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Pandemic Pop-Ups Are Changing How We Dine — For the Better
Like many of us, chef Amy Yi had big plans this year. She’d just left her job of the past two years, as the culinary director of West~bourne, an all-day cafe in New York City’s West Village. She had hopes of traveling to the Mediterranean and sailing through French Polynesia. She wanted to recharge before she moved on to her next restaurant gig, whatever it may be.
Then the pandemic hit, and Yi found herself at a loss. Travel plans were out of the question, and she was without any work. But taking a walk in late March through her South Slope, Brooklyn neighborhood, past a newly opened bakery and cafe called Winner, eventually led to her doing a two-month-long “K Pop-Up!,” selling Korean fried chicken sandwiches, dumplings, and banchan spreads. That led to her own catering business, called Doshirak, specializing in packaged meals.
“At the beginning, it was just about survival,” Yi says. “But the survival wasn’t just financial; it was also about mental health, and keeping myself occupied and creative.” Quarantine, she says, gave her something most chefs hardly ever have: time to explore what she really wanted to do and cook.
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Yi is not alone. A cook from Frenchette is grilling oysters and making bowls of hủ tiếu noodles from a paleta cart on the weekends. Instead of pizza pies, a sous chef at San Francisco’s Del Popolo is making tri-tip frito pies inspired by his home state. Cooking these deeply personal, heartfelt comfort foods is not only sustaining chefs, but the restaurants we love, too. Brick-and-mortar restaurants are embracing these pandemic pop-ups because they’re giving diners new experiences at a time when every day feels like “Groundhog Day.” In this pandemic era, especially, pop-ups break up our routines of eating in; they’re reasons for us to keep going back to, or to keep ordering from the restaurants that host them.
This golden age of pop-ups is reshaping our ideas of what it means to be a restaurant — and our connections to these community anchors at a time when we need them most.
One thing that makes today’s pop-ups so different is the level of creativity and freedom. More and more chefs are feeling untethered, freer to cook the foods they love and oftentimes, it starts with the food their mothers, fathers, and grandparents cooked for them.
Today, Yi, a first-generation Korean American, is doing something she’s never done before: cooking Korean food for others. For her pop-up, she drew from memories spent making mandu (dumplings) with her mom as they watched TV, using it as an opportunity to experiment with different fillings, like fennel with Grana Padano, breadcrumbs, capers, and lemon aioli. The name of her catering business refers to dosirak, the packaged meals that Korean mothers would make for their children.
“Cooking is a craft that lends itself to the times right now — it’s a source of nourishment and sustenance,” Yi says. “And comfort foods are something even professional chefs resort to in times of stress.”
Most days of the week at Dame, a pop-up restaurant in the West Village, you’ll find chef Ed Szymanski serving foods representative of his native England: expertly fried fish and chips and curried, pickled mussels with Pimm’s Cups, or “English sangria” as he’s dubbed it. But on Sundays, Dame hosts other pop-ups.
Dame’s first Sunday Series pop-up, Bodegón, featured the Galician food that Alex Piñeiro grew up with, a regional cuisine that differs from the Basque dishes he and Szymanski cooked while working as cooks at Ernesto’s. Another, Ha’s Đặc Biệt, featured the Vietnamese street food of chefs Anthony Ha and Sadie Mae Burns who, in their full-time jobs, cook French and Italian dishes for Frenchette and Roman’s. Next month, Dame will host two chefs, Pav and Isabel Coss, who will be cooking Venezuelan food, not the Mexican food they usually cook in the kitchens of Atla and Cosme.
Earlier this month, Dame hosted a pop-up with an unexpected combination of influences: the flavors of the Philippines (Woldy Reyes of Woldy Kusina) and New Mexico (Eric See of Ursula BK), paired with gluten-free pastries from Lani Halliday of Brutus Bakeshop. The resulting menu included Hatch-chile-and-sweet-corn lumpia with vegan queso, a coconut rice fried chicken sandwich with pickled bitter melon, and a vegan miso chocolate chip cookie sandwich with red chile chocolate filling.
Unlike past generations, whether these pop-ups eventually become brick-and-mortar restaurants isn’t necessarily the end goal. Today, it’s more about survival, both for the chefs doing the pop-ups and also for the restaurants and spaces hosting them, too. Existing restaurants are welcoming pop-ups, and giving them the space to thrive because they’re giving diners new reasons to return. And it’s in these spaces where we, as diners, can have a more direct relationship or connection to the chefs behind these pop-ups, whether we’re dining there, or simply picking up a takeout order.
In DC, at the newly opened Mercy Me, director of operations Kirk Kelewae hopes their new pop-up series, featuring local chefs who’ve lost opportunities or had their restaurants paused because of the pandemic, will not only help the chefs, but also encourage more locals to come to dine in the West End.
At Winner, Yi was the first of nearly two dozen chefs who have been a part of its ongoing Friends & Family Meal series. “We have a handful of guests who haven’t missed a single week,” says Winner chef-owner Daniel Eddy. “For me, as the business owner, hosting these pop-ups is not about making money. What this period of time has solidified for me is that we as restaurateurs need to invest more back into our local communities.”
At Del Popolo in San Francisco, chef Jeffrey Hayden is developing a pop-up series designed to give his cooks and other employees a firsthand opportunity to learn how to run a restaurant for a day, and to serve the foods they personally love to cook. “They need to know how a restaurant runs and it’s really difficult to do if you’re not a manager in the restaurant,” Hayden says. “Running your own pop-up is a good way to manage finances, figure out what labor looks like, determine the quality of product, et cetera.”
While the pandemic hindered Hayden’s plans to launch this pop-up series as he initially intended, he and his sous chef, Kristian Allen, have been doing a few pop-ups of their own at the restaurant that celebrated Hayden’s Italian American heritage, Allen’s Texas roots, and general manager Laurent Ertle’s upbringing in Alsace. This fall, Hayden will hand over the reigns to his staff, launching pop-ups highlighting foods from Morocco, Turkey, and the UK.
At Dame, Szymanski invited his former dishwasher from the now-closed Cherry Point, Tío Rey, for a pop-up. Rey, together with his wife, operates a small business selling tacos and tamales out of their truck in Brooklyn. But for one Sunday this July, lucky Manhattanites had a chance to savor “the best tamales in New York” at Dame. “It’s one thing to operate out of your house in Bushwick,” Szymanski says. “It’s another thing to be next to Dante in the West Village. Tío Rey’s not looking to expand or anything, but I really wanted to show his food off to other people.”
Paying your dues and waiting years to express yourself as a chef is ingrained in most restaurant kitchens. But that’s not the case with these pop-ups, many of which are also empowering their staff. At Niche Niche’s Community Sundays & Mondays series, there’s no division between back-of-house or front-of-house: Two Niche Niche staffers — Dria Atencio, a cook, and Sarah Krathen, a restaurant service director — are both cooks and servers for their weekly pop-up, making it easier for us, as diners, to get to know them. Each week they experiment with different styles of cooking to offer affordably priced $32 prix-fixe menus. One week, they researched Thai recipes and ingredients in Elmhurst, Queens to develop a menu featuring crab fried rice and tamarind-glazed shrimp-and-cherry-tomato skewers. Another week, Krathen FaceTimed with chef Michael Solomonov of Zahav as he gave her a personal tutorial on how to make pita. “It feels like I’m cooking from my heart much more,” Atencio says. “It’s really personal.”
This golden age of pop-ups won’t last forever, but we’re already seeing how it may influence the future of restaurants. It is giving us an opportunity to connect more directly with the people behind the restaurants we’ve loved. It is introducing us to flavors we might never have experienced before. And it is encouraging restaurants to amplify their roles as the cornerstones of our communities.
Because the truth is, it’s not just physical space that defines what a restaurant is; it’s the people who work in it. The people who are, at least for now, getting an opportunity to share their love of food with you more directly than ever. These are the people who hardly ever claim the spotlight or get written about but now, because of pandemic pop-ups, they are able to say something with their own food. And we’re beginning to hear their stories.
When the time is right, this new guard will be ready to revive the empty storefronts and spaces in our towns and cities. And, if what we’re tasting or experiencing now is any indication, they’ll be worth waiting for.
Notable Pandemic Pop-Ups
1913 Pop-Up Series at Lucille’s and One Fifth // Houston
Each week at Lucille’s and at One Fifth, local bars — which have remained closed throughout the city because of COVID restrictions — are invited to take over the bar to support their staff and the Lucille’s 1913 nonprofit, which has donated more than 45,000 meals to those who need it most in the local community. (Read more what Lucille’s chef-owner Chris Williams has been doing during the pandemic.)
Community Sundays & Mondays at Niche Niche // New York City
The theme for Dria Atencio and Sarah Krathen’s pop-up series at Niche Niche changes weekly but the affordable prices and wide variety of wines are a mainstay. Last weekend’s dinner celebrated Rosh Hashanah with crispy latkes and brisket.
Mini Pop-Up Series at Del Popolo // San Francisco
Del Popolo’s ongoing pop-up series continues. This month saw a Septemberfest spread of housemade bratwurst and schnitzel and spaetzle. This week’s pop-up will be a backyard barbecue with spicy sweet potato wedges, mac ‘n’ cheese, smoked half chickens, and barbecued peaches.
Dinner Series at Mercy Me // Washington, D.C.
Mercy Me’s inaugural Dinner Series pop-up featured chef Tom Cunanan, formerly of D.C.’s Bad Saint. Next up is a dinner from chef Matt Crowley, who previously worked at Spoken English. A portion of the proceeds from all tickets sold go toward World Central Kitchen.
Friends & Family at Winner // New York City
Winner’s Friends & Family pop-up series continues to be a hit in South Slope. This week features chef Shirwin Burrowes, the former chef de cuisine of the now-closed Uncle Boons. His Bajan Yankee pop-up meal includes roasted jerk pork shoulder with coconut rice and black-eyed pea and avocado salad, topped with a spicy green mojo. To order meals for pickup, email email@example.com.
Gusto // Long Beach, Calif.
Gusto is an organic panadería that just opened in August and it’s already hosted its first pop-up, with baker Bryan Ford, which drew huge crowds for his pan de coco. Owners Arturo Alonzo Enciso and Ana Salatino have plans to welcome more pop-ups from Ford and other local bakers and chefs.
Sunday Series at Dame // New York City
Since opening in June as a pop-up, Dame’s owners Patricia Howard and chef Ed Szymanski have donated all of their profits, some $12,000, to organizations that include the NAACP, Harlem Grown, Hot Bread Kitchen, and Soul Fire Farm. Sunday Series guest chefs choose their own charities to donate their proceeds to as well. The past Sunday Series featured Nora Allen of Mel bakery and Jackie Carnesi and Terra Rubio of Roberta’s. Next Sunday will feature chef Greg Rales of Red Gate Bakery.
Deanna Ting is a Resy staff writer. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter. Follow @Resy, too.