Pop-Up Restaurant /päp əp rest(ə)rənt/
Noun: A small group of foodies including but not limited to, chefs, restauranteurs, and creative minds use underground culinary tactics along with extraordinary imagination [and] the element of surprise…thereby creating memorable culinary and social moments that exist briefly and disappear almost immediately.”
—From the Guerrilla Culinary Brigade
While cooking for friends at Pesach, my friend Gal Farchi and I set ourselves a challenge: in a single day in May, we would establish a one-night-only Pop-Up Restaurant. We aimed to plan the menu, source ingredients, to cook and serve a feast to paying guests (our willing guinea-pig friends) with a cut to tzedaka. We wanted to combine the warm, convivial atmosphere of a Jewish communal meal, with restaurant-quality cooking and the sense of occasion of dining out. And to see where the adventure took us.
Gal and I met at Limmud two years ago. We soon discovered our mutual love of all things foodie. We bonded over restaurant reviews. We shared a moment of wide-eyed joy over some Morrocan lentils at a festival last summer. When camping with friends, we made ourselves unpopular by demanding we eat in only the pubs with the most interesting or authentic menus. Life’s too short for rice-cakes and Skippy peanut butter, surely?
During the Pesach cook-out, Gal and I reflected on our love of social eating – a fascination we owe in large part to our Jewish experiences. From the ritual and revelry of Shabbat tables, to raucus youth movement “chadrei ochel” (dining rooms) we have learned how deliciously multi-layered dining in a community can be. We don’t need Heston Blumenthal to tell us that “what’s going on in the mouth – context, history, nostalgia, emotion, memory and the interplay of sight, smell, sound and taste – all play an important part in our appreciation and enjoyment of food.” As research organization Taylor Nelson Sofres reveals the decline of the family meals in Britain, the Shabbat table is still a potent symbol of the value of eating, laughing and being together.
Our community’s fascination with eating has fuelled the rise of Gefiltefest, the Jewish gastronome’s foodfest, the JCC’s popular cookery courses and demonstrations, and most recently, Kosher Roast and Ruchot, the latest kosher Pop-Ups offering alternatives to established Kosher restaurants. Minyanim such as Wandering Jews, Carlebach Minyan and Grassroots Jews are fuelled by vast pot-luck dinners. Alongside shop-bought goods, guests can showcase their signature dishes to a chorus of “Mmm, who made this?” The quality and quantity of food may vary, but the symbolism of each guest contributing to a communal meal is not lost on the convenors of these transient communities.
So, did we succeed in adding a different ingredient to the Jewish eating scene? Here’s our experience, along with a few tips in case you fancy trying out a Pop-Up in your front room.
Rather than riffing on a Jewish theme, our menu reflected flavours we love – olive oil, aubergines, fresh herbs, wild mushrooms, tart fruits. We charged guests £13 each for a four-course feast, or £15 with the optional extra £2 donated to tzedaka. This gave us ample budget to invest in ethically grown and speciality products, like a delicious olive oil from a Greek farmer, vegetarian cheeses and roasted English tomatoes from Devon. In retrospect, we would recommend a little advance menu planning to avoid “Middle of the Market Indecision.” (But the time pressure made us feel like contestants on “Master Chef,” so we secretly loved it.)
In Gal’s kitchen, we divided up jobs, stuck on some music and started preparing the vegetarian feast, which took three and a half hours. In the lounge we set three tables, each with candles, table cloths, and cutlery in jars ready to be grabbed. We were going for homely trattoria rather than Michelin stars. As guests arrived, we seated them at tables with people they knew well and less well. One of the great things about Pop-Up Restaurants is the breaking of the invisible walls between diners’ tables – everyone builds together the camaraderie which is the backdrop for the food. We actively encouraged seat-swapping between courses.
We raised around £30 for a food-based charity, around £2 per guest. To make tzedaka a more central theme, you could budget for larger donations per person, or asking guests to “pay what they think it’s worth” with all profits to charity.
Our guests left smiling and satisfied (“The food and company were top notch!”). Gal and I, though spent, were delighted. The enterprise has proved addictive, and we have already begun to discuss “next time.” Next time, we can bulk-buy vegetables from a friend’s allotment, or offer them a free seat in exchange for supplying us with their ingredients. Next time, friends who want in but can’t pay full price could be waiters and/or dish-washers. Next time, we could try “speed dining” for friends and friends of friends. Oh, the possibilities!
One thing’s for sure. At the end of it, I knew how my Turkish grandma feels after her legendary Shabbat meals for 25;
Exhausted, elated, and absolutely determined to do it all again.