Food enthusiasts seem to have an insatiable appetite for the bizarre and unusual, which is not only about the food, but also the venue and atmosphere. For some, the wackier the dining experience, the better. Enter the pop-up restaurant.
According to the National Food Association (USA), pop-up restaurants (along with mobile food trucks) are the number one hottest operational trend for 2011. Well, we’re halfway through the year, and this prediction has proved right in the UK so far. Just when we thought it was going to be a flash-in-the-pan culinary concept, DIY dining has taken off big time with celebrity chefs and temporary kitchen suppliers cashing in on the act.
Home supper clubs or underground restaurants have been around for a while now, but the trendy named 'pop-up' is gaining ground in the hospitality sector. Pop-up restaurants are creative and innovative, and are a way of getting high-end food at lower prices, especially if the 'in-house' chef is well known. Pop-up cooking allows the chef to experiment, keep menus fresh and exciting, and engage in unrestrained creativity in unconventional places.
I’m not particularly in favour of well-established chefs churning out formulaic or mediocre food to turn a profit this way, but if the meal is imaginative and inspiring, then it’s a clever way to promote your brand, introduce your food to an out-of-the-neighbourhood crowd, or build up a following for a soon-to-open restaurant. A pop-up restaurant is a superb way for the average lay chef to flex his culinary fingers without a huge financial investment. All you need do is borrow someone’s home/office/rooftop/derelict building and off you go.
Laws and regulations aren’t quite up to speed with this maverick style dining yet, and Health and Safety are beating a path to the pop-up chef’s door (if they can find them), and have already put some basics in place. Liquor licenses are a must, and if you haven’t got one, enterprising hosts circumvent this by saying they are throwing a party so BYO. Running a restaurant in your home is illegal, so 'donations' on the night are expected, otherwise you can point your guests towards PayPal beforehand. Then there are staffing issues to deal with. Friends and family are the first option, but a high profile chef will always have a willing supply.
The pop-up restaurant not only appeals to food aficionados, but also to travellers, friends, nosy neighbours, journalists, cat burglars or anyone wanting a night off cooking – perhaps. And how do people get to hear about the event? Well, good old word-of-mouth and social media. No marketing budget required.
Morphing on from pop-ups, but still on the guerrilla cheffing spectrum, is 'Flash Dining', the latest dining craze to come out of New York. A five-course meal is dished up on a Brooklyn-bound subway car. Intrigued? Then take a look on YouTube. The hosting group (and you will need a group to execute this culinary performance) is engaged not only to cook and serve, but also to fend off hecklers, hobos or gatecrashers. Suspended tables are strung from poles over the diners’ laps and there’s one course per station, which is a feat in co-ordination as this type of dining relies heavily on timetables, manpower and host kitchens at nearby subway stops. I’m not sure how TFL would take to it, or even fellow passengers. I’ve seen fights (on YouTube) break out over someone slurping takeaway spaghetti in their seat. I suspect that this type of dining will be a flash-in-the-tram (sorry).
Like most fads and trends, they come and they go, but I think pop-ups will be around a bit longer than most. A girlfriend recently announced that she was holding a pop-up, and a fine one it will be, too, as she cooks for the family of a well-known chef. So if she’s up for it, then maybe, just maybe, I might put aside my cooking skill reservations, hide my valuables, throw open my door and invite a few locals in for dinner...after their CRB checks have been done, of course.