The power of pop- ups

In Toronto’s crammed culi­nary scene, im­mer­sive and in­ven­tive din­ing ex­pe­ri­ences are a sure­fire way to get tongues wag­ging. Th­ese three lo­cal out­fits do pop- ups a lit­tle dif­fer­ently.

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THE MAR­KETERS

For one night last week, it wasn’t just chef He­mant Bhag­wani’s solid rep ( and his head­line- mak­ing ban­ish­ment of tip­ping) fill­ing the room at his In­dian Street Food Co. on Bayview.

U- Feast ( ufeast. com), a Toron­to­based start- up spe­cial­iz­ing in food events, swung in to take over the mid­town spot. They com­mis­sioned a one- night- only menu from Bhag­wani, re­cruited Adamo Es­tate Win­ery to sup­ply the drinks and blasted the in­vite out to Toronto bloggers, me­dia and food lovers. ( A few weeks be­fore U- Feast was in Cab­bage­town at Kan­pai, host­ing a Year of the Mon­key-themed din­ner. Be­fore that, La Cubana, Thor­ough­bred and Matt Basile’s never- be­fore- seen new kitchen in the Stock­yards.)

The re­ward for those who reg­is­tered was a five- course, fam­ily- style din­ner of heav­enly ginger- laced soft shell crab, flaky slow- cooked lamb raan pau “burg­ers” on but­tery Ace buns and car­damom al­mond kulfi on a stick for dessert.

Restau­rants, of course, throw their own pop- up events nearly ev­ery other day in this town ( gotta keep up with the culi­nary Joneses), but few are able to de­vote the time to get­ting the word out.

“We tell chefs we’re like the box of­fice,” Yvonne Tsui, U- Feast’s di­rec­tor of op­er­a­tions, told me at the din­ner. “Be­cause nowa­days, when you’ve got chefs who are also the restau­ra­teur, there aren’t enough hours in the day for them to do all of that stuff, even if they want to.”

The com­pany guar­an­tees chefs a per­cent­age of ticket sales – whether it sells one ticket or 50 – and events usu­ally hover around $ 60, with booze, taxes and ser­vice costs in­cluded. That frees chefs up to play with their bud­get, of­ten throw­ing in ex­tras for din­ers. Bhag­wani added a few sur­prises like a mini cup of killer spiced tomato soup and a rich veg­gie- stew fon­due, so the five cour­ses ended up be­ing more like nine.

Now that it’s 14 events in, the startup is be­gin­ning to build it­self a bit of a scene. “At the end of the day, it’s about [ cre­at­ing] com­mu­nity. I know at least 10 peo­ple here tonight who are reg­u­lars,” Tsui says.

All of those din­ers, new and old, went home stuffed to the gills with some of the city’s most novel In­dian dishes.

Bhag­wani, for his part, got some new con­nec­tions, a rel­a­tively easy night for his staff, tons of feed­back on some new dishes and a whole lot of promo: “Ev­ery­body’s been tweet­ing, ev­ery­body’s on In­sta­gram. On a reg­u­lar night, you don’t re­ally get that very of­ten.”

THE PER­MA­NENT POP- UP

“I re­ally be­lieve that food can be a mean­ing­ful ex­pe­ri­ence,” says Len Se­nater, the owner of the Depan­neur ( 1033 Col­lege, 416- 828- 1990, thede­pan­neur. ca). “But the typ­i­cal restau­rant model – there’s al­most noth­ing to take ad­van­tage of there. The power to forge con­nec­tions and share ex­pe­ri­ences and make peo­ple [ seem] less oth­ered and dif­fer­ent – that’s not the fo­cus of a typ­i­cal restau­rant.”

Se­nater has plenty of pas­sion­ate stuff to say about Toronto’s food scene – un­der­stand­able for some­one who’s spent years fos­ter­ing grass­roots food events, and dou­bly un­der­stand­able, given that those events still fly per­sis­tently un­der the radar.

The homey cor­ner kitchen at Col­lege and Have­lock – seat­ing ca­pac­ity: barely two dozen – has hosted all man­ner of food pop- ups, from the quo­tid­ian to the quixotic. Think Scot­tish- Haitian fu­sion din­ners, or a recre­ation of the fi­nal meal served aboard the Ti­tanic.

In 2010, Se­nater saw the sup­per club trend es­tab­lished in other North Amer­i­can cities make in­roads in Toronto, but found that high over­head costs re­stricted those events to up­per- ech­e­lon chefs and din­ers.

“So I thought, if there’s space, you could have a far greater di­ver­sity of voices who could ac­tu­ally par­tic­i­pate, both as cooks and as buy­ers. That’s the spirit of the Depan­neur, so we can foster and en­cour­age that kind of grass­roots cul­ture, but we can dis­en­tan­gle cul­ture from lux­ury.”

Like any pro­ject with noble goals, it hasn’t been with­out its chal­lenges. At first, the spot was en­vi­sioned as a café/ cor­ner store by day.

“I thought, ‘ How hard can it be?’ Turns out, it was so hard it al­most bankrupted me.” Zon­ing and by­laws have also been an is­sue, with a liquor li­cence per­sis­tently out of reach.

Stream­lin­ing the Dep’s fo­cus to fo­cus on food events has led to smoother sail­ing. Their Fri­day- night “drop- in din­ners”, fea­tur­ing one- dish menus from avid home cooks and and pro chefs alike, are pop­u­lar. Also on the cal­en­dar: Satur­day sup­per clubs, work­shops, “ta­ble talk” din­ner sym­po­siums and week­end brunches ( cur­rently on deck is Brad Kurten­bach’s Thick Cut Brunch se­ries, which backs up its name with some se­ri­ously thick ba­con).

You’d think the Dep’s eclec­tic pro­gram­ming would go down eas­ily with the kids ea­ger to brag about their lat­est big ta­ble score on the in­ter­net, but in Se­nater’s ex­pe­ri­ence, lo­cal crowds are more likely flock to the spots with the big­gest cul­tural ca­chet or the most ex­trav­a­gant dishes.

“We’re not the hippest place in town, and we’re cer­tainly not the fan­ci­est, and that’s half of what peo­ple are buy­ing,” he says.

“I’ve had peo­ple say, if you dou­ble your prices, you’d be more pop­u­lar. But that’s the whole op­po­site of the Depan­neur, and I refuse to do it.”

Still, he can’t sit around and be sore about it. Not with a ve­gan seder, a Métis - in­spired feast and a Kaza­khstaniKorean din­ner to plan.

THE NEW­BIE CHEF

In most artis­tic dis­ci­plines, there’s a long DIY tra­di­tion for those with big ideas and lim­ited means: house shows, plays in pub­lic squares, art par­ties in empty ware­houses.

For as­pir­ing chefs, the rules are dif­fer­ent. You need a legally li­censed kitchen to ply your trade, a place to serve, and an au­di­ence that’s will­ing to pay. Some brave folks take on debt to open their own spots; most work their way up through the ranks at ex­ist­ing kitchens. But what do you do if you’re a young chef with lit­tle cash and a muse to chase?

If you’re 26- year- old Cindy Fung, three years into your culi­nary ca­reer and fresh off an in­tern­ship with R& D’s Alvin Le­ung in his three- Miche­lin- star Hong Kong bistro, you start throw­ing din­ners wher­ever you can. Lately, for Fung, the owner of Pre­serve In­dul­gence ( pre­servein­dul­gence. com), that’s been the din­ing room of her Re­gent Park condo build­ing. ( That al­lows her to skirt some rules: tech­ni­cally, it’s a din­ner party with a strict guest list.)

“I want to grow as a per­son, as an artist and es­pe­cially as a chef,” says Fung. “I find that tra­di­tional restau­rants have a fo­cus – they’re fo­cused more on the bud­get, and they lose the kin­ship of eat­ing.”

The Wind­sor na­tive ( who – full dis­clo­sure – was my neigh­bour as a kid) ap­plied for a job in a cor­po­rate restau­rant on a whim. She par­layed her ex­pe­ri­ence into cater­ing gigs and, fi­nally, a stint at Le­ung’s high- con­cept Bo In­no­va­tions. “I learned tech­niques I’ve never seen be­fore,” she says. “All the flavours were there, but ev­ery­thing was to­tally sur­real.”

She re­calls feel­ing “lost” upon re­turn­ing to Toronto, re­luc­tant to re­turn to restau­rant kitchens but want­ing an av­enue for the tech­niques she’d learned.

“It just spoke to me, that if I wanted this I would have to make it work,” she says. “That’s pretty much my model for Pre­serve: if plan A doesn’t work, there’s al­ways a plan B.”

Plan A was a se­ries of sup­per clubs, but pro­mo­tion was a chal­lenge – so she’s turn­ing her at­ten­tion to brunch par­ties, fea­tur­ing light, cit­rusy Sana gan’s beef tartare on home­made pur­ple chips, and ravi­oli filled with chunky squash puree and paired with sous vide pork belly.

As she puts it, “No one says no to mi­mosas and Cae­sars” – par­tic­u­larly not pho Cae­sars topped with sweet and-savoury Lao­tian beef jerky, a nod to her boyfriend’s her­itage.

“I wanted ( my work) to be some­thing that rep­re­sented me more as a brand, work­ing with unique foods and lo­cal in­gre­di­ents,” she says. “It’s im­por­tant for me to be able to put my emo­tions into cook­ing.”

Words and pho­tos by NATALIA MANZOCCO

In­dian Street Food Co. chef He­mant Bhag­wani pre­sented sev­eral easy- on­theeyes dishes – all off- menu – at a

re­cent din­ner hosted by U- Feast.

Chef Cindy Fung torches sous vide

pork belly at a pop- up brunch.

The Depan­neur’s food events in­clude re­cur­ring brunches by

chef Brad Kurten­bach.

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