NEW ORLEANS — Lalita Kaewsawang’s career as a cook began in a dormitory on the Wesleyan College campus in Macon, Ga.
She would fire up the small four-burner stove in her room, set up some tables and serve a small selection of Thai dishes to hungry students. The makeshift restaurant, dubbed Lalita’s Mango Tree, caught the attention of several students and, soon enough, the college’s administrators. They told her that her venture was a health code violation and ordered her to stop.
“If students can bake desserts in their campus apartments for fundraisers, why can’t I do the same?” Kaewsawang recalled asking. Mango Tree closed briefly but soon the stove was fired up once more. News of its reopening was restricted to close friends.
Kaewsawang admits the venture hardly ever made money, but it instilled in her the passion for cooking. She moved to New Orleans in 2010 to teach for AmeriCorps but continued cooking Thai dishes at her home for friends.
History repeated itself when her hobby caught the attention of Brian Bordainick. Starved for the hole-in-the-wall ethnic restaurants he had grown accustomed to while living in New York, Bordainick sought to recreate those meals in his friends’ homes in New Orleans.
Dinner Lab was Bordainick’s answer to a lack of diversity on the restaurant scene, rising from the kitchens of professional cooks and people with natural talent, such as Kaewasang, who otherwise wouldn’t have had a platform to show off their talent. Held at various, often nontraditional dining venues, Dinner Lab meals are members-only events that have attracted interest from line cooks and sous chefs from restaurants throughout the city.
“There is so much great talent in this city, but it can take years for a line cook to head up their own kitchen,” Bordainick said. “This is providing a spotlight for them, as well as a way for people to experience food they’d otherwise not be able to taste in the city.”
The popularity of Dinner Lab, which closed membership Dec. 29 with more than 500 sign-ups, proved to Bordainick and his crew that they weren’t the only ones craving more diversity in the local restaurant scene.
The dining landscape in New Orleans has changed dramatically over the past two years, with new players such as food trucks and pop-up restaurants shifting the options diners, and presented opportunities for chefs to serve cuisines with little to no history of commercial success in the New Orleans area.
This past year alone, Little Korea opened at 3301 S. Claiborne Ave., Colombian eatery Mais Arepas opened at 1200 Carondolet St. and developers of a Cuban restaurant are attempting to gain permission to open on the corner of Rampart Street and Esplanade Avenue. Booty’s at 800 Louisa St., which opened in November, is entirely devoted to street food from around the globe.
“We are definitely beginning to see more variety here,” Bordainick said. “There are so many new people moving to the city, craving different types of food. We are seeing a new type of diner that wants more than just standard New Orleans cuisine.”
Kaewsawang, who grew up in Thailand and has a Laotian stepmother, fit the bill as one of the featured cooks selected to prepare some of Dinner Lab’s meals. Bordainick, who started his venture in July, brought on Kaewsawang more frequently to spotlight as a sous chef during his dinners, which take place about four times a month in different locations throughout the city.
Kaewsawang said Dinner Lab patrons have asked her whether she’s considering opening up her own place, and she tells them she still has a lot to learn. She likely will continue working with guest chefs for Dinner Lab instead of going to culinary school, and hopes to eventually open a restaurant like Café Reconcile that would combine her talent with her interest in teaching.
“Dinner Lab is constantly transitioning,” Bordainick said, “and not only because the menu and the venue are different each time.”
For diners, Dinner Lab is a sensory experience. Meals take place in unique locations, such as an abandoned church in the Lower Garden District, where Chef Ed Alleyn prepared a Cuban dinner, carving up a roasted pig on what once was an altar. Recently, Kaewasang served up Cantonese dishes at a motorcycle shop in the Warehouse District.
The experiment has proved successful enough that Bordainick and co-founders Francisco Paco Robert, Ravi Prakash, Bryson Aust and attorney Zach Kupperman are expanding the concept to Austin.
Paco Robert, the executive chef, works with all of the guest chefs to assure that their menus are prepared well in advance and fit in with Dinner Lab’s concept. The dinners normally average about $50.
“This is like professional development for cooks,” Paco Robert said. “We are starting out a restaurant from scratch each time from the development of the menu to the setup of the kitchen. It can be about a two-month process to put up one of these dinners.”
Since becoming an official club in July, the crew at Dinner Lab has tracked ticket sales for every dinner. Bordainick said one of the most exciting outcomes of the dinners is being able to tell which ones are going to sell out quicker.
“Based on those sales, I have some idea of what type of restaurants would do well here,” he said. “I can tell you right now that a Cuban or Korean restaurant will do very well here.”