The continuing allure of the pop-up
And the lessons it give
Trends come and go, and it wasn't that long ago when KL was awash with supper clubs, mostly helmed by fledgling chefs with aspirations to one day own a food-related business. It's encouraging to see that some have since fulfilled their dreams, and The Kitchen Table springs readily to mind as one of the most resounding successes, having transformed their underground enterprise into an exploding-at-the-seams restaurant and bakery that has stayed true to founders Mei Wan's and Marcus's ethos.
These days, however, restaurant pop-ups have become a rather more different beast, and are mounted on a much grander scale, with many celebrated chefs going offshore to dazzle foreign diners—Heston Blumenthal took the Fat Duck to Melbourne; Rene Redzepi took Noma to Sydney, to name but two—whilst their home base is being renovated, say. It's a canny strategy, because apart from the buckets of cash they stand to make from such an endeavour, it's also a great testing ground for a culinary outpost in that country.
For less famous chefs, pop-up collaborations yield the perfect opportunity to share ideas and resources, and for the exchange of knowledge that's crucial for personal evolution. The Malaysian Independence pop-up dinner at Sydney's Lucky Suzie which I recently attended served just that purpose most succinctly, and I had the privilege of tasting an eight-course menu jointly created by Lucky Suzie chef-proprietor Zachary Tan and Quay sous chef Lawrence Pang. Both Penangites, these two young chefs are testament to the capacity for we Malaysians to shine on a world stage, and the menu—more than just a showcase of their collective culinary talents—was a quiet masterpiece in their skilful marriage of Australian seafood with southeast Asian ingredients.
"I decided to host this pop-up because it afforded Lawrence and I the chance to express ourselves, and to cook out of the box so to speak, without the restrictions we usually face in terms of the restaurant's menu or customers' expectations," Tan told me. "As chefs, it's important that we keep learning, and in that respect, I got a lot from the experience because I learned new techniques from Lawrence and vice versa, and we also shared information on suppliers."
In Malaysia, we've not been slouches in the pop-up department either. Since three Michelin-starred Eneko Atxa staged his Aziamendi 88 pop-up at Mandarin Oriental KL a few years ago, there have been more than a few memorable pop-ups in this neck of the woods, and it's been most encouraging to see local chefs take up the challenge of creative collaborations with foreign chefs. Dewakan's Darren Teoh recently staged an exclusively dessert tasting menu with Michelin-starred pastry chef Andres Lara from Cacao Barry, thereby fulfilling a longtime personal ambition to introduce an exclusively sweet menu to diners.
"It was fun, mostly because Andres is such a cool person, and the team he brought also changed the energy in the kitchen and gave my guys the change to enjoy a break from the usual routine," Teoh said, adding that "KL is starved of interesting dining opportunities that aren't exorbitantly priced. People want to try different things so we really took pains to make sure everything was perfect and it wasn't something you could get at another place, and I think we succeeded in giving people a unique experience that they enjoyed."
Despite the challenges that come with staging a pop-up, both Teoh and Tan agree that the benefits far outweigh the drawbacks, and both are in the process of organising more. At Dewakan, the prospect of a collaboration with ex-Noma sous chef Tom Halpin in October is deliriously tantalising, while Tan plans to collaborate with chefs from the recently defunct Restaurant Kim, amongst others. Halcyon days these most certainly are for foodies. Now all you have to do is score yourselves some seats to these sizzling hot events.