Lifestyle May 08 2018 / 0 Comments
A Glimpse at the Palate-Pleasing World of Chef-Led Pop-Up Restaurants
Some of today's most creative chefs are abandoning traditional restaurants for a new format.
by Alana Luna
On average, it costs about $500,000 to open a restaurant and 60 percent of those spots are dead in the water before they hit the five-year mark. That’s an awful lot of capital to throw at a venture only to have it fall apart in front of your tired, onion-tainted eyes. Chefs work countless shifts on the line in someone else’s kitchen cooking someone else’s food just to have the opportunity to captain their own ship, but turning a new restaurant into a profitable endeavor is harder than it looks.
Take that palpitation-inducing financial strain and add in boredom from being locked into the same menu day after day, and it’s easy to see why new and established chefs alike are tossing aside the formalities of a 10-course prix fixe and turning to the blessed spontaneity of a pop-up.
Where Innovation and Urgency Collide
Once upon some thyme, food trucks were cutting-edge. Now they’re on the corner of almost every city in these great United States, and it’s as easy to find sushi burritos as it is to grab a sandwich from 7-11. Still, the same marketing movement that helped give food trucks legitimacy has spurred on the growth of pop-ups. A chef dreams up a concept, finds a temporary home, and blasts the details out over Twitter or via Instagram. Hashtags are born, followers wig, and suddenly there’s a movement—both figuratively and in terms of the hordes of hungry diners descending en masse on the chef’s culinary pit stop.
This is where we see some of the country’s best cooks—some known, some not so much—in their element. They’re throwing out the playbook and creating dishes on a whim. Cultures are fused, farmer’s markets are raided, and collaborations bring together wickedly gifted minds to sauté up cuisine that you can’t help but photograph and post. And thus the social cycle continues.
Perhaps the biggest buzz-builder in the world of pop-ups is the urgency. You can’t go grab salt-and-vinegar chicken wings and a cucumber-kumquat mojito next week, because the concept will be gone like a puff of applewood smoke in the wind.
Perhaps the biggest buzz-builder in the world of pop-ups is the urgency. You can’t go grab salt-and-vinegar chicken wings and a cucumber-kumquat mojito next week, because the concept will be gone like a puff of applewood smoke in the wind. You have to be plugged in to hear about it and willing to throw down your Uber Eats order and head out before chef packs up her knives and heads home. This is gastronomic immediacy and it’s exhilarating.
From Bakery to Foodie Beacon
Ludo Lefebvre is a French-trained chef and restaurateur who has played a major role in popularizing the pop-up concept. In 2004, the restaurant he was working at in LA closed for renovations and Ludo opted not to return once the eatery reopened. Instead, he turned to his friend Ali Chalabi and asked if he could work out Chalabi’s bakery the three nights per month that it was closed. An agreement was struck and LudoBites was born. The moment shifted the entire culinary landscape in Los Angeles for good.
In the nearly 15 years that have followed, Ludo has relaunched LudoBites a total of nine times in LA and once in Hawaii. The press has been nothing short of zealous, even when stoked by Ludo’s own team, as evidenced in an excerpt from a LudoBites press release: “Like a rock band, LudoBites sets up shop in a borrowed space and appears for just two or three months at a time, always at night.” LudoBites has twice crashed the online reservation site OpenTable, and recently booked six weeks of reservations in just 47 seconds.
The Rock Stars of the Pop-Up World
The energy is contagious in the very best way. Famed chef Rene Redzepi from Copenhagen’s Noma used his hiatus (his restaurant was relocating) to host a series of dinners in NYC to the tune of $2,000 per person. Five of Seattle’s most talented cooks have formed Rain Day Chef’s Alliance, a culinary collective that puts together seven-course meals—one course per chef—with locations and guest chefs in constant rotation.
Chicago’s Bucktown Pub put together a 10-day Wayne’s World-inspired pop-up, and Top Chef contestant and pasta wunderkind Silvia Barban regularly welcomes guests to her Brooklyn spot, LaRina, for one-day residencies that highlight seasonal eats, unique ingredients (“trash fish”, anyone?), and different techniques. And let’s not even get started on the VIP eats at Coachella.
This is the food industry’s answer to old-school jazz jam sessions. Scoring a seat at the table is like skipping the concert and finding your musical idol strumming his guitar in the hotel lobby.
This is the food industry’s answer to old-school jazz jam sessions. Scoring a seat at the table is like skipping the concert and finding your musical idol strumming his guitar in the hotel lobby. This isn’t the greatest hits, it’s the B-sides you didn’t even know you loved until you hear the tracks and couldn’t get them out of your head. They’re special because of their imperfections, and that’s the magic of the entire undertaking.
Follow your favorite chefs on social media, track the #popup hashtag, and subscribe to your local Eater. This is one time you want to be clued in. Trust us, trust the chef, and eat your face off. Tomorrow may be too late.
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