When designer Curtiss Calleo and his friend, journalist Ben Pauker launched The Gastronauts in 2006 hoping to bring together people interested in exploring unusual and authentic dishes hiding in little-known eateries around New York, the club’s first official dinner drew just six people.”It was just word of mouth really. Friends of friends, friends of their friends,” says Calleo. The guys knew they were on to something after they witnessed the big turnout for their first bug dinner (yes, that’s a dinner in which insects are on the menu) a few months later. “We looked around and there were about 50 people there and we didn’t know about three-quarters of them. That’s when we realised, wow, we need to kind of manage this a little better. It was growing exponentially.”
Ten years and more than 120 dinners later, the group is 2,500 strong, with a website that documents the monthly events and links to an official membership process. Calleo curates the membership base to ensure a diverse mix of people. “We’ve got everybody – NYU students, lawyers, journalists, a nurse, a nice couple from Jersey,” he says. “We don’t discriminate in favour of a younger hipper crowd.”
After Calleo sends out cheeky invitations via email, the dinners – which range in size from 20 to 70 people and typically cost between $60 and $80 – are usually booked up within 20 minutes. Over the years the group has visited restaurants ranging from Henan to Bhutanese to Yemeni and dined on bat snails, live octopus and reindeer (fittingly, that one was a few weeks before Christmas). Calleo insists, however, that it isn’t just about dare-you-to-eat-it dishes.
“At the end of the day this is not Fear Factor. We’re doing it because the food tastes really good,” he says. Events nearly always take place at places Calleo has thoroughly vetted and dined at before, and often include off-the-menu items planned with an owner or chef.
A mainstream trend?
The growth of the group has also mirrored the explosion of food culture in recent years as well as the whole animal movement and expanding ethnic restaurant scenes in many cities. “There wasn’t really a lot of talk of this stuff when we started it, but you could hear it beginning. [Anthony] Bourdain and [Andrew] Zimmern were already around and starting their little thing, but it was still like ‘Oh wow that’s extreme,’ recounts Calleo. “It’s definitely become more prevalent now.”
So prevalent that there are now Gastronaut spinoffs in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and, soon, Washington, D.C., where co-founder Pauker currently resides. And there could be other additions on the horizon as food scenes ramp up in places like Philadelphia and Miami.
Check out these other adventurous eating clubs in major cities and stop by when you’re in town!
The Gastronauts: San Francisco
This spinoff of the original Gastronauts has found enough interesting fare on the West Coast to make its East Coast counterpart proud, from sizzling pig snout and fertilized duck embryo at a Filipino joint, to grasshoppers and cow brains at a Mexican restaurant, to tripe and chicken feet at a South African buffet. After a hiatus, the group will begin hosting events again this summer.
Adventurous Eating (Chicago)
Since launching four years ago this 180-member group has sampled beef brain tacos, sweetbreads, and fried caterpillar and most recently hit up Chinatown’s Strings Ramen Shop, which challenges patrons to “suffer” through a bowl of something called “Level 5 Hell Ramen” in 20 minutes in exchange for gift certificates and a free meal.
It’s not actually affiliated with The Gastronauts (and Calleo says he isn’t too concerned about other groups using the same name: “As long as they’re having fun and eating good food, God bless them.”) While there are more tame events like charcuterie nights, dim sum outings, and beer events sprinkled throughout the year, every few months the group, which has 450 members, throws a fermented-themed event, which includes a fermented dinner of items like kimchi pie along with paired fermented cocktails and includes a lecture on the history and culture of fermentation, along with a demo.
Denver Bizarre Grub Grub
Launched last year by some original members of the famous-but-now-defunct Denver Adventurous Eaters Club, the founders of this new club tout the fact they’ve taken down rotten shark in Iceland and bear in Russia, but it appears they’ve yet to host an event for their 85 area members. They do however, have a fried chicken head as their Facebook cover photo, so that’s something. Stay tuned, Denverites.
Adventurous Foodies Philadelphia
Two things jump out when it comes to this group, that’s got a membership of nearly a thousand: 1. They host a lot of events (like multiple outings a week a lot) 2. They’re big fans of imbibing. That means most of the outings tend to have the words “happy” and “hour” in them. In between however, are dinners at Vietnamese restaurants, chili Szechuan spots, and even some karaoke once in a while. Which, when you think about it, is actually an adventure unto itself.