University of Chicago freshman and "tentative" economics major Robert Lipman has the same time and financial constraints as any other college student attending a demanding university, but he still finds time to cook gourmet-style meals for his fellow students at an underground restaurant he started in the fall.
Once a month, 19-year-old Lipman is the lead chef at The Hearth, preparing elaborate, multi-course meals modeled after recipes from his favorite award-winning restaurants, with menus planned around specific themes.
"Sometimes I worry I'm a little bit in over my head, but class is always No. 1," said Lipman, who attends U. of C. on a full scholarship. "School will always be No. 1."
He served his first meal in October, and it was inspired by the culinary tastes of the characters in the "Harry Potter" movies and books. About 170 students signed up to be on the guest list for the dinner featuring pumpkin pasties, roasted chicken and potatoes, and chocolate cauldron cakes with creamy marshmallow filling served with butterbeer ice cream.
Since then, interest in his restaurant has grown with each dinner he announces: 227 students signed up for his French Laundry dinner on Nov. 3, and 268 students signed up for his third, a "Spirited Away"-themed dinner Nov. 30. He relies on Facebook and word-of-mouth to spread the word about his restaurant.
"I figure that as long as three people sign up for these dinners, I'll be able to make them happy," Lipman said. "Luckily a lot of people are starting to catch onto the idea."
So how exactly does one go about getting invited to a meal at an underground restaurant? Simple, really.
Students send in their names to Lipman on his website hearthunderground.com or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. The students are then assigned a number and chosen at random. The guest list consists of three people--each can invite one guest--who are notified via e-mail that they've been chosen two to three weeks before the dinner. Lipman doesn't reveal the location of the meals until the day of the event.
Guests are asked to pay $25 per person--money that Lipman uses to pay for the ingredients he'll need to prepare the meal in his dorm kitchen, sometimes days before the actual dinner. Lipman spent more than 11 hours preparing the courses prior to the French Laundry dinner--his favorite so far--which was inspired by the award-winning restaurant in California's Napa Valley. That's no small feat for a full-time student in his first year of college.
Lipman got the idea to start an underground campus restaurant after dining at similar supper clubs boasting exclusive guest lists and secret locations in the U.K. during the two summers he worked at the University of Oxford before college.
"I thought it was this really cool idea that you could serve food in secret," Lipman said. "People go out to eat with their families or whatnot, but these people run these restaurants with the intention that you can talk with the people sitting at the other tables."
Jennifer Tintoc, a 17-year-old University of Chicago freshman, attended the French Laundry dinner as the plus-one of her friend.
"A few of my friends were really jealous that I got to go," Tintoc said. "I kind of rubbed it in their face for a few days."
Tintoc said the gourmet courses are a welcome change from dining hall food, but what stands out most about the dinners is how much Lipman loves preparing the food he's serving.
"We had eaten all of the food, and after dessert, someone was like, ‘Robert, do you have more potatoes?' and he said, ‘No, but I can make some!' Robert likes to make people happy and I think it's great he does that through food," Tintoc said.
Lipman's next dinner, which is Saturday, will revolve around coffee. His goal is to show guests that coffee is more than just a vital part of surviving college life.
"Coffee is the lifeblood of the UChicago student," Lipman said. "But as much as we like it, I don't think we really appreciate it for how good it tastes." In February, he'll host a five-course, all-dessert dinner called "Just Desserts."
For future dinners, Lipman--who started cooking gourmet-style meals as a sophomore in high school-- would like to explore more restaurant-based themes with meals modeled after dishes from top restaurants such as Chicago's Alinea or New York City's Eleven Madison Park. He also is considering more movie-themed dinners based on films such as "Inception" ("Where everything is a food within a food," he said.) and possibly a meal consisting of courses he will light on fire with a blowtorch he got for Christmas.
"I just want to light everything on fire," Lipman said. "I think that would be crazy amounts of fun. I'll do that one outside."