It's like a flash mob for foodies, a rave for rarefied tastes. Connoisseurs of artisanal comestibles, summoned by e-mails, tweets and Facebook status updates, are descending by the hundreds on the Pop-Up General Store, a moveable feast of high-end treats that's open only sporadically and for a mere two hours at a time, location and day to be announced.
At a recent one held in a converted streetcar depot in Oakland, Calif., Samin Nosrat and Christopher Lee moved energetically among the vendors of the organic, natural and sustainably sourced food and the crowds of customers. The two chefs, major names in the San Francisco Bay Area restaurant scene, started this pop-up market on a whim a year ago and have seen it explode in size and popularity.
A hipster response to the current economic recession, fuelled by social-media networking, the underground food scene - of which Ms. Nosrat and Mr. Lee's project is part - is akin to other recent urban phenomena such as guerrilla gardening, free-cycling, guerrilla knitting and bike-in disposable film festivals.
The underground food scene is perhaps the most multi-faceted and highly developed example of this under-the-radar approach. "The Pop-Up General Store is definitely on the same page as gourmet food trucks, underground supper clubs and pop-up restaurants," Ms. Nosrat said, reflecting how her venture is part of a larger trend that has extended beyond San Francisco to cities such as Los Angeles, New York and London. Ms. Nosrat, 31, and Mr. Lee, 58, were quick to point out, however, that their pop-up differs from almost all others in that theirs operates completely above board.
With professional and personal reputations to protect, the two decided to incorporate and secure all necessary health permits and insurance policies. They are also very selective about the vendors they invite to participate, requiring them to be professionals and to adhere to strict ingredient-sourcing standards. "We're completely legal. We're not at all underground," Mr. Lee explained. "But we are perceived to be underground, and that is the appeal."
Neither Mr. Lee and Ms. Nosrat, who both trained in the kitchen of Alice Waters's famed Chez Panisse, nor their friends and colleagues who sell their unique products at the Pop-Up General Store have any illusions that they will make their fortune this way. "The Pop-Up is the most time-consuming work I do," says Ms. Nosrat, who supports herself by catering, writing and teaching cooking to "big-name" private students. "Our motivation is not economic at all. We know that cooking the kind of food we want, we'll never get rich."
As Mr. Lee, a former restaurant chef-owner who now works as a consultant, says, "It's about the community - the community among the cooks and the connections the cooks have with the greater community." Ms. Nosrat finishes off his thought, saying, "This year has been about stripping away all the externalities, the extraneous and artificial things. It's been about getting rid of the wall that separates the kitchen from the dining room."
Pop-Up shopper Amy St. George from nearby Albany echoed the sentiment. Clutching the artisanal pizza focaccia she had just purchased, she commented on the evident culinary excitement and passion, and that it was a great opportunity to "meet the people who make the food face to face."
Penelope Edwards of Oakland admitted that the small container of gourmet macaroni and cheese that set her back $16 (U.S.) was "a little pricey." But she pointed out that, "these are special items you can't get elsewhere."
Mr. Lee and Ms. Nosrat predict the pop-up trend will eventually fizzle as the economy recovers, and hipsters move on to the next cool thing. But it seems that, at least for now, Bay Area foodies will be there to support them. "Times are tough. We don't want these people leaving town," said Ms. Edwards's husband Greg as he recounted the outstanding taste of the grape jam he bought last time the store popped up.
Special to The Globe and Mail