Popping in for a bite

Pop-up restaurants have become a serious player in Nashville’s food scene. But if you want a taste, you’ll have to be quick.

Friday, April 19, 2013, Vol. 37, No. 16
By Hollie Deese

Chef Sarah Gavigan has popped up often enough to know that in Nashville, at least, pop-up restaurants have found a foothold with foodies.

“I am [in the] second stage in the life of this,” Gavigan says. “The honeymoon is over, it’s a real business and people have expectations.’’

Gavigan operates Otaku South, a sporadic ramen noodle shop that changes locations and has no set schedule, a classic pop-up, one that depends largely on social media to bring in a small, highly knowledgeable, fine dining clientele.

Other Nashville chefs offer their own versions, experimenting with the concept as much as with the food, looking for a niche in the city’s much-heralded, renewed food culture.

With Gavigan, some innovators on the scene are:

  • Carlos Davis and B.J. Lofback, who started out with a food truck, Riff’s Fine Street Food, and created a pop-up business, Relish Epicurea, to make money during the winter season.
  • Lisa Donovan hosted her first Buttermilk Road Sunday Supper in 2012. While suppers are a regular event, her locations do change, making it a kind of a supper club pop-up hybrid.
  • Vivek Surti founded Epicurean Adventures, a venture that began out of his parents’ house. His supper club differs from a true pop-up by serving up cuisine to regular diners at a regular location.
  • Brandon Frohne has been a guest chef at one of Surti’s outings and now hosts his own pop-up – Forage South – with James Todd. They want to give diners a chance to try something different and share that experience with them.
  • Caroline Galzin, who with husband Tony runs the nose-to-tail Sycamore Nashville pop-up, says their plan is to keep “evolving and changing.’’

Gavigan has brought her noodles to trendy restaurants like Silo and The Catbird Seat as part of her pop-up routine, and she keeps her nearly 1,000 Facebook friends and 1,100 Twitter followers updated as to where she might turn up next.

Pop-up restaurants would hardly be able to exist without social media. Frohne alerts people on his email list, and seats are usually sold out within a day.

The same goes for other pop-ups. And with such a limited number of seats, it is important to fill them all to make the effort and planning that goes into a one-off meal worth it.

Gavigan’s social commentary efforts recently included a conversation thread in the Nashville Scene food blog Bites when someone questioned how much she was charging for ramen – in that case, $40 for a four-course, seated meal at Silo.

“I do not want to make a $9 bowl of ramen,” she wrote online. “There will come a day very soon that a ramen maker will come to Nashville and open a shop making damn fine ramen for $9 with frozen bones and MSG. I will eat there regularly, and hopefully, have beers with that chef, but I do not want to make that bowl of ramen.

“So, where is all of this taking me? Not to retirement, I can assure you. Maybe a brick-and-mortar. I don’t know yet honestly. I just may not be cut out for it. That is what I am here to learn.”

Southern, Japanese comfort food

Gavigan has a day job in the music industry and her ramen was featured in the January issue of Food & Wine magazine. Her culinary journey has been one she stumbled upon but that she has committed to fully.

“I think that if you have been around long enough and done enough things, 90 percent of anything you do is timing and luck,” she says. “And ramen is the trendy food of 2013, somewhat like what the wood-fired pizza was three years ago.

“The real precipice of this project for me is to explore the similarities of Japanese comfort food and Southern comfort food because there are a lot of similarities. Right now, I am really into ramen. In a year it might be different.”

She is considering a restaurant, but just isn’t sure.

Getting involved

It’s not about who you know, but how quick and handy you are with a computer. Most suppers operate with an email alert system, and from there it is first come, first serve.

Sign up for alerts or, if those aren’t offered, check their blogs periodically for new dinner announcements.

Sycamore Nashville

Vivek’s Epicurean Adventures Supper Club

Buttermilk Road Sunday Supper

Forage South

Otaku South

Relish Epicurea and Riff’s Fine Foods

Upcoming Events:

Information is subject to change. Please check websites.

Vivek’s Epicurean Adventures

Nashville Farmers’ Market

April 20, 6 p.m.

Cost: $50/$75 with cocktails

Extra Large Ramen Event

With guest chefs Guy Wong, Akiko Moorman and Dennis Lange, music and a full cash bar.

Marathon Motor Works

April 20, 3-8 p.m.

Cost: Each plate of food is $12

Sycamore Nashville

The Catbird Seat

April 21, 6 p.m.

Cost: $130 for six courses of locally raised rabbit with wine parings.

Proceeds benefit the Hands On Nashville Urban Farm.

Relish Epicurea

Conexicon Americas

April 26, 7 p.m.

Cost: $56 for five courses. Cocktails for purchase individually (or an additional $25 with the meal).

For now, she is just looking to find a few steady homes for Otaku so she can have a regular cooking schedule, maybe two lunches and a dinner a week, while she pursues bigger opportunities.

Guests meet up at the 12 South Taproom for a pop-up of Otaku South in September.

-- Photo Courtesy Of Otaku South

Gavigan is bringing in four chefs on Saturday, April 20, 3-8 p.m., at Marathon Music Works with a menu of traditional Japanese fare. ($12 a plate).

It began with a food truck

Carlos Davis debuted his supper club Relish Epicurea last month, the culmination of 15 years of hard work. He’ll host a five-course dinner at 7 p.m. on April 26, at Conexicon Americas. ($56 for five courses).

A trained chef, Davis moved to Nashville from Barbados and, like many others, discovered a new path after the 2010 flood. That’s when he met Lofback, a guy from Detroit in town to feed relief workers.

“Here is this white guy from Detroit with zero formal culinary training and this black guy from Barbados who has nothing but chef’s training,” Davis says.

Lofback was ready to re-enter the food world on his own terms and had spent a year on his concept for a food truck. Davis was ready for a change after years in catering and hospitality.

They partnered and launched Riff’s Fine Street Food, one of Nashville’s first food truck teams.

They were also early to realize that winter in Nashville is not exactly the best time to lure workers out of their warm offices for food, so they decided to try out a pop-up restaurant to supplement their lost profits.

“Meanwhile, we were fighting this battle with the brick-and-mortars who didn’t know what to do with us,” Lofback says. “So when I started hearing about pop ups I thought why not just rock this restaurant counter culture thing and do food we can’t do in the food truck.”

Davis and Lofback hosted their first pop-up at Notable Blends in Houston Station more than a year ago, and then another in the courtyard at Corsair Artisan, each night offering two seatings of about 50 customers each.

“Then the food truck really got busy, so we waited until it got cold again, and by that time everyone and their brother was doing one,” Lofback adds.

Southern and Indian food together

Vivek Surti has been hosting one of the longest-running supper clubs in Nashville. Vivek’s Epicurean Adventures began out of his parents’ house, and is now at the Farmers’ Market.

His next event is April 20, 6 p.m., on the Market grounds.

“I am from Manchester, Tenn., but my parents are from India,” Surti says. “I really wanted to explore how the food cultures of the South relate to the food cultures of India.

“Having grown up as a kid in the South, but eating a lot of Indian food, what my mom cooked and what my grandmother cooked, kind of got me interested in going beyond the food and exploring the cultures.”

He opts for the stability of the supper club for many reasons, including being able to build strong relationships with different farmers and local producers.

“I thought the supper club was kind of a cool way to not only explore those food cultures, but also talk a little but in a deeper way about the similarities between them, the warming sense of hospitality both have, the willingness to share, and how food brings people together in both of those cultures, in good times and bad times.”

Frohne has been a guest chef at one of Surti’s outings, and now hosts his own pop-up with Todd.

They have served up two dinners and will continue to do monthly outings while Frohne explores all the food opportunities that are available for a young chef with an open mind.

“I really enjoy the concept of pop-up dinners,” Frohne adds. “I would love to open my own restaurant, but not having the capital right now is definitely a big issue.

“This allows us to connect with the guest in a personal way and allows us to test out creative menu items you might not necessarily try in a restaurant in Nashville. And it is a great way to establish our names in the community and offer Nashville another exciting dining option.”

Restaurant realities

While Frohne may be considering opening a restaurant someday, many others in the pop-up world have been there already and don’t care to go back.

Guests of Vivek’s Epicurean Supper Club recently enjoyed a five-course meal held at the Nashville Farmers’ Market.

-- Photo Courtesy Of Vivek’S Epicurean Supper Club

A pop-up offers them the opportunity to flex their creativity in the kitchen without being beaten down by the long and unforgiving hours.

Donovan started out as pastry chef at City House with Tandy Wilson, and after a couple of years moved to Margot to work with Margot McCormack. B

But after a while, she knew she couldn’t do battle with the hours any more as she also pursued writing and kids.

“I have a family, and restaurant work is hard,” she explains. “I love it and I miss it terribly, but this was an easier route for me to juggle all the things in my life and still be able to cook.”

In June 2012, she hosted her first Buttermilk Road Sunday Supper and, like Surti, Donovan approaches her dinners as a way to explore culture through food on her terms.

And while they are a regular event, her locations do change, making it kind of a supper club pop-up hybrid.

“When you get to be too much of an institution then you sort of feel like this is no longer a pop- up,” Donovan says.

“It can stay an underground, renegade idea just long enough for you to get your feet under you for a bigger project. I don’t know how long it can have a life as a pop-up.”

In fact, Donovan was hired by chef Sean Brock as his pastry chef as they celebrate Southern ingredients at Husk, (37 Rutledge St., husknashville.com), the local version of his Charleston restaurant.

Despite not being open yet, Husk was named in the May 2013 issue of Food & Wine as one of 17 restaurants in the United States worth traveling to try.

Donovan says Brock has been very supportive.

“And that was a really big concern for me as I have been trying to build up momentum as an independent chef and writer,” she says.

The shelf life of a pop-up

The National Restaurant Association agrees with Donovan’s assessment that a pop-up can remain a pop-up for only so long before becoming something else.

“I’d say the most common use of pop-ups is for established chefs or restaurateurs to experiment with new ideas, so it’s most often not a choice between opening a temporary restaurant or a permanent one,” says Annika Stensson with the National Restaurant Association.

“The very nature of a pop-up restaurant is that it is temporary, and therefore not typically part of a long-term plan in itself.”

“Driving traffic is key to success for any restaurant, but even more so for pop-ups as they’re only operating for a set period of time,” Stensson says.

“In that sense, pop-ups are similar to food trucks, where social media plays a major part in getting the word out.”

With all the positive aspects that pop-ups offer, like total culinary creativity and flexible hours, there are plenty of problems, too.

Working in a totally different kitchen each time – if there is a kitchen at all – is an issue. But being flexible is key, and pop-ups, like food trends, are evolving.

“We moved down here with one plan in mind, and over the past six months our plan keeps evolving and changing,” says Caroline Galzin, who operates Sycamore Nashville with husband Tony, who also is pastry chef at Flyte.

“We originally were working towards wanting to have a full-service restaurant, very traditional, and the idea is one we still hope to open one day,” she explains.

“But we have another project that we have started working on, and we hope to have it open by the summer. It is not exactly a restaurant but is still in the food and beverage realm.”

Evolving to meet the needs of the owner is just as important as meeting the needs of the customer, and Davis is banking on his new supper club adding a much-needed piece to the food-truck and catering puzzle he has created with Lofback.

“When I get homesick, I create from memory the dishes that help me know I am still home,” Davis explains.

“I cook from the heart, seldom from a recipe. Relish Epicurea is about the journey of my culinary experiences, my travels to other countries, other chefs that have influenced my evolution and most of all, friends and family.”