The rise of pop-up dinners

One of the biggest national dining trends is sweeping into Boulder

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Susan France

Consider a group of strangers, gathering around a dining room table at a location they only just learned about the day before, to eat handcrafted delicacies from a thoughtfully considered menu.

And so it is with the growing trend of secret supper clubs, pop-up dinners, and/or special chef collaborations. With social media to share our every move, along with the foodie movement, chefs and other food-centric creatives are choosing to step outside of their traditional restaurant locales and push the limit in one-time, often edgy, spaces to host dinners.

Typically at a restaurant, chefs are in the back of the kitchen and diners never get a glimpse of the creative forces behind the meal in front of them. Such pop-up events give chefs an opportunity to call something their own and step outside of the daily grind.

“The pop-up idea takes away a ton of the pomp and barriers, like having to make reservations a month in advance or wear certain clothes,” Chicago-based chef Graham Elliot Bowles said in an interview with Food & Wine. “It’s a good way to say ‘Screw you,’ to the whole system.”

Often with a prefixed charge associated with the pop-up concept, hosts will use tools such as Eventbrite or Brown Paper Tickets to manage the associated cost and disseminate a schedule of the evening’s flow of events. Eventbrite has cited that the fastest growing trend in the 40,000 events they host is pop-up dining, with 82 percent growth, as shared in “This Year’s Top Food and Drink Events” report from March 2015.

Often setup family style, guests break bread with strangers, learn about one another and indulge in food prepared right around the corner, often in a makeshift kitchen. The community aspect, along with the thrill of trying something different, are perhaps what make these pop-up dinners such a popular endeavour.

“I think humans as a species are characterized by novelty- and intensityseeking,” wrote psychologist Marvin Zuckerman, professor emeritus at the University of Delaware, in a recent report from the Dana Foundation, an institute that supports brain research. It is perhaps this desire for the novel that drives the popularity of pop-up dinners, each with their own flare.

L.R. Laggy, founder of Blank Plate Boulder, says it all started for him because of a “whimsical suggestion that made a lot of sense” from his roommate who tossed out the idea they put a restaurant in their backyard — literally. Even though the concept scared him, Laggy knew it was something different, and with a full-time job at The Kitchen in Boulder, food is core to Laggy’s joy. The first pop-up dinner they hosted was in September 2014, and they’re currently working on their fifth dinner this June.

Laggy believes the popularity of pop-ups stem from “the adventure of the unknown.”

“There are no Yelp reviews for popup dinners,” he says. Folks who attend such events are seeking something different.

“No one’s coming to a pop-up dinner because they couldn’t get into Oak or The Kitchen on a given night,” he adds.

Laggy attends to each detail of the event, from menu design to cooking to marketing to emceeing the evening.

“[It’s a] creative outlet for talented cooks and chefs in Boulder to share their gifts directly and get full credit for what they do, to have a moment in the sun,” says Laggy.

Another pop-up that pushes the limit is Boulder’s version of The Blind Cafe. The Blind Cafe is a national organization that focuses on creating positive social change through pop-up events that require patrons to dine in the dark.

That’s right. Diners eat in the dark, and it’s entirely led by legally blind facilitators and servers. In an effort to enhance other senses, dining in total darkness for two hours is not something you get to do everyday.

Still another pop-up participant is Farmer Girl, a Boulder food business comprised of a food truck (The Tasterie Truck), farm dinners and a roving supper club. Chef and owner Tim Payne has hosted pop-up dinners at a variety of locations including old Grange Halls, inside urban wineries, at coffee shops and in peoples’ homes. He will often create a theme for his dinners around a specific ingredient, like a pumpkin dinner in the fall, all chocolate or his pig and pinot dinner. He’ll also focus on specific times of year for dinners, like a fall harvest pop-up or celebrating summer’s bounty.

Payne describes the act as theatrical and muses that people must think to themselves, “How is the chef going to pull off this food without a kitchen?” 

“It is fun for me to have that challenge, and I think for the diner to see us walking the highwire so to speak. It is a communal experience— a really, a big, fun dinner party. Those looking for a romantic dinner for two [are] not going to seek out these events.”

With all the logistics, it’s tough to “wing” these events. The menu must fit the surroundings, and sometimes when Payne is without staples like electricity or commercial equipment, he has been known to use a camp stove, a charcoal grill and coolers to keep the evening intact and running smoothly. Anything goes.

He admits it’s a romantic notion to highlight local, organic and sustainable foods under unusual circumstances.

“In practicality, it is not easy and requires diligent pursuit and dedication,” he says.

Perhaps the “diligent pursuit and dedication,” are exactly what makes pop-up dinners a growing trend. Actively seeking them, the thrill of finding one, dining at one, watching the unknown unfold and sharing jovial stories after the fact all make for an unusual dining experience. And unlike an evening at a restaurant, there’s an ethereal quality; food that’s served on just one night, at this one special place, that only a small group of people are part of. Ever. Ethereal indeed.

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