By Dave Mau
As the culinary world turns, so do the fads and foibles that inhabit restaurant culture. Food truck mania (except for some standouts) is slowly fading into the past, joining others like taco Tuesday, gastro pubs and overly-gourmand street tacos in realm of passé food OC concepts. Things come and go and, much like the local music scene, today's flash in the pan is oftentimes tomorrow's second-stringer. The current flavor of the month is pop up restaurants and they seem to be taking hold here quite readily.
Former culinary co-conspirators at The ReTreat, Cody Requejo and I are doing our second one on August 19th at Rooster PM so I thought, aside from the shameless self-promotion factor, it would be a good time to take a closer look at this creature called a pop up.
Pop ups vary in scope and complexity, from ones that merely take over a kitchen for a night, utilizing some or all of the shop's staff to others that completely commandeer a room (possibly empty) and make it theirs. Others take place in outdoor locales: diners enjoying a little al fresco among a grove of trees or a vineyard. Basically all you need is a place for some tables, a kitchen, some hype and the magic can happen.
The current manifestation started in England shortly after the turn of the new millennia and has spread like wildfire. Beginning in under-utilized restaurants, pop ups provided the proprietors of breakfast/lunch only places with some additional income in the evening hours. They are appearing on one level or another in parts of the US, San Francisco and New York the most steadfast supporters.
The first pop up of note in the OC was the now-defunct Hidden Table and what a hit it was. Chef Jason Coulston did a great job with amazing plates that contrasted the basic fare at Rooster Café, the venue that hosted the evening festivities. La Boqueria and Rooster PM, the latter being the current vanguard of the mid-county pop up scene, quickly followed that. The dinner party thing (hosted in private homes) has also become popular (much to the chagrin of the health department and local tax collectors) and is an effective way to get people together for some food and possibly even generate a few bucks.
My gut instinct tells me the core concept of the pop up is nothing new, dating back decades or even hundreds of years. A new chef being brought in to "stir the pot", as it were, in a royal court or haughty hoity toity hotel certainly can't be our invention. What has changed is the social and financial motivation. It's much easier and far less scary to exploit someone else's place and, with struggling owners amenable to involvement in such, it became much easier for budding restaurateurs to advocate for these unusual projects.
But what are the reasons for a chef to engage in such an undertaking? There are a lot of motivations, including profit and ego, but for me it's just for shits and grins and to exercise my brain. Hopping into an unfamiliar kitchen and creating some new dishes is a wonderful way to spread my culinary wings a bit and do some things that I might not otherwise try (I am quite a creature of habit). If nothing else they are a venue for new chefs to get out there and make a name for him/herself. It's also a great way to attract investors, proving you can handle running a restaurant and produce good food, all without the responsibilities involved in opening a new shop.
There are some current standouts in the OC popup scene, most notably Michael Harris' "Man Can Cook" and it's Demetrian counterpart, "Farmers Market Feast," both held at Anais+Raya. Mr. Harris started his popup/food class in response to some of his close male friends having a basic and deep-seated fear of cooking. As he puts it, "I wanted to spread the message that anyone, as long as you have half a brain and at least a modicum of attention to detail, can put together a meal for friends." At his event he teaches macho-basics like building the proper Old Fashioned and roasting a chicken to creating more refined dishes like Gambas a la Plancha. "Man Can Cook" is a no miss and definitely not just for the testosterone set. The ladies will get just as much from it.
Cody and I hope to see you on the 19th at Rooster PM. We have some surprises up our sleeves but I will tell one and all Cody will be making his Nobel Prize winning tempura fried shishitos, stuffed with spicy tuna and wrapped in whitefish and Shiso leaf. (Just kidding about the Nobel Prize part). I love the pop up concept and am thrilled to be taking part in it as long as it lasts, and pass it will. But until then support the local goings on. Dynamic change is the fodder upon which the restaurant world feasts and that makes it a singularly exciting time. Get it while it's hot folks! 'Cuz I can hardly wait to see what's next.
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