My First Pop Up Restaurant

Pop ups, at this point, are beyond just a fad. They are a great way for Chefs, cooks and early restaurants to start testing out ideas. They don’t have to buy or rent a kitchen, they don’t need to invest the time into a year long marketing plan, or hire a huge staff for more than a few nights. Some chefs and cooks have even started having pop-up restaurants on a regular cadence.

I was lucky enough to be asked to do one pop up restaurant. Some of you might be thinking I must be really talented to have companies reach out to me to do a pop up. Really, I was just lucky enough to have a good friend who believed in me and worked for the company that was scouting young talent.

All that aside. How does one organize a pop up restaurant you might ask? Well, there are a lot of moving pieces. Where are you going to get staff, alcohol, kitchen space, venue space and so on. Again, I was lucky that a start up called Dinner Lab handled all the logistics for the event.They handled alcohol permits, staffing, food, venue and everything else involved with a pop up restaurant. All I had to do was plan a menu (Yup…I was spoiled).

This wasn’t the easiest thing. Suddenly, I had to make the call. Up until now, menu development was up to my Chefs. They came up with the recipes, and the food ideas. When I worked a the Herbfarm, we did have some dish collaboration. In the end, it was mostly his choice (thank goodness).

Now I was sitting there trying to figure out what fish would keep the food costs low. I had already put bone marrow, clams, mussels, crab and a few other high ticket items (that were eventually taken off) on the menu. It tends to be a bad habit. I enjoy food and I want everything on a plate. It is why I liked the White Swan so much!

After a month of going back and forth. Putting things on my menu, taking them off, changing dish ideas, I finally got my final menu. All of that work was done. Now, I just had to execute the menu.

Step one to execution was prep. My friend, his team and I started at it. We broke down the tasks and each went at different portions of the menu. We had to do all our work in a commissary kitchen in downtown Seattle. For those of you planning your own pop-ups or even food trucks. You have to prep your product in a commercial kitchen, you can’t just sell products that were made in your home kitchen. Too many regulations about sinks, and dishwashers…

I did begin to regret putting pasta on the menu. I realized I had to do somewhere near 400-500 ravioli to make sure there were enough. I was off singing some Italian opera for several hours as I rolled like a madman. It tends to be a habit. If I roll pasta, I am singing something to keep the pace.

Other parts of the kitchen had people searing cauliflower, roasting clams, prepping fish and so on. Everything was getting done at a good rhythm. The only problem I foresaw was freezing the gelato. My friend had the solution, “Dry Ice”. I had known you could freeze ice cream and gelato with liquid nitrogen. However, I had never thought about dry ice. Please don’t try making this at home. At least not with out consulting people who have  done it before. It required crushing the dry ice, and mixing int he cold CO2 dust into the ice cream. Then you have to let it sit over night. That I see as very important. You don’t want to get a chunk of dry ice in your throat. So you have been warned.

In the end, it created a beautiful texture. I was very happy using this method as a make shift answer. Of course, it would be much better to use a real ice cream machine. In the circumstances, it worked amazing! In the end, it got the job done.

Speaking of getting things done. We were getting everything banged out! I did feel awful…I had to leave early on the second day of prep. I left the crew with them packing things up and pretty much ready to rock and roll. The next day was the event. Of course I was nervous, excited, and traumatized all at once. I was questioning my ability….wondering if I could even execute when it came time. My biggest fear that loomed over my head…it was the 400 ravioli. I am not joking, I had a dream of them all falling apart as we fired that course(I tend to have pretty vivid dreams)…Nevertheless, I woke up the next day and was ready to go.

I was a combination of nerves and calm. We had prepared well, and my friend knew exactly what to do. Everything he did, even loading the U-Haul had a method. It made everything just flow. Each piece fell so perfectly in place (he is a king of logistics). By the time I showed up for the event, I felt like I really didn’t have much to do. This was my menu, and I had done some of the  the prep. Yet, it felt like I wasn’t needed. My friend had his team running like a perfect machine.

To add to it,  the venue we were at was amazing. Next time you have a holiday party and need a decent sized venue, The Vude is great. It has a contemporary feel with character (modern, but it doesn’t feel overly glitzy, you still feel like you are at home). The event space was clean, tidy and easy to work with. Personally, I was proud that I could serve my menu there. Working in the culinary industry, I know that the food is an experience. If the venue had seemed dirty, or unorganized, it affects the meal. It plays on some sub conscious level, I know it has played a role on my judgement of certain places. So I was very happy I could serve my menu in a place that created a quaint and contemporary ambiance ( even with the home stove-top, we still served 80 people!).

As 7 o’ clock got closer and closer, I got more excited. We had plated  up some sample plates for the servers to try and I got my first run at explaining my menu…

Oh goodness, I just realized at that moment. I needed to explain my menu. How I never thought about this over the past few days..I am not sure. Panic started to come over me.

I am a horrible public speaker, I ramble in normal conversation when I feel confident. Now, I had speak in front of 80 people I didn’t know and I really didn’t have a plan..and dinner started in 1 hour.

There was not time to sit down and write a quick speech, I had to quickly start organizing my thoughts about my menu.

Luckily, everything else was taken care of. We were pretty much ready.

Guests started arriving and hanging out in the lobbyish area of The Vude. I spent some time talking to a few guests and checking on all the food. Nothing was going wrong at all. What a surprise!?

Pots were boiling, pasta was being dropped and cooked and my friend was talking to the cooks on how he wanted service to run. There was a noticable calm as the guests continued to come in and find seats.

The servers mechanically went around and pour wine and helped guests find their seats. So far, everything was going well. Even with my mind still unsure of what to say…

Once all the guests arrived, and the servers were made aware of any allergies (we ask ahead of time, but somehow…people always seem to remember they are deathly ill of everything on the menu the 3 minutes before), the front of house manager gave a little speech about the start up.

During which, we put out the first course. It was a rye caraway bread with asparagus, anchovies, lemon balm and mint. It didn’t really go out the way I wanted. I had planned a slightly different plating. It was a clear live and learn moment. Putting plating aside, the flavor was there. It had the bright acidic bite from the white balsamic, the fresh herb from the mint and lemon balm and the salty brine from the anchovies. I couldn’t complain there. The bread on the other hand, was causing a problem. I knew the diners would have a problem eating it the way we served it. Some things are just too late to change sadly.

In the end, it was what it was and now the Front of House manager was finishing her speech. She kept it brief and then I heard my name called…

 

Oh dear, now it was time to speak, I had to talk about my menu, in clear sentences…

Walking forward I smiled and started to explain the menu. Here is a summarized version.

“When I graduated high school, I did a similar dinner for 8 people. I just graduated college and now I am doing a dinner for 80”

I paused…

“I guess when I get my PhD, I will have to do a dinner for 800”

I believe I got a sympathetic laugh out of the quick “jokish”.

“The menu I prepared has a little bit from everywhere I have been, it has memories from school and memories from restaurants. The first course came from an organic chemistry class. I learned about the concept of chirality (I won’t go into the details .unless you want me too)”.

The second course is because I love pasta and I love soup. They go great on any menu and most people love soup! The brodo comes from Cafe Juanita, where I learned about this funky liquid. It somehow tastes good and smells funky at the same time. Combined with the nutty flavor you get from caramelized cauliflower and the brightness from the fennel salad. It just wakes up the mouth.

For the third course, it is kind of an homage to the first course I was put in charge of at the Herbfarm. It was a celery root tart with seafood on top. I actually kind of hated the course. Not because of the flavors, but because I felt I could never execute it perfectly. The crust was always too soggy, or the filling was too shallow.

So I made it my own. I love panna cotta, and I think it goes great in savory dishes. This allows for a custard to be made without baking and keeps the celery root flavor cleaner (there is no egg, which always muddied the flavor). Then, I placed seafood and crispy potato chips to add texture.

Fourth course is comprised of one of my favorite fish, bone marrow and some seared pickled vegetables(I would have preferred grilled picked vegetables..try it some time!). Why is Black cod my favorite fish?? Black Cod is great because it has a subtle fishy flavor, and it allows itself to be a canvas to other flavors. Combined with the dill, pickled vegetables and bone marrow it comes alive.

Finally, dessert! Well, when it comes down to it, I love gelato as the star of desserts. Not just a side to your cake, or pie. Nope, I like it as the focal point. For tonight it is Black Sesame with some toasted chocolate and Douglas fir granita”

After finishing my quick speech. I ran back into the kitchen. It actually went well. Some how, I was confident, something I rarely am. My sentences stuttered a bit, but not as much as they had in the past. There wasn’t much time to reminisce over my speech. When I got to the back, the cooks were already busy plating the second course.

Now, the calm was gone. This course was the pasta course. Some portions were super easy. All we had to do was put pasta down, soup and the salad. It seems simple right? Well it would have been if the pasta would have been able to be cooked to order (as I would have preferred). However, due to range space, we had to cook it at the very last minute but still ahead of time. Thus, the pasta sat in the half pans, and even with the oil, they began to stick to each other. My heart sunk.

 

What could we do? We had to plate now. So I spent most of my time gently peeling each ravioli apart and placing them in the dish. There was nothing wrong with the ravioli, but I wanted everything to go just right. Right now was not the time for life lessons. So we pushed on. Each plate moved, and I quickly moved to separate the pasta. Oddly enough, I don’t think anyone outside of the kitchen could feel my stress.

Third course was cold. I had planned this. It gave our guy working saute a chance to start cooking fish on a small electric stove (yup…). We just had to put the different ingredients on top and serve.

Like I said in my speech. This third course was a celery root panna cotta based on an Herbfarm dish. I loved the flavors, hated my execution. This panna cotta on the other hand, had amazing texture. The one thing I would have changed…as you might be able to tell in the picture….is the size. I wanted to have it smaller. It looked way too bulky to be a refined course and it really over took the plate(live and learn.

 

Quick Chef Lesson

Typically, chefs try to plan menus in such a way to balance timing. You can’t have everything off the saute line, the grill station, or pantry. Now in this case, we weren’t serving a la carte. Nonetheless, it is important to think about how long it takes to plate each course, and how much equipment you have.

When I planned this menu. I had chosen a cold first course, a hot second…continue the pattern. This allowed no area of the kitchen to be bogged down at once.

End Lesson

Now as the third course finished going out. We started to get ready for the main course. The fish all, somehow, got cooked in time. Thank goodness for that saute cook! He made it happen. Now it was just a matter of plating.

This course went smoothly. It was pretty straight forward. Sauce, fish, veg, garnish, serve. That was our assembly line. We were able to push out 80 plates in no time.

The dish was a simple fish and vegetable combination. When you pickle vegetables first, it adds sugar, this allows for a nice caramelization to occur and you have the bonus of brightness that can help cut fattier dishes.

 

Whew!

Time for dessert. My favorite course. It was a great combination of flavors and simple techniques. Black sesame ice cream, douglas fir granita, toasted chocolate and a simple coco nib sable. If you ever have time, throw some chocolate on some parchment paper and a sheet pan. Let it toast until it caramelizes. It makes a great flavor for ice cream, or goes great as a crumble on top of desserts. Overall, this was my favorite course!

Now things got weird. My friend told me to demo one dessert and then I had to go out and talk to people….

Wait, interact with people, I don’t do that….

Of course, I knew I had too…so I plated a demo, checked my chef whites for stains and walked out.

 

I was actually pleasantly surprised. Talking to people was a blast. They were all so positive. Even though I know 1000 things I would have changed that night. Everyone had good things to say. I know some of it was them being nice. It was still great. Every chef just wants to make people happy. When we see smiling faces and satisfied people. Our worlds are complete.

Getting out and talking was a great experience.

Everything didn’t go perfect that night, I know that. I didn’t think it would. Even the first night of a new menu at the Herbfarm never goes perfectly. It is always awkward, we never knew what to plate where, who is plating what and it just makes it difficult. Then you add the stress of limited cooking space, and tools..and all the other restrictions. I think the team did great. Personally, I don’t know if I did much to help! I was just happy to work with such great people!

Now the scores..yup…there were scores

You might be asking, why scores? Who gathered all the information?

The company I partnered with was attempting to analyze food trends and peoples preferences. In turn, after each dinner, the dinners scored the dishes. I wasn’t surprised by my results. I knew the gaps in the 1st and third course. However, I also knew my flavors were solid.

Overall, my first pop up restaurant was a great experience. I learned a lot, had lots of fun and can’t wait to do my next one. Maybe it really will have to be for 800 people?? Who knows. I still love cooking, and I still love creating menus.

How about you? Do you throw dinner parties? I would love to hear about them. Maybe share some pictures?

Tags: How do I plan a Pop up restaurant; Pop up restaurant; what can go wrong in a Restaurant; pop up; food; menu planning