A ranch. Belly dancers. Music. A large communal meal with 200 people.
While this might not be every chef's dream, it's what John Jackson and Connie DeSousa of Charcut Roast House have conjured up for this weekend's CHARpopLuck at the Calgary Farmers Market. Having successfully imported the pop-up concept to Cowtown last year, the two co-chefs worked hard to outdo themselves. "When you have the outlet of a pop-up it could be anything, anywhere. For us, it was like how crazy can we do it?" says Jackson.
From across the country, 100 chefs will be bringing a family-style platter of food to share with the 100 lucky ticket holders. Afterward everyone will be bused to Panorama Ranch to party – and yes, there will be dancers. And no, there are no tickets left. It sold out in a day.
If chefs are the new rocks stars, pop-ups are like their secret VIP-only concerts, where they can escape the limitations of a traditional restaurant and revel in no-holds creative cooking – if only for a night. We want to be there, and we'll pay big bucks to get up close. While food trends come and go, pop-ups have shown remarkable perseverance. Indeed, these one-off ventures have become an entrenched part of the culinary landscape. What started as small, whispered-about happenings are now big (and fantastical) business. An upcoming expedition up Mount Kilimanjaro ends with the world's highest pop-up restaurant (3,810 metres) while the first pop-down restaurant happened last fall in a Finnish limestone mine at a depth of 80 metres.
New York-based Guerrilla Culinary Brigade will organize a three-night pop-up in Manhattan starting at $30,000, as they did recently for the high-end restaurant chain La Cirque. Even the marketing department of global appliance manufacturer Electrolux has embraced the concept by creating The Cube to advertise its kitchen offerings. Perched on the rooftops of some of Europe's most iconic buildings (it just ended a run atop the Royal Festival Hall in London), the custom-built glass box offers spectacular views and meals by Michelin-starred chefs (all Electrolux users, of course).
What is the continuing draw of these fleeting eateries? According to Franco Stalteri, the impresario who started Toronto pop-up Charlie's Burgers, it's that access to creativity defines luxury today. He quotes brand strategist and author Lida Hujic: "[Luxury] is about sharing the passion and belief of those who came up with the ideas in the first place …We are prepared to pay for … [this] labour of love."
Then again, sometimes pop-ups are simply about starting a business. Without risking the high capital costs of a restaurant, chefs have the freedom to experiment. Toronto chef Nick Liu, having left his job a year ago, has been negotiating a lease on a space for several months. Tentative opening dates have come and gone for his modern Asian eatery, GwaiLo. He's hoping for April now, though even that might be delayed due to a liquor license moratorium. In the meantime, he's been sustaining diner interest through a series of pop-ups, including in a month-long November residency at Senses restaurant in the Metropolitan Hotel.
And while there's lower risk for the chefs, pop-ups offer diners the promise of a high reward, says Stalteri, whose Charlie's Burgers gives top chefs carte blanche. If the menu was a dud, it's only one night.
"Our model at Charlie's Burgers is rooted in risk and offers guests an enhanced level of creativity," he says. This "anti-restaurant" format allowed Marc Lepine, chef at Atelier in Ottawa, to present a 100-course meal for 50 diners – one course every one and a half minutes – while Louis Charest, executive chef to the Governor-General of Canada, had fishermen construct special traps to catch specific kinds of fish in the Atlantic.
Pop-ups can also reconfigure ideas of community. Last fall, Soupstock brought thousands together in Toronto to protest against the development of the Melancthon mega-quarry in Ontario – the public pressure compelled Highland Companies to revoke its proposal.
For Montreal chef Martin Juneau, the pop-up is about a dialogue with the greater culinary community. "I feel like [Quebec chefs] turn their backs on the rest of Canada. Maybe they're more interested in what's going on in Europe, but there's great stuff going on across the country," he says. His Royal Canadian Monday series endeavours to show Montreal something new by inviting celebrated chefs from across Canada – Lepine was the first – into his kitchen at Pastaga.
In Vancouver, Robin Kort is tackling community on a smaller scale by getting reticent Vancouverites to talk to each other. She says, "We need avenues to force people to get together." Vancouver's history of underground supper clubs is one answer. She hosted her own till her boyfriend tired of having 30 guests in their home four times a week. So she founded Swallow Tail Canada and produces around 20 events a year, themed around ideas such as Alice in Wonderland and Where the Wild Things Are. Though there are performance aspects, "it's not dinner theatre," says Kort. "We bring them out to interact with each other and have the food be the experience."
So what's in store for the upcoming Speakeasy Secret Supper Soiree? Kort remains coy, but allows that the first location is an old museum in a 19th-century home. "This year is about the bootlegging and speakeasy history of Vancouver."
Sound interesting? Get on the mailing list for the next event, this one's sold out.
CHARpopLuck – Calgary
A potluck extravaganza featuring 100 chefs from across the country. Jan. 26, Calgary Farmers Market. www.charpop.com. Sold out.
Royal Canadian Monday – Montreal
Look out for dinners featuring John Horne (of Canoe in Toronto), Jeremy Charles (of Raymonds in St. John's) and Quang Dang (of West in Vancouver). Check Canadian Monday's Facebook page for information.
Group of Seven Chefs – Toronto
Four Ways Dinner: Each table will be assigned one of four chefs and each will cook a different menu. Feb. 4. Parts & Labour. www.thegroupofsevenchefs.com, $75. Sold out.
Swallow Tail Canada – Vancouver
The Speakeasy Secret Supper Soiree features hidden Vancouver spots, dinner, drinks and 1930s' duds. Jan. 23, 25, 26, Feb 1, 2. Sold out. Hawksworth at Holts is a stylish dinner in Holt Renfrew prepared by celebrated restaurant Hawksworth. Jan. 29. www.swallowtail.ca, $199.
Knives Out – Ottawa
This Ottawa brigade of cooks puts on monthly meals at rotating restaurants. Keep an eye on Knives Out Ottawa Facebook page for upcoming dates.
Restaurant Day – the world
Conceived in Finland in 2011 to encourage anyone to open up a restaurant for a day, the sixth edition, last August, saw 782 restaurants pop up in 12 countries. If you've ever harboured dreams of running a restaurant, play chef for a day during the seventh edition on Feb. 17. www.restaurantday.org