Dean Nelson, South Asia Editor of The Telegraph, has been given the boot. “He was no good,” chortled his wife, Pamela Timms. “He just couldn’t concentrate, so we had to sack him.” On the other hand, Timms had nothing but praise for the Deputy Ambassador of Netherlands, Jeroen Roodenburg. “He could make the perfect cup of tea and serve it smartly too. So we used his services regularly.”
Nothing is what it seems in the world of pop-up restaurants and supper clubs. Upar Wali Chai, run by Timms and Laura Roodenburg, was the very first pop-up to appear on the Delhi scene, and was a text-book case of What the Perfect Pop-Up Should Be. It was quirky: it was held variously on terraces of homes, in restaurants and in gardens, and each venue was decorated by Timms and Roodenburgs themselves. There was a longer line of people on the waiting list than seats at the tea, and within less than an hour of announcing it on Twitter, the magic figure of 30 people would appear out of nowhere. Both ladies are passionate about baking and the high-teas they’d do had elaborate menus of a dozen dainty snacks. Timms and Roodenburg slaved over every tiny detail, which made Upar Wali Chai so perfect. “We’d even labour over the placement of guests ourselves, so that friends didn’t sit with friends but met new people.”
No hired helps were called in: it was just the ladies and their spouses. Until one of them was given a pink slip.
While other components of the hospitality industry are strait-jacketed into restaurants, chefs, hotels, quick service restaurants, fine dining, it’s only in pop-up restaurants that there is a refreshing lack of rules. You could be a home cook, a grandma with a wealth of recipes, a software engineer who loves to cook, an out-of-work chef or a would-be restaurateur. You could choose to have a pop-up in your own home, in a neighbour’s garden, in a godown, an art gallery or anywhere at all. You don’t have to slave away for longer than you want to, which is precisely the reason why they have become as popular. At one time, going out to eat implied visiting a restaurant only. Today, with the number of people opening homes to perfect strangers who are looking to explore new cuisines, restaurants are just one of many options.
The reasons why people do pop-ups are fascinating. Says Gitika Saikia, an Assamese living in Mumbai: “It connects me with home—the procuring ethnic ones from my in-law’s garden, the recreating memories through cooking. And yes: recognition of food of north-eastern states is dismal in Mumbai, so it is virgin territory, pretty much.”
Shobita Kadan of Impressario, the company that owns Smoke House Deli, thinks pop-ups are a fine way for a restaurant to test the market with quirky cuisines or concepts. It is also a wonderful way for people to indulge their predilection for a particular ingredient. “Swine dine is a property that we at Saltwater Café have, where an entire menu is created around pork. No restaurant, however off-beat, can afford to do something that self-indulgent.”
Swine Dine can be placed on a continuum that starts from pop-ups in homes and continues to restaurants used as venues for home cooks to put together a dinner for friends who would not ordinarily be a part of that restaurant’s customers. Says Anoothi Vishal, food journalist-cum-hobby cook of Kayastha cuisine: “My pop-ups are usually in homes of friends, to which 30 visitors group almost by magic.” Vishal says putting together a pop-up is very different from running a food festival in a restaurant. “You do all the prepping of ingredients yourself, you cook at home, transport food to the venue, warm up and serve it, all the while interacting with guests,” she says. “On the plus side, there’s a certain egalitarianism in a pop-up which is liberating.” Vishal can never do enough pop-ups, because though the food of her community is extremely interesting, there is not a single restaurant in the country that serves this cuisine.
It’s mystifying that although there are innumerable cuisines and sub-cuisines throughout the country, restaurants, caterers and other commercial establishments cover just a fraction of them. That is where pop-up restaurants fit the bill so admirably. Saikia may belong to Assam, but in fact she is part of the minuscule Sonowal Kachari tribe, while her husband belongs to the Bodo Kachari tribe. You may find Assamese restaurants in Assam, but try looking for one that serves ants’ eggs, a Bodo delicacy. Yet, if you play your cards well, you could be crunching your way through a plate of them in far-off Malad, at the Saikia residence during a pop-up.
The food of the Kodavas, another interesting cuisine that has hardly travelled out of its native Coorg, is available in a tiny weekend-only pop-up on the terrace of the Aiyappa residence in Indiranagar, Bangalore. Called Coorg, the pop-up showcases the extraordinary bounties of nature of the land. Though pork pandhi curry has gained enormous popularity, Coorg does serve other dishes whose provenance is the coffee estates on which fruit trees grow. “Our jackfruit curry, raw mango curry and wild mushroom stir-fry are loved by our diners,” says Priya Aiyappa.
Not quite a pop-up because it is permanent is Grasshopper, a charming little al fresco restaurant housed in a farm on the outskirts of Bangalore. Run by Himanshu Dimri and his wife Sonali Sattar, the fine-dine offers a delectable spread of European cuisine with touches of the Oriental and Mediterranean for a truly well-rounded flavour profile.
What has grown to be a very niche menu, started off purely as an experiment. “Himanshu would try a bunch of different things—some hits and some misses, that let him to explore and discover his strengths,” Sattar says. The duo is never short on creativity and that reflects in the way they plate their food. The menu is seasonal and a seven course meal (`2,200 per head) requires a reservation well in advance, as tables are limited to five, giving diners the privacy and exclusivity they pay for.
Not unexpectedly, Parsee food surfaces at pop-up restaurants in Mumbai. Perzen Patel may not have known how to fry an egg before she got married, but shortly thereafter she was blogging about the food of her community, making dips and desserts and planning pop-up restaurants. The few that she has been associated with so far has taught her that her guests tend to be passionate about upholding the purity of cuisine than merely enjoying the convivial atmosphere of a lazy Sunday afternoon among grandpa’s kheema kebabs and salli ghosht. Take for example her dhansak. To oblige vegetarian diners, she once made an all-vegetable dhansak, but when she let them know, they urged her to keep up the purity of her cuisine, even if it meant fewer vegetarian options. Now, that’s not a sentiment you’d hear very often in a restaurant.
Rhea Mitra Dalal, married to Kurush Dalal, son of legendary Parsee cookbook author Katy Dalal, also hosts pop-ups with a Parsee theme at home. For the Dalals, convenience of operation matters, so all of them are held in their flat. “We’re fanatical about ingredients and their provenance. Our vinegar has to come from Navsari in Gujarat and our salli only from one source. We’d never compromise on those things, but the thought of hauling cooked dishes across the city and still being able to serve it at a certain price point—it’s unthinkable except at home,” she says.
You don’t even need to be in a city to serve food to paid diners in your home. Sharmila Dharmapalan lives in Lovedale, outside Ooty, in a charming cottage. Her high teas are a byword, especially when clubbed with a walk through Toda villages that this Francophile offers friends of friends. The verbena-scented butter that accompanies the scones comes from the Dharmapalan garden. More than just a high tea or a lunch, what is on offer is a window into a charmed world. The pristine countryside, the rolling hills, the impeccably maintained bungalow and the company of the Dharmapalans as they walk guests through villages and views that would be impossible to find on one’s own.
Exotica isn’t the only thing on offer. In Hyderabad, the initiative of Gopi Krishna Kishore Bylupalla is called Feazt and addresses the angst of every young professional who craves company and home food but lacks the wherewithal. Hosts who want to share their cuisine with others and those who are fond of good food and/or experimenting with flavours contact each other through Bylupalla. His concept is simple, home-style food, inexpensively priced, and he makes sure that many of the hosts are grandmothers and aunts with long-forgotten recipes to share. “The back-breaking work that I put in is totally worth it when I see the sheer pride on the faces of elderly matrons who cook for strangers and earn a bit of pin money in the bargain.” Bylupalla is so sure of his product that he insists that the pricing of all those who register is kept low enough to be affordable by one and all. “I want to bring young people who live away from home in touch with elderly home cooks who may have grown up children who live on another continent and who lack the chance to show off their cooking skills.”
So wide-ranging has the genre of non-restaurants become that when IT professional Shree Periakaruppan moved back to Chennai after a decade in the US, she thought of food rather than software as option. Her venture, Foodology, is a smart studio kitchen in Adyar, with a dozen cooking stations and enough high-end appliances and cookware for 20 people. Foodology has been used for a number of functions, from learning how to cook to preparing a meal that requires skill and experience to fun baking for children to team-building exercises for corporates in a setting that requires food. Shree keeps each module to two hours to retain energy and interest of participants, which includes sharing the meal afterwards. The Foodology team sets up the mise-en-place and keeps a watch on first-timers, so it’s difficult to prepare a badly cooked meal. “I want to promote the idea that food is fun in addition to healthy,” beams Periakaruppan. Even she could never have anticipated the sheer variety of customers who aspire to an hour or two at Foodology, cooking, eating and bonding. From children to corporates, her venture has plenty of takers.
The concept of eating in is gaining ground rapidly. Once Upon My Kitchen introduced hobby cooks to those wanting to partake cooked meals in the company of others. Hosts and guests have the opportunity to register online, look at menus, and take it forward—or not. It is the initiative of Ranjith Rajasekharan, a media and sports marketing professional. The site has been active in Delhi and Mumbai for a few months and is set to roll out into other cities. If you’re a hobby cook, you need to register and offer a sample menu along with days and times that you can accept diners. The great majority of hosts so far have been people with day jobs who have a passion for cooking. Guests can go through menus, pay online and enjoy a meal.
Rajasekharan has noticed that food, though central, is but one element among a host of others. “Conversations and the sense of comfort usually overtake mere eating. At least, that is the trend we’ve noticed.” He enunciates a truth that makes a pop-up or a home-dining different from an experience in a restaurant. In a restaurant, the customer is king, but there’s a certain predictability about the meal. In a home, there are many variables. The level of formality, whether you will eat at a dining table, sit on a sofa or stand in a verandah is just one question. Others range from the level of cooking—homely in mis-matched crockery or as professional as a restaurant—to the level of interaction you will have with the other guests and the host. Will he or she be in the kitchen doing last-minute preparations or be charming the guests and making sure conversation sparkles? On such variables depend the success of an evening.
Vikram Raizada, executive director and CEO Retail of Tara Jewels, his wife and father meet every Sunday for dinner without fail. The three Mumbai foodies delight in trying out new restaurants and cuisines. So when Vikram got to know of Pia Promina through Once Upon My Kitchen, he lost no time in heading to Promina’s place in Bandra for an authentic Bengali Mahabhoj. They arrived well before the appointed time, the better to get to know the host and vice versa. “We travel a lot and where we can, we opt for homestays so we can experience the local culture and cuisine. Instead of going to some new restaurant, we found this different and interesting. Also this concept of home dining is, in a way, an extension of a homestay,” says Raizada.
Promina had 11 items to serve for dinner. It took her all day to cook, but watching her guests relish the food was the reward.
Benefiting from platforms like Once Upon My Kitchen are people like Ayandrali Dutta, a travel blogger and food enthusiast, and Nidhi Jolly, who works with Nourishco Beverages, both from Delhi. Both are now dab hands at hosting dinners at home, thereby opening up their talent and kitchens, to the world. “The biggest high of cooking is cooking for an appreciative audience—friends, family and eventually strangers. They open my world to all kinds of feedback,” says Jolly, who usually cooks world cuisine.
Dutta attributes her passionate obsession with food to her Bengali genes. “Ours is a community that loves to eat, talk about food incessantly and host friends, acquaintances, neighbours and colleagues, all through the year. I grew up in a household where food was given a lot of importance. When I shifted to Delhi a decade ago, I missed all the great recipes from my mother’s kitchen. To create a piece of the magic myself, I decided to start hosting on weekends, whereby I would offer the best from my culinary basket to my guests, and myself,” she says.
Putting in the last word is Chef Manu Chandra of Monkey Bar and Fatty Bao in Bangalore. Chandra is enchanted with the concept of pop-up but cautions that its boutique nature could get undermined if hosts treat them as a money spinner and start packing in the punters. In other words, it’s quite in order to cook the goose but not to kill the one that lays the golden eggs.