

by Marina Fang, Class of 2015

It’s a typical Saturday night and with the dining halls closed, UChicago students are venturing out in search for dinner. But for a chosen few, this doesn’t mean a burger at the Med or a sandwich from Hutch.

Six lucky students are with me, ready to experience a gourmet meal--the kind that usually requires a big wallet and a trip downtown--thanks to first-year and aspiring restaurateur Robert Lipman.

Every month, Lipman operates an underground restaurant, hosting students in a secret location and cooking a gourmet meal inspired by one of his favorite restaurants.

On the menu tonight at his restaurant, The Hearth, are recipes borrowed from The French Laundry, a restaurant in California’s Napa Valley often named the “Best Restaurant in the World.” Although he is cooking and serving the meal in Hitchcock Hall’s communal kitchen, Lipman has added candles and place settings to take things up a notch.

Tonight’s meal is definitely a break from the dining hall. Dishes include Gougères, a buttery dough ball with an egg and Gruyere filling; Salmon Tartare Cornets with sweet red onion Crème Fraîche; lamb chops with Cassoulet of Summer Beans and Rosemary; and for dessert, Chocolate Fondant with coffee cream and chocolate dentelles.

But despite the high-brow ingredients, the meals are prepared on a modest college budget. While Lipman charges his guests a fee, he typically does not turn a profit, choosing to spend all of the money on his ingredients.

In crafting his underground restaurant, Lipman wants to give UChicago students a place to sit down and feel at home while trying a new culinary experience.

“I have spent a lot of time away from my family and sometimes all I needed was a home-cooked meal. Between eating at the dining halls, going out, and microwaving noodles, there isn't any room for such a thing,” he said.

“I want to make people as comfortable as I can, and I felt like the name 'The Hearth' would best exemplify that. I hope to serve food that is fresh, exciting, and surprising.”

He first became interested in underground restaurants after encountering the phenomena during a visit to London a year ago. After practicing various recipes at home, he decided to officially start his underground restaurant when he got to college as a way to introduce his fellow students to the idea and to “unite people over food.”

Lipman sees the random guest list as an opportunity for students who would not otherwise meet each other to get acquainted over a meal.

“There’s no pressure. Everyone is excited and making friends and just generally happy,” he said.
The process of putting together the dinner begins when Lipman announces the date and theme of the dinner on The Hearth’s website. Students enter their names for consideration and Lipman randomly chooses three students, who can each bring a guest to the meal. But to retain the “underground” nature of the process, the exact location is kept tightly under wraps until just a few hours before the meal.

Lipman begins cooking long before the guests arrive. For this particular meal, he started preparing the food at 9pm Friday until around 2am and then did the bulk of his cooking on Saturday afternoon, putting the finishing touches on the meal while the guests mingled.

“The whole time, I’ll be cooking and talking to you,” he explained before the meal. “So it’s very high intensity.”

Lipman now hopes to provide similar dinners throughout the school year, including recipes from restaurants like Alinea and El Bulli, as well as some movie-themed meals. He also might expand the underground restaurant beyond just dinners and host study breaks and afternoon teas.

Regardless of wherever it takes him, he knows that he will keep doing it purely because he enjoys the intense process of crafting the perfect meal.

“There are, like, 10 things going on at once, and everything has to be perfect. It’s stressful, so it’s definitely a labor of love.”

This article originally appeared in The College.