Charlene Luo’s relationship with food began at a very young age. It started with watching her mom cook Sichuanese food at home and has evolved into hosting supper clubs where she cooks multi-course meals for upwards of 12 people in her New York City apartment. One quick look at her Instagram page is sure to make you wish for a seat at her dining room table. Currently, her supper club, the Baodega, runs a few times a year and if you’re looking to snag a spot, keep an eye on her Instagram page where she announces ticket drops and posts photos of her delicious food. Charlene’s work is a culmination of a passion for food, a love for cooking for people, and a lot of hard work and learning. I got to speak to her about her journey, her process, and what it takes to run a successful supper club.

Spoon University: Are there ways you have seen your upbringing and your cultural background shape your relationship with food and your journey to where you are now?

Charlene Luo: The food that I make for supper club is all primarily Sichuanese food. That's where most of my family's from, and growing up, the food culture in my household was very Sichuanese. In that way, my heritage has shaped what I cook. Growing up, food was a way to express love — you know, the very classic image of mom cutting fruit for you and calling you down for dinner. There’s a lot of nostalgia there, and I get to recreate that here in my home in New York all the time. Also, my family doesn't live close by, so hosting these big dinners is kind of simulating my family experience with my chosen family here in New York.

SU: What made you decide to start your supper club?

CL: I was basically doing it before I even knew I was doing it. I was cooking for 10 to 12 people here and there, and it just wasn't really cost effective for me to be doing that for free that often. Being the people pleaser that I am, I was very nervous about charging people at first, but people were like, “Oh my gosh, yeah, of course, I would definitely pay to at least cover groceries if not more.” And the first time I really charged a set price for a menu was for my birthday. I cooked a six course dinner for my friends, and I tried to make it as professional as possible. A set time, a set course menu — I did not join them for dinner, and I was just cooking the entire time — dessert, beverage pairings, and a set ticket price. It started pretty small with only six people, and I worked my way up to serving 10 to 12 people, and then serving 12 two nights in a row.

SU: What does preparation for a supper club look like?

CL: There's so much prep, and some dishes require more than others. For example, my sausages are probably one of the most time consuming, and I document the whole process on Instagram, if you're interested. It's inspired by the process that my grandma did. I wanted to recreate it here because I was really missing that homestyle Sichuanese flavor, and you can't really buy that in New York. So that takes like a full month. Some dishes require a week, for example, if I'm fermenting something, but the real prep is usually two days in advance. On Thursday, I'll get groceries, I'll prep all day Friday and all day Saturday, and then I'll do service Saturday and/or Sunday night.

SU: What inspires the dishes you choose to make and how do you plan your menus?

CL: Menu planning takes a while. There's a couple of dishes I always serve, like my sausages, cured meats, and mapo tofu, and then I have rotating dishes that go in and out and with those there’s a couple of factors to consider. I like to have different proteins, different cooking methods — so steaming, cold dishes, stir frying, stews, and maybe even a baked thing — different temperatures, different textures. I want to be able to touch a lot of different flavor profiles and have a balance between heavy and light foods. And tons of logistics have to go into that. I only have four burners so I need to figure out what order I want to serve all these dishes in.

SU: Cooking and running supper clubs is a lot of work. What keeps you motivated to keep cooking and putting on these big meals for people?

CL: I literally have an itch to cook a lot of the time. It's not something I can even control sometimes. What keeps me cooking is that it fulfills more than just one facet of my life. Cooking for me is a hands-on activity. It's creative, and it's artistic in a way. It’s problem solving and logistics. It's connecting me to my culture and where I come from. It's also a social thing — that's probably the primary way I see a lot of my friends, when I have them over for dinner. It’s my primary love language for my friends, and it's a good way to take care of myself too. So by covering all those bases, it's a lot easier for me to keep going because it fulfills a lot of my life.

SU: What are your favorite parts about running your supper clubs?

CL: I love meeting people. I'm naturally an introvert and generally the quieter type, but food and supper clubs are a format where I feel very comfortable. It's a fun way to meet new people, share where my family comes from as well as my whole process, and hear about other people's experiences with their own cultures. People who sign up for supper club tend to be very food oriented, so I made some friends from supper clubs. I usually join the guests at the end of the meal; I'll sit down, enjoy dessert, drink a glass of wine, answer questions, and hang out. That's the hour that’s the most fun — just winding down getting to know people.

SU: I know all of your food-related work is part time, but would you ever consider pursuing food full-time?

CL: A question I think about all the time. As much as I love food and cooking, restaurant life, pop-up life, and freelance life is not a glamorous life, and it's a ton of work. Especially for brick and mortar, you can have a really good idea, but New York is one of the toughest places to do that. There's not really a sense of loyalty to restaurants. It's all very trend based. It’s like eating based on this article that came out or this review. I feel like pop-ups and restaurants come and go so fast and it’s because New York is a very tough market.

SU: And is there any advice you'd give to your younger self?

CL: Cook for people you love, and it'll always be fun. When you feel like you're being burnt out, just go back to the basics and cook for yourself, cook for people you love the most, and remember to have fun.

SU: Looking back at the time between your very first supper club and now, what are the biggest ways you’ve seen yourself grow?

CL: Oh, wow, that's a big question. As a person, I've gotten a lot more confident and confident in my cooking. I started off at a point where I was nervous charging people because I was like, “Oh, who would ever pay for my food?” and now it's like, “You know what? I make great food, and I'm going to host supper clubs, and it's gonna be a great time.” Also, I think the past couple years, the theme has been saying yes to a lot of things. Stumbling across opportunities and just basically being like, “Okay, this is kind of a crazy thing. Should I do it? Should I go for it?” And it's like, “Yeah, let's just do it and see where it goes.”