Secretive suppers: Redefining dinner for chefs, eaters

Like-minded regionites will experience new epicurean exploration through the Illumineati dinner club.

click to enlarge Illumineati founders Jimmy Breen, Johnny Ciani and Reuben Pressman. - Rick Calzi
Rick Calzi
Illumineati founders Jimmy Breen, Johnny Ciani and Reuben Pressman.

Creative chefs, out-of-the-ordinary venues and adventurous diners.

Together, they form the vision of Illumineati, an underground dinner club with rotating features that will host its inaugural nine-course feast Sunday, Sept. 21.

Graphic designer Jimmy Breen, 30, and serial entrepreneur Reuben Pressman, 25, both self-proclaimed foodies, started this new series of secretive, pop-up dinner parties with Johnny Ciani, 32, of The Bricks.

According to Breen and Pressman, Illumineati will expose the Bay area to a different, an intimate, kind of dining experience. And the rules, they say, are simple.

Eaters will purchase dinner tickets from the club's website knowing the date and time alone. Two days before the gathering, and no sooner, diners will receive a message from Illumineati with the dinner's location.

The chef, menu and their dining compatriots will be a surprise upon arrival.

People will be able to attend the dinners through a referral system, Breen says, which reflects how invite-only suppers similar to Illumineati operate around the country.

During a dinner, members will fill out a card with contact information for those they think would be interested in the next one. Regionites without an "in" must send an email using the site's "Contact the organizer" link and undergo a one-question interview.

"It's 'What do you bring to the table?'" Pressman says. "You can answer it in any way you can think of."

If the trio likes an answer, an eater becomes a member.

In development since about the end of May, Illumineati isn't launching with only diners in mind. Chefs will control the showcased cuisine.

One dinner may not have any courses, Pressman says. It could function as a buffet, and even a pig roast. Since the venue changes, Breen says chefs will also need to mold their skills to fit the kitchen they're in.

Breen, who pitched the speakeasy-style idea to Ciani first, says he and Ciani, The Bricks' operating partner, met while working at Charley's Steakhouse in Tampa. The longtime pals say they've cooked dinner for one another in their homes, and Ciani describes their friendship as "a bromance with food."

While Ciani's got the restaurant industry knowledge, Pressman's network ranges from nonprofits to the arts world. Breen says combining forces with them on Illumineati just made sense.

According to the founders, they're not producing the dinners to make money. There's no point, Pressman says.

Ciani says he's passionate about cocktails and food, which he gets to work with daily.

"[Illumineati] is just a bonus," he says. "It's for like-minded people to get together and talk about food."

For chefs who may not have the opportunity to express creative freedom in their dishes due to a restaurant's food costs, its audience and the like, Illumineati is (mostly) limitation free.

"It's just us wanting to have good food from chefs that we like in the area, and make it possible for them to share their passion with people, too," Breen says.

To execute its sky's-the-limit experience, Illumineati lets eaters know up front that there are no choices. They won't be able to order their sauce on the side, or their meat well done. There won't be vegan, vegetarian or gluten-free alternatives, either, unless that's what chefs are featuring.

"We want them to be able to cook freely," Breen says.

He talked to three chefs about the dinner club's debut.

"All of them had a good reception of the idea," he says, "But the guy that we have for our first dinner was just super excited about it, like he had been waiting to do something like this."

The chef is from St. Pete. After a pre-meal cocktail hour, he'll introduce the courses as they're served, and interact with diners throughout the evening. The offerings will be paired with wine.

Some dinner details, such as using live music rather than Spotify playlists and how many referrals diners may make at once, are still in the works. Each meal ticket was $120 this time around, but the price will vary depending on what the chef has planned.

Ciani says he hopes the club will bring awareness to Tampa's budding foodie community. Pressman and Breen agree that they'd like to see chefs highlighted through Illumineati, and enjoyed much more, but that the cornerstone of the dinners is the connection made between chef, food and diners.

"The coolest thing to me would be you have someone from Jimmy's group, someone from Johnny's group and someone from my group, and even their extended groups of relationships, connecting and cool things coming out of this," Pressman says. "Even if no one likes the food for some reason. But they will."

Although the Illumineati's premiere is sold out, Pressman, very carefully, left CL with a few hints as to who's hosting the gathering.

"I would say he's one of the top three most well-known people in St. Pete," Pressman says, "Referred to often as the unofficial mayor, and he's also a food creator himself."

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