Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Fleeting eateries: pop-up restaurants

When Michelin star-spangled American chef Thomas Keller announced he was to launch a pop-up version of his landmark Napa Valley restaurant The French Laundry in a section of Harrods’ Georgian Restaurant for ten days in October and charge customers £250 a head for a seat, British gastronomes wept with both joy and despair. That such an acclaimed chef would set up shop on our shores is testament to the strength of Britain’s burgeoning pop-up scene, but his £250 price tag rendered the experience attainable only to the super rich. In the most ambitious project to hit London’s temporary dining scene, the 70-cover Californian institution, lauded as America’s best restaurant, will be faithfully replicated in the luxury department store, with Keller offering a nine course tasting menu for those lucky enough to land a reservation. “Pop-ups are a lot of fun, but they’re usually done in less than pristine environments and are almost like the thief of the night,” Keller says. “It’s an enormous amount of work, but what’s better than combining The French Laundry with an iconic property with world-class appeal?”

The project came into fruition after Harrods approached the Yountville-based chef last spring. “The energy, excitement and commitment behind this project is extraordinary and sets another benchmark for what a pop-up restaurant can be,” Keller enthuses. Wine, which will conveniently come from the expansive Harrods wine department rather than being outsourced, will be “integral” to the pop-up, with 1,500 bins on offer ranging from £50 to an eye-watering £16,000. Making a cameo on the list will be Modicum, The French Laundry’s own, small production Napa Cabernet, while Michel Couvreux of Keller’s New York restaurant Per Se will be on sommelier duty, tailoring recommendations to suit guests’ individual tastes.

Reaction to the project has been mixed. Such was the outrage on Twitter that Keller was charging £250 for the chance of a London French Laundry experience, that food blogger Sabrina Ghayour decided to create a spin-off, cheekily titled The French Laundrette, and charge only £2.50 a head – 1% of Keller’s asking price, for a seven course tasting menu. Drawing inspiration from Keller’s signature dishes, the supper club will open for one night only – Sunday 2 October, at The Chancery restaurant in the City of London, with all donations going to Action Against Hunger. Ghayour launched the event via Twitter, highlighting the importance of the social media site not only for the survival of pop-ups, but also the creation of them. “Twitter is massively important,” says Ghayour. “It allows you to strike up relationships and network with like-minded bloggers. What started off as a joke soon went viral, and I had food and wine suppliers offering to help out, so decided to go for it.”

Social media savvy Naked Wines saw Sabrina’s tweet and quickly got in touch, offering to supply all the wines she needed for free. “It sounded like a really good idea,” says Naked’s Derek Hardy. “We liked that it was for charity and thought Keller’s asking price was extortionate, so we wanted to get behind it.” Diners can opt for a flight of wines to match each dish, or play it safe with a bottle of house red or white. On going to press, the wines had yet to be finalised, but they will all be from lesser-known, independent producers from France, New Zealand, Italy and Spain. “Wine will be pivotal in raising money for charity,” says Ghayour, who has yet to decide how much she will charge for it. Boutique Hammersmith distiller Sipsmith has also stepped in, providing the gin and vodka for the complimentary arrival cocktails. “The French Laundrette shows exactly what social media can do,” says Hardy. “Of course it will be at a cost to us, but we’re a community and we help each other out. It’s a fun project to be involved in. London’s pop-up scene is electric at the moment – there’s so much talent being unearthed.”

While most pop-ups have the lifespan of a dragonfly, Roganic in London’s Marylebone is stretching the definition with a two year venture. The brainchild of Simon Rogan, of Michelin-starred L’Enclume in Cumbria, Roganic prides itself on locally sourced, (preferably foraged), seasonal organic ingredients. Diners can opt for a six or 10 course tasting menu whipped up by ambitious and outspoken 25-year-old chef Ben Spalding, whom Rogan has handed the reins to. The project came about when Rogan was offered the Blandford Street site by an estate agent with two years left to run on the lease. “The quirky underground feel of the space fitted with what we wanted to do. I like the freedom a pop-up brings. It’s not about drapery and expensive lighting; it’s about what goes on the plate.”

Rogan believes Roganic’s focus on vegetables signals the next stage in dining out. “People are moving away from prime cuts, and further and further towards vegetables. We offer a 10 course vegetarian tasting menu but the trick is to use the ingredients in such a way that people don’t even realise there isn’t any meat on the plate.” Wine plays an “incredibly important” role at Roganic, according to Rogan, with around 90 bins priced between £26-129 on offer. The focus is very much on organic and biodynamic natural wines, and the list is heavily weighted towards whites due to the abundance of fish on the menu. “We change the list a lot to keep things fresh,” Rogan says. Isn’t it a bit risky focusing on “natural” wines? “They might be dead in a year or two and stop being interesting to people, but the craze has yet to die down. The industry is forever changing, but that’s the beauty of a pop-up – you’re able to push the boundaries and experiment, and if something doesn’t work, it’s easy to change it.”

The restaurant works with a number of suppliers, including Les Caves de Pyrène, Dudley & de Fleury, Fields Morris & Verdin and grower Champagne specialist Vine Trail, with by the glass offerings from the likes of Chapel Down and Dr. Loosen, and bottles from Domaine Albert Mann and Zind Humbrecht. “If you build good relationships with suppliers, then they come to you,” says manager Jonathon Cannon. “We’re in the fortunate position of being able to choose who we work with. Ideally, you should have at least three suppliers – any less is limiting, but it’s harder with a short term venture,” Cannon admits. Pop-ups set up by established chefs are at an advantage in terms of sourcing wine, as they are able to use the same suppliers as their flagship. Les Caves de Pyrène only agreed to supply Roganic due to its strong relationship with L’Enclume, as sales rep Dario Poddana explains: “Roganic’s manager used to be a client of ours, so we were keen to get involved.” Working with previous clients limits the risk for suppliers, who seem wary of one-off projects. “Roganic wasn’t dangerous for us, as it was essentially an existing account. We’d only do one-offs if we receive cash on delivery, but even then we’d rather avoid it and stick to working with people we know and trust.”

Fiona Cochran, marketing director of Bibendum, which supplied 10 wines for Michelin-starred chef Robert Thompson’s Northwood House pop-up during Cowes week last year, agrees: “We got involved with Robert’s pop-up as a result of supplying his restaurant at The Hamborough Hotel. Events like this don’t provide sustainable sales, but taken on a one-off basis can certainly be profitable.” Would Bibendum consider working with another pop-up? “Certainly,” Cochran says, “But it would all depend on the specific opportunity. It can be a great chance to sell wine to a new customer base. The term “pop-up” has become slightly overplayed, but the best examples, such as The French Laundry, can still pull in the crowds as long as they’re creative and offer an amazing dining experience in an unusual environment.”

The recession has forced restaurateurs to think outside the box, and indeed, the restaurant. Pop-ups give chefs an arena in which to innovate their chef whites off, cut costs and experiment without going bankrupt. A pop-up doesn’t need to lay down foundations, it just needs an element of theatre and spectacle. It doesn’t even need a reputation – just enough hungry people to fuel it. Their evanescent nature is a huge part of the appeal, especially in a city like London, which has become almost unhealthily obsessed with the “new”. “There’s real quality coming from the underground dining scene,” says Rogan. “There will always be a market for fine dining, but the way in which food is served is changing. We’re seeing a movement away from stuffy spaces to top-notch food coming out of casual environments.” Pop-ups are a symbol of our fast moving times. Experiences are becoming more and more ephemeral. We have come to demand a forever changing culinary landscape, and the shoestring budget required for a pop-up allows this to happen. As our culture becomes ever more disposable, so does our dining scene. In today’s fluid times, pop-ups are the only thing malleable enough to be able to keep up to date with the day-to-day.

Here today, gone tomorrow

Legendary French chef Pierre Koffmann got the luxury pop-up ball rolling in 2009 with a month-long pop-up at Selfridges. The former three-Michelin-starred chef patron of La Tante Claire replicated his Royal Hospital Road eatery in a marquee on the roof of the department store for 80 lucky guests a night, marking both his return to cooking and the start of the inaugural London Restaurant Festival. The £75 set menu now appears cheap compared to Keller’s £250ar offering.

East London institution Bistrotheque celebrated the excess and glamour of the ‘80s for five days in July with its “88” pop-up in a soon-to-be-demolished postmodern office building in Canary Wharf. Somewhere between a historical document and a soap opera, the menu featured dishes from the culinary giants of the decade. Mumm provided the bubbles, matching each course with a different Champagne. Guests were ferried to the venue Miami Vice style in a speedboat.

UK art gallery Lazarides, owned by the man who launched Banksy’s career, has joined forces with pioneering pop-up caterers Kofler & Kompanie to create a subterranean restaurant, bar and art gallery in the Old Vic tunnels beneath Waterloo station. Opening on 10 October for two weeks, the Minotaur & Pret A Diner project will see Michelin-starred chefs Nuno Mendes of Viajante and Andreas Caminada from Switzerland’s Schauenstein man the stoves at the pop-up, which coincides with the London Restaurant Festival and Frieze Art Fair.

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