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The Culinary Art of Surprise

How much do I love pop-ups?

My fingers are still sore as I type this because I lost part of my left index fingertip at my last pop-up. Luckily, I had the good fortune of finding it instead of stewing it.

I cooked for 25 hours, interrupted only by a two-hour nap and a 10-minute shower, fueled by coffee, yerba mate, beer, Junip, and plenty of carbohydrates.

But it was worth it. Playing culinary magician can be tiring and sometimes an unwieldy business model, but it is much more fulfilling than your average food event—even if I have to lose all my remaining fingertips.

Pop-ups exist on the edge between culinary and performance art. They are to restaurants what stand-up comedy is to a network sitcom. Every dish is a story, a well-written joke if you will. It may change depending on the events of your day, and you never know for sure if it will work no matter how good it sounds to you, how many times it worked before, or how long it took you to prepare it. It’s a balancing act of high risk, high reward.

But food means something deeper than words. It is one of the few parts of culture you can take and actually put into your body, the only really private space each of us possess.

That’s why I think pop-up diners are brave. They bet and they trust. No one will ask for a well-done steak. They’re sitting there precisely because they are not picky. They are the crème de la crème of eaters. They want to experience the unexpected, something rare in this social media era when everything can be previewed and vetted beforehand.

Not familiar yet with pop-ups? Also called supper clubs, they can be many things: a dinner/lunch/brunch hosted by a chef or amateur cook, a one-time collaboration between chefs, beer- or wine-centric dinners, or even a small cocktail event. They happen in restaurants and bars, but also in private homes and in random spaces like converted barns. That’s the broad, wiki-style definition of pop-ups, but I think they can be described as any temporary and unrepeatable manifestation of food and beverage in which one group (chefs, bartenders, bakers, etc.) serve a hungry audience.

In a pop-up, nobody is playing it safe. It is, almost always, not a good long-term business, unless you are a national company that can cut costs by working with a higher volume of everything. As in any food business, the more you cook, the cheaper it gets. Little to no profit is the standard when the main goal is to present a concept, experiment with a new menu, highlight beer or wine through pairings, or simply to get some exposure and feedback. Pop-ups are ultimately an opportunity for cooks to try new things, create more freely, and bring an original concept into being without having to set up an expensive restaurant. When profit is the main goal, all the magic fades, and the jokes feel forced, even boring. You feel like you’re dining in a restaurant, and not in a good way.

I’ve been involved in many pop-ups as a guest and also as a cook. When I throw one, I take care to put forth the same feeling I expect when I attend one: to feel special. I want to be surprised and treated in a special way, no matter how fancy or casual the pop-up is.

This is my persuasive essay to open yourself to the pop-up world, your invitation to soak up that same feeling. Pop-ups are everywhere, and as is the case for almost all the most delectable things in life, they bloom especially during the warmer months. Restaurants like Rigsby’s, Kraft House No. 5, Veritas Tavern, and Angry Bear Kitchen are always doing things of this nature. At The Commissary, someone hosts two or two dinners every month. Cooks–both professionals and seasoned amateurs–like Avishar Barua, Lara Yazvac Pipia, Jacob Inscore, myself, and many others are always planning the next menu.

I’ll be planning my next one, too, plotting my next adventure.

Luckily, I get to do it with all 10 fingers.

Start following local breweries, cooks, and restaurants on social media to find the everyday pop-ups happening near you. People don’t typically send invitations—unless it is a small-scale private dinner. You have to be tuned in, and of course, ready at a moment’s notice.