Pop-up dining is the new it-experience for foodiesFrom starry collaborations to caves in Cork, pop-up dining is the new it-experience for foodies
"When it's happening, it's all you think about, and it's very intense," says chef Alain Kerloc'h. "You are not in your zone, or in your kitchen; they are not your plates. But the person who's bought a ticket for the pop-up doesn't want to hear excuses - they want to know what you're about. And you're telling them your story but you're relying on others to source your ingredients the way you would yourself."
Later this month, Alain Kerloc'h, Stevie Toman and their team from the Michelin-starred Ox restaurant in Belfast will pack up their cars with ingredients and kitchen equipment and drive to Dungarvan in Co Waterford. There, they'll unload into the kitchen of The Tannery, Paul and Máire Flynn's excellent restaurant (see review, page 35), and start preparations for their Sunday lunch pop-up, one of the hot tickets at this year's West Waterford Festival of Food.
Why on earth would people who've worked hard to earn their Michelin star and garnered armfuls of glowing reviews in the process want to do this - and on what's supposed to be their day off?
"Paul Flynn is someone we all look up to," explains Toman. "He's been there, done that, bought the T-shirt - one of only two Irish chefs [the other is Clare Smyth] to have headed up a three-star Michelin restaurant. He's a legend, a great ambassador for Irish food, and we are big fans. So when he called to ask us, there was no question of saying no."
Toman and Kerloc'h are no strangers to this pop-up lark. In 2014, they were honoured to host their former boss, Alain Passard of the three-Michelin-star L'Arpège in Paris, for a collaborative pop-up at Ox, with some courses devised by Passard and others by Toman. Passard is a true culinary superstar and it's clear that - almost three years after that memorable night - the pair can still hardly believe they managed to pull it off.
The following year, Ox popped up at the Ballymaloe Litfest, having driven down in three cars after evening service, arriving at five in the morning. "None of us had any sleep for three days - it was Red Bull all the way," says Toman. "But it was brilliant. We loved it, and none of us will ever forget it."
Last year, they popped up in Greece, as part of a festival celebrating new one-star restaurants in Europe organised by Sani Resorts, and in New York, at The Dead Rabbit - officially the world's best bar, owned by two Belfast natives, Jack McGarry and Sean Muldoon.
"That was hardcore," says Toman. "New York is the biggest buzz of all and it was amazing to challenge ourselves to put on an event there with just a couple of days' prep. It was great exposure for the restaurant. We were on an incredible high after that."
And just a couple of weeks ago, the pair put on a St Patrick's Day pop-up in London, flying back to Belfast on the early morning red-eye to be home in time for Saturday lunch service. Whatever about the highs, it all sounds completely exhausting.
"It has to be worth it to do it, in terms of meeting new people and getting our story out there," explains Kerloc'h, who says that they are choosy about which invitations they will accept. "It is stressful when you are doing a full menu, and last year we did so many.
"Our business is established now, but you can't stand still - the restaurant has to progress, which is why we will continue to do pop-ups. If you stand still, then it's all over for you. We are constantly trying to improve what we do, and we are more ambitious now than we ever have been. When we started out, it was very pressured, and we worked hard to get the star. The food has come on in leaps and bounds since we started.
"But now we can't allow ourselves to be happy with what we did last year - we have to do better. A pop-up is always a risk: the stakes are high. We get many invitations, but we have to put the restaurant first. And we have to restrict ourselves to things that we are excited about; it's important to us to feel like we are going to enjoy it, otherwise what's the point?"
It's not just the chefs who are travelling for pop-ups - last year, diners travelled from across the island to attend the pop-up between Takashi Miyazaki, a Japanese chef based in Cork, and Irish chef Katie Sanderson. Their two-night pop-up called Ichigo Ichie, meaning 'once in a lifetime', was at The Fumbally Stables in Dublin. The nine-course meal included dishes such as mirin-dried mackerel osuimono paired with green tea and cardamom kombucha, and sea urchin with wasabi, kaisou and tosazu.
"The first time I met Katie was at the Ballymaloe Litfest, where she was giving a cookery demonstration," says Miyazaki. "I liked what she did and a couple of months later we decided to do a pop-up together. Katie's cooking is vegetable-focused, inspired by Asian cuisine - especially Japanese - and she uses fermentation techniques. I learnt a lot from her. Making and discovering new dishes together was fun; her taberu rayu (peanut sauce) and my mochi (rice cake) dish collaboration was one of the big hits of the dinner.
"We only agreed on the final menu a week before the event. I would have liked to agree it earlier, but Katie and I are quite different - she is much more relaxed, and I mean that in a good way. In the end we made it, though, and it was an absolutely brilliant experience."
On Monday, Miyazaki will be popping up again at a charity dinner for Breakthrough Cancer Research in Bally- volane House (ballyvolanehouse.ie). This time he'll be collaborating with fellow chefs Jess Murphy of Kai in Galway, Ross Lewis from Chapter One in Dublin, Enda McEvoy from Loam in Galway and Robbie Krawczyk, formerly of Tankardstown House in Co Meath, who is rumoured to be opening a new restaurant in Dublin later this year.
"I like doing pop-up ups because they are an opportunity to showcase my food in a way that I can't in my own restaurant," says Miyazaki. "My restaurant in Cork is a simple takeaway premises, with no tables, no menu of courses, and no licence to serve alcohol. At a pop-up I can do a full Japanese kaiseki course menu. I like working on a particular concept in a different location and telling a story, and I get a lot out of working with other chefs, sharing ideas and creating passionate new dishes.
"Last year I did a pop-up in Mitchelstown Caves that was really something special. There was no kitchen equipment, no gas and no cooking facilities inside the cave, and we had to bring in all the tables and chairs. It was tough but it was worth it."
It's not just established chefs who get involved in pop-ups. For young chefs at the start of their careers, the exposure that comes from being able to test their food out on the public before they invest in premises and set up a permanent restaurant is an attractive proposition. Last weekend, young chef Andrew Cox put on Ceviche, his first pop-up, at Sprout & Co on Sir John Rogerson's Quay, Dublin, which is owned by his cousins Jack and Theo Kirwan. Cox learned about ceviche during an internship at the Llama Inn in New York, where he worked in the evenings a few nights a week after completing a day's work as a data analyst.
"I kept trying to get a table there when friends or family were in town visiting and I never could," says Cox, "so I thought that if I went to work there, then I might at least get to try the food."
The Kirwans sampled Cox's ceviche when he served it as an unusual starter last Christmas Day, and the idea for a pop-up was born. And the cousins got together every Thursday for the eight weeks leading up to the pop-up to sample and refine dishes and hone the menu for the night.
In the end, the five-course menu included an exceptional tiradito con maracuyá - lemon sole with passion- fruit leche de tigre, crunchy quinoa and amaranth - and a ceviche of sea bass with caramelised banana. A deliciously tart and tangy dessert of sorpresa de lima - lime, meringue and oat crumb - was devised by his friend and fellow chef Jake McCarthy.
Now Cox is off to Lima, hoping to find work in a restaurant there, looking to deepen his knowledge of Peruvian food and develop what is already a prodigious talent. Delighted with the success of Ceviche, the Kirwans hope to put on more pop-ups in the coming months - watch their Facebook page (facebook.com/sproutfoodco) for details.
At the West Waterford Festival of Food pop-up (westwaterfordfestivaloffood.com) meanwhile, the Ox team will be collaborating with Paul Flynn himself, and are hoping that not being responsible for the whole menu will mean that the day will be enjoyable rather than stressful. "Paul will come into the kitchen and do a few courses, which makes it more fun and relaxed than it would be with us just doing a tasting menu," says Toman.
"We'll be doing beef aged in lard - it's a technique that we've been experimenting with and it's really good. The meat is aged for 10 days on the bone, and then taken off the bone, dipped in lard and aged for another couple of weeks. This is something new, and the flavour is much more intense. I saw them doing this in Copenhagen - ageing beef in clarified butter - and I showed my butcher how to do it.
"Paul's asked us to do a Jerusalem artichoke ice-cream that he had when he ate at Ox a few months ago. We'll do a few snacks as well. And then hopefully we'll all be able to go and have a few pints of Guinness afterwards."
Watch out for…
Occasional eight-seat BYO dinners put on by Gruel Guerrilla in Dublin. Expect inventive, hyper-seasonal menus featuring plentiful foraged ingredients. There's a suggested donation at the end of the evening, usually around €60.
Chef Eric Heilig hosts monthly Sunday-night dinners showcasing Baltic cuisine at Heron & Grey in Blackrock, Co Dublin, where he works alongside Damien Grey. His partner, Floriane Loup, looks after front of house. Expect to pay in the region of €48 for snacks, a four-course dinner and drink pairings.