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By Brittany Darwell
Despite the ubiquity of the phrase, “puertas cerradas” (“closed doors”) doesn’t fit what Dan Perlman does. Perlman and his partner welcome at least 20 people, most often strangers, into their home each weekend for dinner. Another 12 or so visit for cooking classes during the week.
“Underground restaurant” doesn’t work either. Perlman’s Casa SaltShaker is listed in several city guides and has been mentioned in the New York Times and The Guardian. Entirely legal, with certification posted in the kitchen, “speakeasy” is also far from appropriate.
That’s why Perlman calls his in-home restaurant “a salon for food and conversation.” No pretense of mystery or exclusivity. Perlman wants people to know just what a SaltShaker evening entails: a communal table and five courses with wine pairings by a professional chef/sommelier.
“We get people who’ve read about us or got the number from a friend, and they have no clue what they’re getting into,” Perlman said. (See his comprehensive FAQ page.)The dinners, usually held two nights a week, are often inspired by obscure “on this day” events, such as John Calvin’s 500th birthday or the Macedonian revolution. Perlman is the sole person in the kitchen, so he comes out when he can but mostly to describe the dishes and wine pairings. What he hopes will happen is that the guests embrace the communal setup and get to know each other.
Sharing a table with strangers and the absence of menu options can throw off some, but in three and a half years, Casa SaltShaker has become one of the best-known in-home restaurants. In Buenos Aires, they are called restaurantes a puertas cerradas, but Perlman says that is a recent term. Although many articles have talked about Casa SaltShaker as part of a growing trend, operations like Perlman’s have been around for decades. Mis Raices, for instance, started serving dinners more than 30 years ago and still does every night.
If anything, “there’s a new trend of talking to the press about it,” Perlman said.
Perlman knows of at least 20 such restaurants in Buenos Aires, and he keeps a list of others he knows of in the world. He said the growth of underground restaurants elsewhere is more of a trend.
“They’re popping up in London like mushrooms after a rainstorm.”
Whether it’s the “hip” factor or the economic downturn, home restaurants are on the rise in the U.S., Europe and the U.K., but Perlman said they are a lasting tradition in South America. Perlman said that has a lot to do with local codes being easier to comply with than those in places like New York City.
“Here it’s part of the culture,” Perlman said. “Here they’re legal as long as you comply with restaurant codes.”
So what started as dinner parties for friends has turned into a full-fledged business. Shortly after starting Casa SaltShaker the restaurant, Perlman began teaching cooking classes in his home. He currently offers lessons about Italian, Peruvian, Syrian Jewish and vegetarian Asian cuisine, among others. He teaches three to four people at a time — there isn’t room for more in his narrow kitchen, but it also ensures students are cooking, not just watching.
The atmosphere is casual. The class is not about observing a master in action; it is more like having a knowledgeable friend guide you in the kitchen. Perlman introduces the day’s theme, goes over the menu, then delegates tasks. He demonstrates techniques (removing skins from fire-roasted peppers), explains processes (how salt breaks down cell membranes) and answers questions (How do you get the garlic smell off your hands? With lemon).
When the meal is done, students and teacher sit down to eat.
“With the dinners I’m in there cooking so I don’t get to know people well,” Perlman said. “But with the classes I do.”
In between classes and dinners, Perlman finds time to write. He has a food blog, does freelance travel writing and has begun the Casa SaltShaker cookbook.
But with people coming over for dinner or classes four or five times a week, when Perlman’s door is closed, he is most likely at the market.
*Brittany Darwell spent three months in Buenos Aires after graduating from the Missouri School of Journalism this year. She writes about food at HeCooksSheCooks.net.