On June 23, quite unknown to the rest of (saner) humanity, there may just be a metaphoric scramble in the gourmet universe: Noma, widely regarded as the world's best restaurant, will open reservations for its January pop-up in Tokyo. Given that our world is now populated by serious foodies who live and travel to eat and mark out annual calendars according to the diktats of whimsical chefs, it is not outrageous to expect tickets to be snapped up in a day or two — almost half-a-year in advance.
The pop-up is hugely anticipated. Ever since chef Rene Redzepi announced that his Copenhagen-based, cutting-edge restaurant will relocate to Tokyo to the Mandarin Oriental for three weeks next year, expectations have been sky high. How will Redzepi's sensibilities translate?
The Noma pop-up is garnering its share of excitement based on the reputation of its chef. Well, so is Heston Blumenthal's The Fat Duck (to pop up in Melbourne next year). And that may well be the buzzing new trend this year: super chefs going the pop-up route. But even without celeb firepower, pop-ups continue to be piping haute, globally and increasingly in India too.
My own tryst with the concept happened much more modestly. Two years ago, freshly home after a dizzying gourmet journey in Melbourne, I decided to have my own bit of fun with food-enterprise. In a Shatabdi from Jaipur, post the lit-fest, two friends and I, all ambitious journalists, decided to empty out one of our homes, convert it into a "restaurant" for a day, call about 20 carefully chosen people for a "non-restaurantised" meal that I would cook and supplement with wine, conversation and even a book reading. The Great Delhi Pop-up was born — almost with instant success.
In the months after that, we refined it. As numbers grew via word-of-mouth and Facebook, we eschewed almost all other publicity, wanting to stay strictly under the radar in order to be true to the "underground" concept as well as to monitor guest profile. We shifted out from homes to a gorgeous art gallery, where we laid out tables under an ancient banyan tree. Instead of only cooking my Kayastha old Delhi food myself, I found talented home cooks to do everything from Moroccan to Marwari. (Our concept remains community-based cuisines that you cannot find in regular restaurants.) We hired equipment, a catering institute kitchen to cook in and waiters. And we found chef Nishant Choubey to help us with expertise and sponsors who took a shine to the idea, because, well, pop-ups suddenly became so fashionable that its mere mention perked up ears.
The strength of a food market lies not just in the number, kind and success of restaurants that open up but in the existence and growth of a larger food culture. Experimentation with cuisines and formats is a natural outcome of a maturing market. The "van culture" in America—where $20-30 can fetch you gourmet quality food and the location of vans are zealously tracked across towns by fans on the social media — secret supper clubs and indeed pop-up restaurants have been interesting ideas, democratising the high, stiff-white tableclothed tables of the past.
But over the last two years, pop-ups have been co-opted into the establishment. Instead of being the "on-the-fringes" set ups by people and chefs with few resources but high creativity, they are now the buzzword to signify the new culinary cool. And anything, from sponsored dinners to cookouts by high flying chefs and indeed restaurant meals (within established restaurants), can be branded pop-ups.
Last year, TheDinnerClub57, an international supper club with quite a few followers on Instagram, came to a Delhi farmhouse with a pop-up: a beautiful, fairytale like van, atop which sat strictly invited people on beautiful round-tables. The event was catered to by a restaurant company. Was it a legit pop-up? Perhaps, perhaps not and therein lies the debate.
If celeb chefs abroad are travelling to other regions with their pop-ups, our very own Ritu Dalmia cooked at a hugely successful pop-up in Mumbai a couple of months ago.
Mangal Dalal and Nachiket Shetye, who ushered in the Restaurant Week concept in India, some months ago took up an art gallery, got the requisite licences to turn it into a restaurant for three days and flew down Dalmia and her team to cook for 120 people per day. The event, priced at Rs2,500 per person, was a sell out and had enough sponsors to make it profitable — a challenge smaller pop-ups face; along with scouting for locations (permits are tough to come by in India and holding something like the East London parking lot event is quite unthinkable) and fixing infrastructure (if you are not a professional).
A pop-up, of course, is a restaurant that literally pops up for a fixed period of time, usually in an unexpected location. If that is the sole criterion, why should we complain about celeb chefs and established restaurants jumping on the bandwagon?
A pop-up needs to offer you an alternate way of consuming — and not merely eating. It may offer you a slice of culture that you know nothing about, the warmth and genuineness of a home or a flash of brilliance that restaurant commerce may not support. As more and more food-entrepreneurs in the country jump on the bandwagon, that is what they may well remember.