"This stuff is dope," Jonah Reider says as he picks up a bundle of chickweed, a grassy weed turned trendy cuisine ingredient, and sniffs it.
The lanky, 24-year-old is at Manhattan's Union Square farmer's market on a recent Monday morning, looking for interesting produce. Dressed in grey sweats, a blue beanie and socks with avocados on them (they "put me in a good mood," he says), Reider drops phrases like "What's gucci?" (a.k.a., "What's up?") and exudes an almost bouncy millennialism.
But Reider is not just your average Brooklyn hipster — he is a celebrity in the food world.
Reider is the founder, manager, chef and host of Pith, a two- or three-times-weekly supper club held not in a restaurant but on the ground floor of a chic Brooklyn townhouse. Tickets to his $95-per-person dinners sell out within minutes after they're released on his listserv. The unique meals, made with local, seasonal ingredients, attract everyone from regular people to famous models, actors, magazine editors and musicians, like Matt FX Feldman (the music supervisor and DJ for "Broad City"), Chinese-American rapper Bohan Phoenix and musician and social justice activist Synead.
But the young chef sees his endeavor as more than a place to eat — he's on a mission to change the way people think about dining.
"Food is too interesting of a topic to just be about satiating hunger," he tells CNBC Make It.
Inside the supper club
Reider launched Pith two and a half years ago out of Hogan Hall Suite 4B, his Columbia University dorm room. Initially a passion project he did while studying economics and jazz piano, the dinner, which he hosted four times a week during his senior year, amassed a wait list of 4,000 people. It got him kicked out of Columbia housing twice for operating a business in university housing, drawing attention from the Department of Health.
Reider's $10-$20 gourmet meals cooked with help from a toaster oven and served on Ikea plates with paper towels drew rave Yelp reviews and media attention: Newspapers dubbed his supper club the "hottest table in town" and "New York's trendiest restaurant." He appeared on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, presented a TEDx Talk and had meetings with Anthony Bourdain's producers. All while taking classes and writing his senior thesis.
"I was not good at cooking," he says about the time. "People were coming because it was an unusual idea and in a funny way, I was very serious about it."
Now, two years out of college, Reider has proved himself more than just "the dorm room chef." He creates eight- to 12-course tasting menus for Pith, which he rotates approximately every two weeks. Featured dishes in March included foie gras with caramelized apple cider, spring onion custard with chickweed and trout roe, and persimmon pavlova with cinnamon. The food is based on the season and what's available from farmer's markets and local purveyors. For an extra $45, diners get curated wine pairings.
Reider's way of cooking is frenetic. "Jonah comes up with new ideas like its going out of style," Jon Louie, Reider's current sous-chef, tells CNBC Make It.
Louie, a chef to musicians on tour including Selena Gomez, Gucci Mane, and The Weekend (and soon Jay-Z and Beyonce when they go on tour this June), sought Reider out a few months ago after he heard about the supper club and was intrigued.
"It seemed like the best scene to join," says Louie.
He emailed Reider a few lines about his past work experience and ended with, "Let's be homies!"
"Me and Jonah get to create really creative, interesting food," Louie says of the gig. "The majority of hip hop artists don't eat creative, interesting food."
But Pith isn't just about what's on the plate.
Those lucky enough to snag a spot at Pith break bread with nine others over a communal wooden table set in an elegant yet minimalist home dining room. The kitchen where Reider works is open and directly adjacent to his guests. Handmade pottery and art made by Reider's family and friends are peppered throughout the room. Jazz music often plays in the background (Reider hails from an extended family of jazz musicians), though live opera singers have been known to sing for guests on occasion.
It's all part of what Reider sees as the future of dining — more social, more artful, and less hierarchical.
Usually, "You order your food, it comes, you pay for it, and you leave," Reider says.
But at Pith, "Nobody comes to my supper club because they're hungry."
They come for the experience.
"It's really a lot of fun to have like an 80-year-old couple and a 12-year-old boy chit-chatting next to each other," all in a personal setting, says Reider. At several Pith meals, guests have even hit it off and gone on dates afterward.
"For me, the best meals don't happen in restaurants, they happen in houses," he says. In fact, Reider lives with roommates in the townhouse where Pith is held.
"I want to create content and experiences that show people this and inspire them."
Reider is not alone in his thinking. Pith is part of a growing food scene in which dining no longer has to exist within the confines of a traditional storefront. Companies like EatWith, VoulezVouz, Feastly and OneTable provide homemade, communal meals hosted in homes. And there are other eclectic options, like eating eco-conscious meals out of a cargo container or eating a meal while hanging from the sky.
It's a sign that diners are looking for a novel experience filled with adventure, networking and intimate conversations with strangers.
That's exactly what Reider wants to provide.
The road to chef-dom
Growing up in the suburbs of Boston, family meals shaped Reider's philosophy around food. Dinner was a time to "sit down, breath," talk about was happening in each other's lives and even "bounce ideas off of each other," he says.
Reider often helped out in the kitchen. And the only way his artist parents would let him and his younger brother, Nathan, have dessert was if they made it themselves. So Reider created things like "the factory of sugar cereals," as they came to call it, which consisted of layers of various breakfast cereals.
While at Newton South High School, Reider founded the school's grilling club and started hosting meals for friends. He recalls once attempting to make a soup stock by pouring a wine into a vat of boiled fat and accidentally scorching his friend's roof in the process.
"I was like, 'I just burned down my friend's house,'" remembers Reider.
When he went to college at Columbia University, Reider planned on becoming an economist. He served as a work-study student for renowned Nobel laureate economist Joseph Stieglitz.
Then he started his supper club and everything changed.
Still, Reider has no formal training as a chef. Instead he reads recipe books, pays close attention to how food is made at restaurants, experiments in the kitchen constantly and learns from the chefs he collaborates with.
When he served as a resident chef in the fall of 2016 at Chicago's now closed revolving-chef restaurant, Intro (run by renowned restaurateur Rich Melman), he learned how to cook to scale.
"Nah, dude, you can't cook duck in a tiny pan. We need to make 100 of these, not four," Reider recalls being told.
"People tell me all the time that I'm young or not studied enough as a cook," Reider says.
But he doesn't seem to care.
"I think it's really important to not just try to have the thing you're making be good, but to do it with a really genuine and excited spirit," says. "People will pick up on that."
Plus, "At the end of the day, the people who come to my supper club know what they're getting themselves into," he says.
Though Reider's goal with Pith is to capture the spirit of home cooking, he knows he's effectively commercialized the domestic element of eating — "an irony that doesn't go unnoticed," he says.
Reider will not share his revenue or profit numbers. He says he has been pitched by several investors but the right opportunity hasn't come along. Anyway, he's not in it for the money, he says.
Outside of Pith, Reider's schedule is busy.
Reider has traveled to Japan and Australia to host pop-up supper clubs. He's crossed the country cooking one-night-only dinners and has prepared meals for the likes of Google, Stella Artois, LG and wealthy, private individuals. He was invited by the royal family of Abu Dhabi to speak entrepreneurship and food at the city's Sustainability Week.
And since April 2017 Reider has been collaborating with the New York City-based non-profit City Growers, inviting Brooklyn-area middle school kids to Pith to learn about gardening and cooking techniques. He introduces the participating kids, primarily from low-income families, to esoteric foods like caviar, oysters and horseradish leaf and teaches them how to make foods, ranging from pasta to miso vegetables to mini apple tarts, from scratch.
At this point, Reider doesn't know if he'll continue down this career path forever.
"Five years ago, I was just kind of hanging out at school making chicken breasts," he says. "Life is so crazy, I don't want to peg somewhere that I want to be in five years."
For the short-term, though, he has plans: He is writing a collection of recipes and food stories which he hopes to eventually publish, as well as a TV pilot about the joy of home cooking.
Says Reider, "I need a food TV show over here, I'm dying."
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—Video by Mary Stevens