photos by adam fleischer
NEW YORK -- We've only been in Jonah Reider's dorm room kitchen a few minutes when a young man in a blue pea coat scurries past, gaze averted. He's already out the door before this reporter can ask what he makes of his roommate installing a restaurant in the middle of the common area of their three-bedroom suite.
"I think they're just kind of shocked that this has become such a thing and I totally get that," 21-year-old Reider explains rather ruefully.
That "thing" is biweekly a supper club of sorts called Pith, where it's now nearly impossible to get a reservation (full disclosure: I earlier tried unsuccessfully myself). High-profile features in outlets like The New Yorker and the Grub Street food blog have only further swelled the waiting list to nab a coveted seat at this Ikea table in Columbia University's Hogan Hall -- it stands at about 2,000, according to Reider.
Even on an Ivy League campus presumably rife with overachievers, running your own eatery on top of the demands of an independent-study track in economics and sociology seems extraordinary. So on a chilly Thursday evening in November, MTV News traveled to Morningside Heights, where Reider satiated our curiosity by letting us watch him prepare the night's multi-course meal -- and nibble on a few tasty appetizers -- before swiftly kicking us out once his guests arrived.
"It's funny, one of my roommates gave me the idea to start inviting other people but I think it's expanded far beyond what he anticipated," Reider chuckled, recalling the genesis of Pith. The college senior, dressed in a hoodie and vans, said he doesn't wear chef's whites while cooking because "then you gotta pay to wash that sh--."
"I read recipes a fair amount," Reider shared of where he finds menu inspiration, but he doesn’t use them in his cooking. Instead, he allows his green-market haul to dictate what he'll serve the guests who dine at Pith each time its doors open to the public. (He typically seats only four per night.) "Cooking is an intuitive act," he adds.
If your college freezer was more likely to have an assortment of Ben & Jerry's than cured meats, you are not alone. But Reider can't relate. Though he copped to enjoying fast food -- "I love pizza!" -- the Newton, Massachusetts, native produced a plastic bowl of tasty sorbet he'd made himself when we opened the fridge.
"I don’t cook a lot with meat -- not because I don’t like it, it's just a little expensive," Reider says of the bacon donated to him by a generous butcher. He prefers to keep the $15-per-head plates on the greener side anyway. "You can really surprise people, especially college students by cooking vegetables in a really interesting way. People don’t have good vegetables, especially in a dining hall."
"Restaurant owners have hit me up and said, 'I want to help you open up a restaurant,' which is ridiculous because I have no experience doing that. And I say, 'Well, here are all the things I need it to do: It needs to be fun and accessible and artistic, and they say, 'Well, no, you have to charge like $80, $100 for a dinner -- we have to make money if we're gonna invest in you.' And so it's like, this is not gonna work out." Still, there are plans for pop-up events and other deals in the works.
On reaction to him around campus these days: "Mostly it's just my friends, who are like, 'What the f-ck?'" he said with a laugh. After some earlier friction with university officials, Reider and administrators appear to have reached an accord that lets him create an "alternative to going to a dumb party, where it's too loud; you're not connecting with anybody."
No matter who shows up at Pith, the vibe is never off, Reider said. "What's gonna happen is people are gonna show up [at 8], we're gonna kill two bottles of wine -- probably just one -- and we'll have some of this pumpernickel bread and all of the snacks (pictured below) and that's gonna be as long as humanly possible, just hanging out and getting to know each other," Reider explained as he whisked a yogurt sauce that would garnish the purple potatoes he was preparing. "Then we'll have soup, some of these salads, then we're gonna have fish with the rice."
"When Jonah first announced he was doing this, I was like, 'I don’t need to sign up!' his friend Sarah Weinstein (far right), a Columbia senior, recalled to MTV News. "But then I ended up on the wait list." After launching into a hilarious anecdote about young Jonah's way with the ladies at the summer camp both attended years ago, Weinstein shared her thoughts on Pith: "I think it's pretty funny," she said before turning serious. "I think Jonah is a very creative person and this is a new outlet for that that’s been very successful."