The restaurant industry is fraught with entrepreneurial endeavors—from restaurant groups taking over large swaths of their cities to chefs serving a prix fixe menu in an exclusive, intimate setting to the ever-approachable farm-to-table bistro, awash in rustic woods and craft cocktails. Chef/owners can easily feel like they’re treading in a sea of competition, but this is also where pop-up restaurants come into play.
Though not meant to be major money producers, a pop-up restaurant can provide an experimental space where chefs in transition—or even current chef/owners—can simply play around with food, try out a potential concept, or just have fun and reconnect with their cooking passions. That was the explanation shared by Ryan Poli, a respected chef from Chicago who spent the last two years traveling the world after leaving the Mercadito Restaurants group. He has since come back to the Windy City and begun giving pop-ups a try.
Poli’s travels took him abroad to explore, eat, and cook in Thailand, Vietnam, Japan, Australia, Copenhagen, and Europe. Stateside, he spent time in Philadelphia learning how to make pasta with Chef Marc Vetri, and in New York City he worked with a number of chefs including Dan Barber. When he returned to Chicago last autumn, he faced the blaring question: What now?
“I didn’t want to open my own restaurant right away or join a restaurant group and run someone else’s concept,” he says. “After all these travels, I had learned so much, and I just wanted to cook somewhere.”
The pop-up model was the perfect answer, offering freedom from corporate management and even from diners themselves. In a pop-up restaurant, there are no special diet requests or substitutions; there is no theme; sometimes there is not even a hint of rhyme or reason to the sequence of dishes. Chefs can cook what and however they want.
“Diners come to a pop-up and expect to submit to whatever [the chef] is serving,” Chef Poli explains. (Yes, if someone is deathly allergic to shellfish, he’ll make substitutions.) “Sometimes we don’t even know what we’re making until the day of. There’s no printed menu; things are constantly changing. And sometimes it’s better if no one has read about us, because then there are no preconceived notions. We just serve good food.”
In Poli’s view, the perfect pop-up seats 20 people max and the chef can be ever-present, interacting with the diners but still exerting some control over the music and ambiance. The space becomes the chef’s for the night, series of nights, or weekend, whatever the case may be.
“I was inspired by the chefs in Copenhagen who would have pop-ups on the weekend just to play around with food and to cook whatever they wanted,” says Poli, referring to the globally acclaimed Noma. “They are the ones who pushed me to do this, so I started researching how pop-ups are done: Do I rent a space? Do I bring people in all at once? There are so many variables of how you can set it up.”
Upon returning to Chicago, Poli first connected with a chef who offered space at his bar to do bar snacks and cocktails, but the restaurant-within-a-restaurant just didn’t seem right. Then there was the thought of transforming a hot dog stand into a Michelin-level restaurant for a night, but the logistics—and grime—of the place just didn’t stand up (no pun intended).
Then one day, while riding around the Logan Square neighborhood, Poli passed by Jam, Chicago’s successful breakfast-brunch restaurant, which earned a highly sought-after position on the Michelin Bib Gourmand list in 2015 and is owned by his friend Anthony Fiore.
Realizing the space would be vacant at dinner, he called Fiore, who enthusiastically agreed to host Poli for a weekend dinner series. The first event took place in a fast few days. Poli paid a portion of the rent, covered the cost of the food, and paid for any staff—though he started with just himself and two other cooks.
The team moved in to set up for dinner as soon as Jam closed at 3 p.m., and the first dinner—serving eight courses at $110 per person—sold out within a blink. Local press embraced the idea and a few more days sold out. But then things went dark.
While Poli has a strong following on social media, the notices of pop-up events weren’t circulating quickly enough before the events were held and he had a hard time booking seats. “I took the rest of October off to figure out what to do,” he says.
Poli reached out to a local PR company, kept information circulating on social media, and dropped the price to $75 for eight courses. He announced another series for the month of November, and the dinners started selling out again.
It was a positive turning point, but in addition to challenges with getting the word out, pop-ups can be all-consuming and exhausting, even more so than the typical day-to-day work in a kitchen. “You have to do everything—you’re taking reservations; you’re cooking; you’re pouring wine, greeting guests, hanging up their coats, washing dishes, and cleaning up the place,” Chef Poli explains.
Think: dinner party on speed. That’s probably why pop-ups last one to three days at a time, not six. But, challenges aside, in Poli’s case, a pop-up allowed him to tell stories through food and show off the cooking techniques he learned from his travels. For instance, in a rift on squid ink pasta and Italian bottarga, the umami-rich, pressed and aged fish roe that’s shaved over pasta and other dishes like a giant truffle, Poli brined and smoked scallops, then dehydrated them for three days and shaved them over a seaweed pasta spiked with Japanese yuzu and cured chilis.
In another example, inspired by the popular Vietnamese rice crepes, bánh xèo, Chef Poli served the semi-crispy shells for make-your-own tacos with bean sprouts, a fish sauce, and fermented and pickled vegetables. For dessert, he made a bitter chocolate crémeux with a roasted kombu ice cream topped with toasted, puffed wild rice and oranges.
“When you roast the kombu, it doesn’t taste just like the sea anymore, it takes on a sugar-like quality with a different kind of umami flavor that pairs well with dark chocolate and the toasted flavor of the rice,” he says.
In his next venture, Poli made things a little easier on himself by collaborating with other chefs during a restaurant’s normal dinner service—a nice way for a restaurant to keep things exciting for its regular diners. Chef Poli teamed up with Chef Phillip Foss of EL Ideas, another newly starred Michelin restaurant, and offered the 20-seat, prix-fixe-menu model that worked well in the pop-up format. In another example, Poli traveled to Austin, Texas, for a two-night collaboration dinner with chef Kevin Fink at his new restaurant Emmer & Rye. There, Poli made two courses, Fink made a couple, and together they made other courses.
Though he’s taking one day at a time, Poli is continuing to share his culinary expertise via pop-up and collaboration dinners. And the crowds love it. “People don’t want to sit in a 400-seat gymnasium anymore,” he says. “They want to see the chef, see the owner.”
We’re talking old-school hospitality where you feel like you walked into a bustling dinner party. And Chef just poured you a glass of wine.