Have restaurant, will travel
Why some Sacramento chefs are ditching traditional brick-and-mortar setups in favor of a more transient approach: the pop-up restaurant
Food fads typically fall into one of two categories: 1. annoyingly pretentious—the overuse of foam quickly comes to mind—and 2. a visionary concept that shakes up the status quo and revolutionizes the game, agrave; la the so-called food-truck revolution.
A new trend, which builds on the aforementioned recession-era mobile-food movement, has inspired a group of chefs looking to make their mark in the industry—without having to mortgage their souls—by forgoing the traditional brick-and-mortar setup for a more transient approach: the pop-up restaurant.
These temporary eateries set up camp, usually in monthly, one-night stints, at unconventional spaces such as wineries, art galleries or other restaurants that close down regular operations for the night.
“My interpretation of pop-up [dining] is you don’t have just one spot,” says Sylvanna Mislang of The Roaming Spoon, a monthly supper club that specializes in vegan fare. “Basically, you can travel all over, and that’s what I wanted, to take people places they haven’t been before.”
Mislang, a 10-year industry veteran who has worked her way through the kitchens of Mikuni Japanese Restaurant & Sushi Bar, the now-defunct L Wine Lounge & Urban Kitchen, and Blackbird Kitchen & Bar, says she embraced the pop-up model as a way to establish herself as a restaurateur without the headache of managing payroll, employing a large staff and all the other responsibilities that come with being the chef-owner of a traditional restaurant.
She’s in good company. Kevin O’Connor, one of Mislang’s former colleagues at Blackbird, went solo a few years back and found success with Tree House, a mobile self-described collaborative dining group.
This prompted Mislang to take a chance and explore her passion for creating elevated vegan cuisine.
“I was totally inspired by Kevin,” Mislang says. “He’s very dear to my heart. I went to one of his pop-up dinners, this was maybe a week or two after Blackbird closed, and I thought, ’What if I did this, and instead of doing what he’s doing, go ahead and just do vegan?’”
Mislang hosted an intimate affair earlier this month at Orphan Breakfast House in East Sacramento. Here, a ravenous group of six couples embarked on a five-course journey that included a shepherd’s pie and a decadent chocolate mousse with pistachios. The group of strangers instantly connected with one another as conversations about food, politics and even the plight of medical cannabis stretched the distance of the communal table. By the meal’s conclusion, friendships were made, and Mislang received a roaring round of applause from her guests.
“Everyone’s best friends by the time they leave,” O’Connor says.
While the economics of opening a restaurant are frighteningly expensive—figure between $100,000 to a cool half-million dollars to open a basic, no-frills joint, according to 2013 data from Restaurants.com —many local chefs say it’s the freedom to explore their creativity in the kitchen that keeps them popping up for more.
“I [was] working at Ella and cooking another chef’s food to the T, so I wanted to branch out, be creative and fuck around a bit,” says O’Connor of his pop-up.
O’Connor, who started working in kitchens in his hometown of El Dorado Hills as a teenager, started tinkering with the idea of the underground supper club when he started hosting dinners at his home four years ago. Soon, word got around, and Tree House outgrew his abode by 2010.
“I started as just kind having other friends over for dinner,” O’Connor explains. “I mean, young cooks are broke, and we’re like scavengers, but we know the best food, so our [first] dinners were superghetto fabulous.”
Born out of 2000s-era kitchens (brothers Chris and James Tanner’s pop-up at the Plymouth Christmas Market in Plymouth, England), apartments (Nuno Mendes’ communal dining experiment, The Loft Project in Birmingham, England) and even rooftops (Pierre Koffmann’s pop-up on the top of Selfridges department store in London), the trend has quickly become a serious contender on the American grub scene.
The National Restaurant Association surveyed nearly 1,300 professional chefs on what would reign supreme on restaurant menus for its What’s Hot in 2014 Culinary Forecast, and the pop-up came in at 14 on its Culinary Themes segment.
Now, Sacramento diners are eating it up, too: Mislang and O’Connor say their events are typically sold-out affairs.
“Roaming around is fun. It’s cool to go to different locations,” O’Connor says. “The idea of a nomadic dining room is really intriguing to people.”
Jason Azevedo, who runs the kitchen at Mighty Tavern in Fair Oaks, as well as his own roving dinner enterprise under the moniker Testa Duro Salumi, says popping up in unexpected venues, like glassblowing studios and local breweries, is what he enjoys most about the concept.
“Pop-ups are a way, when you’re running other kitchens, to do what you can’t with your regular audience,” Azevedo says. “You’re going to taste something that probably isn’t on the menu in a space that you wouldn’t think of, but has dining potential.”
Favoring an approach that he calls “whole-animal cuisine,” Azevedo says part of the fun is also exposing people to new food experiences—much like the Have an Offal Day event in August 2013, for which he and a group of local chefs treated a sold-out crowd to dishes composed of animal offal parts—you know, heart, tongue, liver and other “nasty bits.”
As the name suggests, pop-ups also don’t involve long-term investments—chefs can flex their culinary muscles for the cost of a few bags of groceries and supplies. And, adding to the ephemeral element, some chefs don’t tell diners what to expect on the menu or the dinner’s location until the day of the event. Hell, sometimes even the chef doesn’t know the location until the last minute.
“There have been some down-to-the-wire dinners where I’ve been like, ’Hey, can I throw a dinner at your place tomorrow night?’” O’Connor admits.
Operators also rely on the generosity of local businesses—the owners at Orphan and Exhibit S donated their space to Mislang for her first and second dinners, and O’Connor has partnered with Revolution Wines on several occasions with just a handshake, and a bit of free publicity.
“It’s local businesses helping local businesses,” Mislang says. “I’m drawing attention to them while they’re helping me out.”
Like food trucks, pop-up restaurants allow chefs to explore their gastronomical dreams without sacrificing their life savings. And as the restaurant industry in California emerges from the depths of the recession—the National Restaurant Association projects nearly $70 billion will be spent in 2014—these chefs are turning the trend into the new model for culinary success.
“At a restaurant, you need consistency. That’s [essential] for a restaurant. But with Tree House, I can just keep rapidly evolving and do just about anything,” O’Connor says.