At pop-up restaurants, where chefs temporarily set up shop in a dining room, a barn or even a dorm room, dinner is an improvisation, more jazz than symphony. For a limited time and a limited audience, a cook can riff with premeditated spontaneity.
For years, pop-ups have been many newcomers’ first step toward opening a restaurant, a way to show off their talent and try out new ideas. But now, some chefs and home cooks are treating the pop-up as an end in itself, using the dinners to explore and share their culinary traditions. Often, these meals feel like both academic seminars and family scrapbooks, an intimate anthropology told in beloved recipes and reclaimed ingredients.
Pop-ups aren’t entirely new. They have roots in mid-20th-century supper clubs, the food trucks where laborers bought lunch and the home restaurants that fed leaders of the civil rights movement. When the Great Recession led to restaurant closings, many chefs turned to pop-ups to stay current, visible and solvent.
This new breed of chefs charge for their dinners, but none are getting rich from them. Most advertise on Instagram and sell tickets online. Whatever the logistics, their pop-ups allow them to innovate and experiment for just a few guests, creating a community that lasts only as long as the meal. As personal testimonies carry more weight in art and public discourse, pop-ups offer cooks a way to say, through food: “This is my history. This is who I am.”
Leigh-Ann Martin makes Trinidadian-inspired food at her home in Union City, N.J.
In 2017, Leigh-Ann Martin booked a ticket to St. Lucia, in the Caribbean. A native of Trinidad, she was tired of New York winters and yearned to understand more about her ancestral foods. In a series of trips to the Caribbean ranging from a week to over a month, she set out to explore different islands.
In Trinidad, she spoke with relatives, carefully watching them cook. In Grenada, she felt connected to the land, preparing barracuda once a week. In Barbados, she sought out dishes not meant for tourists.
“It’s not like everyone is eating out of coconut shells,” Ms. Martin said, laughing. “But you have to respect that Jamaicans cook like Jamaicans, and Trinidadians cook like Trinidadians. There’s no ‘Caribbean food.’ That’s a myth.”
When she returned to her apartment in Union City, N.J, in June 2018, she started hosting intimate pop-up dinners, called a Table for Four, at her small, square table. Ms. Martin, 34, plans each course months in advance, infusing rum with fruit for dessert, and meeting with the staff at Good Wine, a store in Park Slope, Brooklyn, to plan each pairing.
“I’m a crazy Virgo,” she said. “I’m Miss Bossypants. With everything, it’s preparation.”
Her dinners pole-vault stereotypes of Caribbean food as being laid-back and slapdash. An August dinner was beach-themed, her food an ode to the oceanside socializing, with fruit sellers and soccer games, that lives in her nostalgia. For $85, including wine pairings, each of her four guests took a trip into her memories.
To start, she served a gazpacho made from chayote, the squash also known as christophine, in open calabash gourds, nestled on beds of rock salt. She dressed the chilled soup with coconut oil from Grenada, brought back in her suitcase.
Spicy ginger shrimp evoked the heat of beach sand. The briny taste of her souse, pickled pigs’ feet served in an acidic brine, recalled the salty waves. (“A lot of people within the diaspora would rather not speak about the undesirable cuts of meat,” she explained. “But I want to show respect to the people of my country.”)
Therese Nelson, a food historian who attended, said she admired Ms. Martin for making a Caribbean meal without the stereotypical dishes that tourists expect. “She is using our heritage in a way that explores and plays, the way that every other culture gets to,” Ms. Nelson said.
A Table for Four, information at leighannmartin.com
Omar Tate explores black American culture through food, in various locations.
At a dinner he served last summer in Bucks County, Pa., the chef Omar Tate set an antique medicine bottle, a wood carving and a calcified shovel on a small table at the side of the room. He’d found them in South Carolina, on the former plantation where his ancestors had once worked as slaves.
“When you say slavery, you think South,” he told about 20 guests who had gathered at Plowshare Farms, in Pipersville, to taste his food. “But that erases the people who were enslaved here.”
He paused, looking out at the room, now quiet. “Bucks County is where my family’s enslaver came from in the 1790s,” he said. “This is a pretty full-circle moment for me.”
Mr. Tate, 33, presents these artifacts at every Honeysuckle dinner, to humanize and recognize the work and lives of his enslaved forebears. A poet and chef, he worked at the restaurants Fork and Russet in Philadelphia, and as sous-chef under the chef JJ Johnson at Henry at the Life Hotel until it closed in July 2019.
Mr. Tate’s menus for the dinners — which he has hosted from Philadelphia to New York City to Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts — quilt cultural history and his own memories into a celebration of the black American past.
Guests drove from hours away to try the chef Omar Tate’s end-of-summer tribute to black life in Philadelphia at Plowshare Farms in Bucks County, Pa.Credit…Ryan Collerd for The New York Times
On this evening, he served a six-course story about the connections between Philadelphia, where he was raised, and South Carolina.
For an appetizer, Mr. Tate made canapés, inspired by W.E.B. Du Bois’s “The Philadelphia Negro,” a seminal work of American sociology published in 1899. Mr. Tate found the book at a stand near his home in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, and paused on a footnote that listed dishes — chicken croquettes with rose-hip jam, lobster salad and deviled crab — regularly prepared by black chefs and caterers for Philadelphia high society. As the sunset glowed orange on the fields outside, Mr. Tate served his interpretations.
His guests had each paid $135 for the meal, which also included a halal cheese steak, a nod to his Muslim upbringing, and a tomato-and-mayonnaise salad inspired by the ones his mother used to make. Most of the diners were white, except for one group of black women who had arrived together. “Most of the spaces I cook in are white spaces,” Mr. Tate said. “But a bunch of black people drove out from Philly tonight. That’s the power of representation.”
Rachel Branson, who organized the outing for her mother and her mother’s friends, said: “I’m glad we’re here, because there aren’t any other black people here. This food was indigenous to slaves who worked this land.”
Stephanie Bonnin serves Colombian dishes in her home in Bushwick, Brooklyn.
On Sundays, the Colombian-born chef Stephanie Bonnin transforms her railroad apartment in Bushwick, Brooklyn, into a pop-up restaurant. She pushes her furniture into the bedroom she shares with her husband, Pablo Bonnin, stacks fruit high in bowls and pulls on a full-body apron.
Smoke detectors go off during dinner; her dogs are locked in a bedroom. Whatever. The 20 or so guests who gather here to eat are mostly friends, drawn by word of mouth, though Ms. Bonnin is hoping someday to open a restaurant.
“We want to recreate a Sunday night at my grandma’s place,” she said. “I missed that. I’m homesick.”
Ms. Bonnin, 32, a trained chef, gathers her recipes on regular trips to Colombia and Latin America, where she seeks out older chefs to learn about pre- and post-colonial food ways. She also has a weekly stand at Smorgasburg.
With her no-holds-barred jokes, Ms. Bonnin is a natural hostess and a listening ear. Around the long table, she creates a momentary family, sharing her nostalgia and her hope that food can revive the Colombian economy.
A December dinner drew on flavors from Colombia’s Pacific coast, which she has explored only since the nation’s five decade-long civil war formally ended in 2016. It is still difficult to travel in Colombia, she said.
Ms. Bonnin spooned encocado, a sauce made from coconut milk, seafood stock and herbs, over shrimp with their heads still on, meant to be sucked noisily. She cooked tamales over clay burners in her hallway, wrapping them in banana leaves, which she described as “indigenous Tupperware.” Her dinners cost $40 to $80, depending on ingredient expenses.
“I have a restaurant,” she said. “It’s just in my living room.”
After the meal, her guests moved to a fire pit outdoors while she made hot chocolate and buñuelos, fried cheese balls, in her kitchen. “I could use a food processor,” she said, melting the chocolate over the stove. “But what’s the point of that?”
Chinchakriya Un offers Cambodian food in various locations.
When the chef Chinchakriya Un was just a baby, her family left Cambodia as refugees, fleeing the brutal Khmer Rouge regime. Her mother, Kim Eng Mann, did not know if her culture would perish in the genocide alongside the country’s artists, intellectuals and civic leaders.
“I am cooking with her as a way to preserve our food history,” said Ms. Un, 32, at a dinner she hosted in July at the King Tai bar in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. She hosts meals around the Northeast, including dinners in Rhode Island, where she grew up, and on a friend’s property in the Catskills.
Chinchakriya Un, right, and her mother, Kim Eng Mann, work together on Kreung. Ms. Mann has lived with shrapnel in her body since the Cambodian civil war; it causes her pain in her legs and feet. Cooking, Ms. Mann said, is a relief, a way to make the pain feel useful.Credit…Jeenah Moon for The New York Times
The mother-daughter team squatted wide-kneed over a propane tank and scraped lobster marinating in coolers into enormous skillets. They cooked for a crowd of more than 100 people over two warm summer nights. Kreung, the name Ms. Un gave her pop-up and catering company, is a Khmer word that loosely translates as “spice.” Ms. Un and her mother, who is affectionately called Mama Kim at the dinners, are a culinary part of a larger movement to preserve Cambodian art and culture.
Ms. Un served lobster, stir-fried with roe, ginger and spices, alongside rice and grilled corn, doused in coconut milk and fish sauce. Traditionally, the dish is made with crab and meant to be eaten by hand, but Ms. Un drew inspiration from her childhood in New England.
Many young Cambodian-Americans gathered for the pop-up with their skateboards, sitting on the curb to eat with their hands.
Like Ms. Un, some grew up in refugee families and, as adults, are only beginning to speak with their parents about the civil war.
“A lot of our culture disappeared as a lot of our population was killed, and we were just heads-down survival mode,” said Tina Kit, 28, a Cambodian-American who attended. “There just wasn’t that passing of knowledge.”
Language barriers and limits on the traditional ingredients they can find in the United States also make it hard to learn the recipes. Some have tried from YouTube videos; others trade voice messages with family members who stayed in Cambodia.
The meals served at Kreung are sometimes their only links to Cambodian food, as there are few Cambodian restaurants in New York City.
“Even for us, it’s hard to know our culture,” said Tommy Teav, 28. “This is spreading the culture, because food is the root of everything.”
Kreung, information on Instagram, @kreung_cambodia
Linda A. Sebisaho makes Congolese food in cooking classes and pop-ups around New York City.
In the Democratic Republic of Congo, where Linda A. Sebisaho was born, entrepreneurship is the norm, not the exception.
“Back home, you can graduate from college with any degree and there’s nothing that’s guaranteed for you, unless you know somebody,” said Ms. Sebisaho, 26, at a December dinner she hosted through her pop-up and catering company, Linda A. Cooks. “The only path is to start your own business.”
Her roughly 100 guests, many of whom were also young African entrepreneurs working in creative fields, had gathered for her buffet-style dinner in the basement of the Maysles Documentary Center in Harlem, networking over her traditional Congolese foods.
Her friend Eldior Sodeck, a fashion designer who has dressed the singer Cardi B. and started her own clothing line, was selling her brightly colored pieces made of wax print fabric. Ms. Sebisaho’s partner in the pop-up, Valentina Mabiala, started Bantu Tastes with her husband, Benoit Mabiala, importing ingredients from central Africa.
In 2008, when she was 14, Ms. Sebisaho left Bukavu, a city in the eastern part of Congo, and was granted asylum in the United States, citing her homeland’s decades of civil war. When she settled in Manhattan with her uncle and aunt, she didn’t speak English. She didn’t know when, or if, she would ever return to the country of her birth.
A few years later, at DePauw University, in Indiana, she began catering student events, before winning a $3,000 entrepreneurship grant to start her catering company and attend a summer-long business incubator. Since graduation, she has expanded Linda A. Cooks into a pop-up series and recurring class, teaching Congolese cooking.
“Congolese cuisine, like Palestinian cuisine or Syrian cuisine, is a cuisine without borders,” she said. “Our states no longer belong to us. The one thing that we have left, since we don’t have our homes anymore, is the food.”
Chikwangue, a fermented cassava paste steamed in banana leaves, provided the central starch in her December menu. The cassava had come from Africa, imported by Bantu Tastes. Ms. Sebisaho also prepared sakasaka, a stew made from cassava leaves, as well as catfish, grilled goat and okra. On the side were steamed safou, sour wild plums that grow on hillsides.
“Here in the U.S., I can have a good idea, which I did, and something happens because of it,” she said. “But Congo is a country that has a history of war, civil unrest. You still have a sense of belonging to a land, but you cannot claim it anymore. A way to not feel like a nobody is by holding on that part of your culture, which I do through food.”
Mercedes Golip serves Venezuelan-inspired food in various locations.
When Mercedes Golip left Venezuela 13 years ago, she packed a cookbook, “Mi Cocina,” a guide to the food of Caracas. Although she had never been much of a cook, she knew that she would need familiar flavors to combat homesickness.
“Bringing this with me was like bringing a photo album,” she said, holding her well-thumbed copy.
Instead of using imported ingredients for the seasonal pop-ups she hosts around New York City, Ms. Golip, 38, seeks out foods that are grown locally. Sometimes, the corn for her arepas comes from the Iroquois White Corn Project, a Native American-led farming project in western New York that farms and sells a 1,500-year-old strain of corn. She grew aji dulce peppers in her Astoria, Queens, backyard, dried them and ground them to use as a powder to sprinkle over a potato salad.
At a December dinner at Archestratus Books & Foods in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, Ms. Golip cooked a holiday meal. Like Thanksgiving in the United States, Christmas in Venezuela comes with set dishes and menus. Some guests were Venezuelan, and most guests she knew. Her dinners range from $75 to $125, but she plans to start more casual cooking classes in the future. This is a passion project — she works a day job as a project manager in marketing at The New York Times. Her menus take weeks to plan.
“I am trying to recreate the flavors of my memory with what happens to be around,” she said. “I compensate with what I could find here, and that’s exactly the broader experience of being immigrant.”
At the December dinner, each dish came from the holiday menu. For an appetizer, Ms. Golip made a cocktail with wine and three grapes, a reference to a Venezuelan tradition of eating eat 12 grapes and making 12 wishes on New Year’s Eve.
Almost every Venezuelan bakery sells ham bread, pan de jamón, at year’s end. When Ms. Golip couldn’t find any, she learned to make the stuffed bread herself. For a main course, she served hallacas, which like tamales are stuffed and folded with corn dough and meat. Traditionally, families come together in December to make the holiday dishes, folding and tying shut the plantain leaves, assembly-line-style.
“It has an element of ritual,” said Jose Ripol, 32, a guest at her table who had left Venezuela as a child. “This plantain leaf is what Christmas smells like to me.”
In her menu, Ms. Golip recalled flavors from holidays past, before Venezuela descended into economic and social chaos, before her friends scattered across the world.
“The places I remember don’t exist anymore,” Miriam Marquez, 39, a guest who immigrated from Venezuela. “Especially now. That’s why this food reminds me of my childhood.”