Arts Editor Grace Novarr spent her Saturday night with Baci supper club, the culinary project and creative writing thesis of Nichi Pandey (CC ’23).
A feeling I’ve often had is that there isn’t enough romance at Columbia. I don’t mean that there isn’t enough love in the air—incessant complaints on social media about couples PDAing in the library would attest to the contrary. But romance—that ineffable vibe that Frank Sinatra’s music, for example, captures—has been a little harder to locate. Romance was on my mind last week, as Tuesday was Valentine’s Day. I spotted a few bouquets and walked past a number of packed restaurants, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that romance is missing in Morningside Heights. And then I got an email from Baci supper club.
Baci, which means “kisses” in Italian, is the brainchild of Nichi Pandey (CC ’23), a creative writing major and chef. Every Friday and Saturday night, Baci hosts five students in Pandey’s bedroom. The club’s Instagram handle, @findthekiss, is derived from the poster of Gustav Klimt’s painting The Kiss, which hangs above the dining table. Students can apply for a spot at Baci via a Google form released each Sunday night. You can register with a group of up to five people, but part of the supper club’s project is the hope of introducing people to those they haven’t met.
The email I received from Baci didn’t disclose who the others that I would have the pleasure of dining with were. Instead, it provided a few other details. The location: “the Ritz” (Pandey’s apartment). The price: Baci is a non-profit organization, so attendees’ money goes towards paying for ingredients. Participants are usually asked to pay between $30–50, but the Instagram page suggests that those to whom this cost poses a difficulty will be accommodated. The dress code: “whatever makes you feel beautiful.”
So, well-coiffed, I made my way to 109th and Riverside at 7:30 pm on Saturday night. Upon walking in, I was greeted by Pandey and his two sous-chefs for the evening: Andy Wang (CC ’24), a mixologist, and Aditya Khera (CC ’24), a sommelier. Pandey explained that Baci had recently expanded; he had fielded many applications from those seeking to join the team, and the supper club now comprises a staff of seven people, including a pastry chef (Katie Levine, BC ’23), and a social media manager (Abby Bonat, BC ’25), as well as Ingrid Zlotea (CC ’26), Sophia Lander (CC ’25), and Ece Dogramaci (BC ’25).
After all the guests had arrived, we were ushered into the room where we were to dine. As we walked through the curtain that separated, the atmosphere transformed from a typical harshly-lit room space to a candlelit, rose petal-strewn, white-tableclothed dining atmosphere. Klimt’s The Kiss hung on the wall opposite the guests’ seats. Frank Sinatra’s voice crooned to us, and a bright red KitchenAid cohered with the color palette.
We sat down, and Pandey said a few words as an introduction. He explained that Baci is part of his capstone project for his creative writing degree. His goal with the supper club is to increase intimacy and human connection between guests, to counteract the artificial distance imposed by the age of technology. Two decks of cards lay on the table, entitled Let’s Fucking Date and Let’s Fucking Fuck. These decks, the invention of confidence coach and Instagram influencer Serena Kerrigan, contain questions aimed at quickly facilitating intimacy between players. Pandey assured us not to worry—there’s always a way to answer the questions without getting too deep. After a night of Baci is over, Pandey turns his reflections on the experience into poetry.
Pandey told Bwog over email the idea to relate his cooking and writing came when he was spontaneously inspired to jot down a poem after a Baci dinner. “That poem still feels like the only true one I’ve written,” he wrote. “I realized then that Baci is really who I am at this moment in time—it’s a mood, a vibe, an ethos.” Pandey believes that cooking and poetry are each forms of storytelling and forms of intimacy.
The chef and sous-chefs disappeared, and the guests turned to each other, ready to begin facilitating our intimacy. I was sitting between two friends from a club and two complete strangers. We introduced ourselves, and the food was served.
The email had instructed us that the drinks were BYOB, so we had turned over our bottles of wine at the beginning of the night. Over the course of the meal, they were served to us by the sous chefs. First up was champagne, poured into tall flutes. As we sipped, we conversed. Though the environment was highly postable—and I wanted photos for journalistic purposes—interrupting the ambiance with the bright glare of my phone screen felt wrong.
The first dish soon arrived, our amuse bouche. On an oyster-shaped plate were salmon eggs, creme fraiche, and greens—an utterly delicious mouthful. It was only the first taste, and I was already impressed with the presentation and the quality of the ingredients.
On the reservations form, you are asked to share your favorite dishes from childhood and your favorite restaurant in New York City—information that allows the culinary team to personalize the meal to the tastes and backgrounds of its participants. Our meal comprised a fairly representative sample of Columbians—three New Yorkers and two Californians. Yet when the second dish, the bread course, was served, Pandey explained how he had infused some of his own background into the concept. He is from Baltimore, Maryland, “the dividing line between the North and the South.” As a symbol of his hometown, he brought out a basket of cornbread, perfectly baked in the form of madeleines. The fusion of homestyle cooking with French technique embodied Baci’s combination of sentimentality with Michelin-quality culinary prowess. (As we were told, one Baci team member actually has worked in a Michelin-star restaurant.) The cornbread was served with a platter of butter and edible flower petals. It was difficult for me to restrain myself from eating six cornbreadeleines—yet I did, for I knew there were several courses to come.
Table-side cooking was a prominent element of the meal, encouraging the atmosphere of intimacy. The next dish was the salad course, a “simple Caesar” made of lettuce drenched in a dressing that was created in front of us. Sous-chef Khera narrated the elements that he was combining in a bowl: anchovies, garlic, vinegar, and olive oil. As an avid consumer of Caesar salad, this dish was a galaxy away from the dining hall-fridge salads I’ve purchased in a pinch.
The next dish was also prepared in front of our eyes: sous-chef Wang brought out a sheet of pasta dough and kneaded, rolled, and shredded it in the KitchenAid as our conversation continued. This pasta ended up becoming fettuccine bolognese, which, apparently, one of my fellow guests had listed as her favorite childhood dish. At this point, we were also well into our second bottle of wine—an $11 finding from the shelf at International, which, in context, tasted just as good as the $30 half bottle I’d indulged in at my Valentine’s Day meal.
At this point, I was feeling pretty full and culinarily spoiled. I was not ready for the most mind-blowingly mouthwatering dish to be the next to come out: a cutting board full of lamp chops. These were juicy, tender, flavorful, and beautiful. I happily had three—after which I simply had no room for dessert, pavlova with fresh berries. I had a few bites of deliciously sugary meringue and cream, and finished my glass of the wine contribution of a fellow guest, a bottle of the brand Menage a Trois.
This was an appropriate choice, given the dinner conversation. Over the course of the evening, we had made our way through the packs of cards diligently. Though we had been assured that the conversation didn’t have to go in a sexual direction, it was apparent that the guests were more than happy to take it that way. And, after all, there’s something wonderful about talking about sex with strangers; it felt as if we were dropping a pretense that there’s anything more interesting than intimacy. All five guests at the table were creative writers, so we also talked a bit about poetry—potentially an equally personal topic.
Pandey told me that he’s heard of a few instances in which people who met at Baci ended up going on dates. As he put it, “Baci certainly does bring people together far faster than other environments because of the intimacy of the setting—five people gathered under a painting of The Kiss, surrounded by candlelight and roses is the perfect setting to get to know other people.” The guests at that night’s dinner exchanged social media handles, and two days later I found myself at a birthday gathering for one of the guests—definitely a faster friendship turnaround than usual.
The evening could have gone on much longer. We were told that the guests of the previous night had stayed until past midnight, talking and finishing the wine. However, several members of the party had to leave for later-evening engagements, so as we wrapped up, Pandey returned to the room to bestow us with parting gifts: personalized cards and a foil-wrapped piece of shortbread. Emotionally and physically sated, I stepped back out onto Riverside Drive at 10:30 pm. Three hours and six courses had gone by in a blink.
I asked Pandey about what was next for Baci. He told me that in April, he plans to give a presentation to former Baci guests—and whoever else wants to come—where he will recount the story of the supper club, read some of the resulting poetry, and discuss how he “discovered a way of living in Baci.” Asked whether Baci can continue after he graduates from Columbia, he wrote, “I think that Baci is very much a project that Columbia students need because of the lack of true human connection on campus, but the message I’m trying to send of celebrating life and love and intimacy with others by breaking bread is a motto I plan to live by for the whole of my life.”
While Baci may be the most unique and intimate example, this past year has seen somewhat of a resurgence of culinary culture at Columbia. The Columbia branch of the food club Gourmand launched this past year, and the Columbia Culinary Society revived last spring and organized the first Columbia Restaurant Week last month. CU Last Call, a “casual dining experience hosted by Columbia seniors” (per its Instagram), is another supper club that has become active this semester, with a seeming focus on finger food and cocktail vibes. In addition to evidencing a new stage of recovery from the pandemic, this culinary renaissance also demonstrates the truth of the vision behind Baci: cuisine is a powerful road to community.
By all measures, the evening was a success. The food was restaurant-quality, to be sure, but it had also accomplished what any good romantic date spot accomplishes. It had allowed itself to fade into the background, centering human connection as the night’s purpose. I knew that I had found what I was looking for—intimacy, connection, and romance, in Morningside Heights.
All images via author
@Naomi Zarin This sounds like an incredible experience, and captured beautifully in this article! If there was a Michelin Star for journalism it would surely go to Grace Novarr.
@Julia Luna Baci is simply an intimate experience like no other <3