Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Cobaya - The Social Experiment

A few weeks ago, the Cobaya group assembled for a killer Mardi Gras party dubbed "Cobaya Gras".  Since my good friends at Food for Thought and Mango & Lime already wrote up some nice recaps, I won't go "me too" and basically rehash the same experience from my point of view.  Instead, I'd like to share what I find to be the best and most fascinating part of these dinners outside of the food itself: the social aspect.

The first dinner event I attended with total strangers happened in October of 2008 at what was once called Paradigm: The Test Kitchen, a restaurant within a restaurant at the Trump Hotel in Sunny Isles.  Fired up by a post I'd read on Chowhound where Mr. Frodnesor described a previous Paradigm dinner he attended where no menu was offered and different techniques were used to create an interesting meal, I was eager to check it out.  It was also an opportunity to meet some of the folks who exchange ideas and info on the Chowhound board under their various screen names like lax2mia, jmdsmiami, and 2top.

The meal was an experience more than it was a meal.  The chefs came out between each course and explained their source of inspiration behind each dish along with its' ingredients and - in some cases like the banana pho where we formed our own noodles via squeeze bottle into hot broth - how we would become part of creating the dish.  I thought the food was great but the exchange of knowledge was the best part for me.  It seemed that the rest of the group felt the same way.  The other part of the meal that I enjoyed was the company.  I had met some really cool people that I probably would not have had the chance to meet otherwise.  We were a motley crew indeed - a bartender with a bevy of good stories, a lawyer and a judge, a cruise liner employee and his girlfriend.  All of this made possible by an insatiable appetite and a willingness to blindly put our taste buds and hard earned dollars into the hands of a group of chefs, trusting that they would create something memorable for us to enjoy.  The conversation throughout the night rarely left the culinary realm.  It was awesome in a completely nerdy kinda way. 

After another get together with some Chowhound folks at Sra Martinez and a few rounds of a "pizza crawl" to determine the best pizza in Miami (where I was blown away when splitting the check between 15-25 strangers was no problem at all), a smaller group of us gathered again at the Trump to serve as "guinea pigs" for some menu changes that were to be made.  It was here, at the valet stand, that the concept of Cobaya was born, offering chefs a creative outlet to cook what they wanted to cook for an audience that trusted the professional chef and eat whatever was placed in front of them.  The first dinner was a smashing success, one that I dubbed the best meal that I consumed in 2009.  Once again, the company made for a great night and everyone seemed fired up to talk food all night long.

Fast forward to present day Miami.  I still find myself sitting at a communal table eating dinner with the folks who were once strangers but who I now call friends.  That original group of eleven strangers has ballooned to a head-scratching 281 people!  Thirty-six people attended Cobaya Gras, undoubtedly our most entertaining and fun event yet, with plenty more wanting in on the action.  Once again I was in awe of the spirit of the attendees and the chefs who traveled to Hollywood from as far as Pinecrest(!!) to eat, drink, and be merry.  And in a rainstorm nonetheless!  I spent a decent amount of time getting to know everyone I hadn't met yet and occasionally stepped back for a quiet moment by myself where I watched everyone interacting with one another.  People of different ages, genders, and backgrounds interacting with one another, all united by the need for sustenance and the passion to obtain it as creatively as possible.  I watched as the chefs talked about each dish, its' origin, and the twist they were putting on it to make it a true Cobaya experience.  The crowd listened like students in a lecture hall, except instead of looks of confusion they wore smiles from ear to ear.  It was a funny observation that I had discussed with the Burger Beast the first time I met him in a parking lot where the Latin Burger & Taco Truck had setup shop for the afternoon - the smiles and looks of excitement and happiness on the faces of people about to experience a meal in a different way than they were used to.

I once told Chef K and Chadzilla that their grilled green onion dip was so awesome it could end wars.  Based on the way that the Cobaya dinners have brought people of all different backgrounds together and resulted in some epically great times, perhaps that is not such a far-fetched idea.

To get in on the action, join the Cobaya Miami Google Group here.

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