Ten talented home cooks, many diners, one long candle-lit table… Sandy’s hosted a memorable eating experience serving the best of traditional food

The best pop-ups tell a story. Chennai’s first pop up restaurant told twelve.

Temporary restaurants that spring up for a reason, and disappear soon after, pop-ups thrive on drama. They come in various guises. Some are seasonal restaurants; some exist for one night only. Whether they’re run by professional chefs or amateur cooks, their main aim is to create memorable eating experiences. Dinner, after all, is never just about the food.

Grandly titled ‘Kitchen Chronicles: Rise of the Home Chefs,’ this culinary event staged at Sandys (R.A. Puram) intelligently played on Chennai’s strengths. Hosted by restaurateur Sandesh Reddy and founder of the Home Chef’s Guild, K.P. Balakumar, the dinner showcased the specialities of 10 talented home cooks offering traditional South Indian food set in a slick big-city framework.

“Its food from home,” says Balakumar, in an attempt to explain why the dinner struck such a chord with the diners. (Limited to 40 seats, they sold out even before they had a chance to officially announce the event.) “When we started the Home Baker’s Guild, we found people who did a lot more than baking commenting on the forum. So 6 months later, we began a separate forum for them,” he says. While there are fewer home cooks than bakers, judging by the quality of the food at the pop up, their cooking is uniformly excellent. But that’s only to be expected: no short cuts, no cheats and lots of practice.

“We curated the event by simply picking people whose food we know and love. And each of them made the dish they are famous for,” says Reddy. As a special takeaway, the organisers have also put together all the recipes, and stories, and will be e-mailing them to each of the guests. “Perhaps that was one of the nicest things about this dinner,” says Balakumar, “Unlike many cooks who are secretive about recipes, all 10 of these women were happy to share their recipes.”

Although the food was homemade, with all the characteristic big, bold, straight forward flavours we associate with the cooking of our mothers and grandmothers, dinner was determinedly chic. In the spirit of big family dinners (and because it’s so much fun to be ‘ironic’ these days), this trendy ‘curated’ meal was served in the garden on one long candle-lit table, forcing bonhomie between strangers. It worked out rather well, despite the politely strained silence in the beginning. By the time the spicy fish curry arrived everyone was swapping stories. Pardon the cliché — but food clearly does bring people together.

It helped that most of the cooks were seated at the table too, and happy to chat about their food. As with all popular recipes, each of the dishes served came with a back-story. Aarthi Rajagopal reportedly netted her husband with her Andhra Chicken Fry, which began the meal. Shanti Balakrishnan (incidentally Balakumar’s mother) talked about how making fish cutlets always reminded her of packing school lunches for her kids. Nannu Bedi’s warm gajar halwa, which ended the dinner, was the first thing she learnt from her mother-in-law, a talented home cook, who always insisted on finding the freshest Delhi carrots for the dish.

Given the success of this event, the duo plan more pop ups through the year. “I have all these ideas that can’t be turned into full-blown restaurant — with a pop up you can give people an experience, even if it is for one night only,” says Reddy. “Next time maybe we’ll do a five course meal with professional chefs. Or something region specific… Or perhaps we can explore a less accessible, less popular cuisine.”

All money raised goes towards charity: “To feed the hungry and the homeless… Since the event is all about food, we decided to use the money to either feed children, or sponsor meals at an old age home,” says Balakumar.