With pop-up restaurants, chefs discover the joys of cooking flexible, seasonal menus

A pandemic-prompted wave of pop-up kitchens has now become a creative way for independent chefs and edgy restaurants to travel, experiment and connect with diners

Updated - September 03, 2022 10:03 am IST

Published - September 02, 2022 07:47 pm IST

Last year, when the country was cautiously emerging from the grips of the pandemic, a new wave of cooking was being ushered in from kitchens across the country. Empowered by technology and enabled by the abundant time on hand, professional chefs discovered the joys of cooking flexible, seasonal menus for a changing audience.

Persian Love Cake by Chef Nasrin Karimi at Wild Garden Café, Amethyst

Persian Love Cake by Chef Nasrin Karimi at Wild Garden Café, Amethyst | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

In a bid to connect with new audiences and old friends, chefs packed their knife kits and travelled to different cities, experimenting with local ingredients as well as serving up their classics for an audience that was missing the thrill of travelling and craving change. They cooked in bars, event venues and even collective community spaces, creating menus that were available for a limited time and audience. And diners responded to these exclusive, close-­knit community meals with enthusiasm.

“In Ladakh, the menu was completely inspired by the ingredients from the region including local mushrooms, Chhurpi, a cheese made from yak milk, and buckthorn.”Chef Prateek SadhuFounder of Masque, Mumbai, and now an independent chef

Though pop-­up restaurants are not new, their origins can be traced back to the US Prohibition-­era “supper clubs”, they are having a resurgence. Chef Prateek Sadhu, founder of Mumbai’s popular Masque and now an independent chef, did a five-­city pop­up, touring Delhi, Chennai, Bengaluru, Kolkata, and Ladakh in 2021 to share his ingredients-­first approach. While the menu format was similar to Masque, Prateek says he “tweaked menus depending on which city we were in. In Bangalore, we did a vada stuffed with pork pepper fry. In Ladakh, the menu was completely inspired by the ingredients from the region including local mushrooms, Chhurpi, a cheese made from yak milk, and buckthorn.”

From the ground up

“Whether it’s a chef showcasing the cuisine of their region, a new take on a well-known cuisine, or a bartender with a unique philosophy, we are creating formats of pop-ups that best tell their story,” says Somanna Muthanna, founder and CEO of The Soul Company, a platform that organises curated pop-ups, bringing together chefs such as Anurag Arora, Rhea Aarons, Gautam Krishnankutty, and food writer Kunal Vijaykar.

Based in Bengaluru, The Soul Company started during the pandemic, and initially focussed on showcasing chefs through online food deliveries from their home kitchens. They gradually built an audience in Mumbai and Delhi, and some of their most recent pop-­ups include taking Bengaluru Oota Company, and 28 Hong Street, listed in the World’s 50 Best Bars, to Mumbai.

A dish from chef Gautam Krishnankutty’s Wild Wild East at The Courtyard in Bengaluru

A dish from chef Gautam Krishnankutty’s Wild Wild East at The Courtyard in Bengaluru | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Their first pop-up, Boiled Beans, working with the NAVU Project, brought together six artists and cultural leaders, asked them to recount their stories of the city, which were translated into a six-course meal.

Even before the pandemic hit, chef Gautam Krishnankutty decided to take a break from the restaurant industry, and started experimenting in his home kitchen, making food in small batches for sharing with friends. He began putting up the surplus on Instagram and was surprised by the demand. He had a substantial audience who wanted to get more of him when pandemic restrictions started to ease.  Co­-founder of Cafe Thulp, The Smoke Company, and Asia in a Box, Gautam has set up several pop-­ups collaborating with The Courtyard and The Soul Company.

Flavours from Asia

Dessert from Grasshopper Pop-up at Wild Garden, Amethyst

Dessert from Grasshopper Pop-up at Wild Garden, Amethyst | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

On Whites Road, Chennai, Amethyst owned by Kiran Rao collaborated with Sonali Sattar to bring the iconic Grasshopper restaurant from Bengaluru to Chennai, celebrating Grasshopper’s 20th anniversary. They recently hosted a Persian food pop­up by Chef Nasrin Karimi of Shiraz Art Cafe, showcasing her Iranian fare comprising joojeh kabab, a saffron chicken kebab; aloobokhara (plum) with saffron rice; koofteh rizeh, a meatball preparation; lemon sharbat; and Persian love cake.

Chef Harish Dixit at The Courtyard Bangalore

Chef Harish Dixit at The Courtyard Bangalore | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

At the heart of the community dining events in Bengaluru is The Courtyard. Relying on her experience as an architect and urban designer, Akhila Sreenivas, the founder, has transformed it into an indie destination for art and culture. Her experience collaborating with the NAVU project and hosting private sit­downs and movie nights helped rebuild the enterprise when pandemic restrictions started to ease.

The Courtyard’s first pop-­up with Chef Kavan Kuttappa showcasing his Naru Noodle Bar was a massive hit. Since then, Akhila has hosted a string of pop­-ups including Gautam’s Wild Wild East with an eclectic menu inspired by his travels from South­East Asia, chef Harsh Dixit’s (founding member of Yauatcha, India) take on progressive Cantonese food; and Chef Dina Weber, founder of micro­bakery SAPA, Mysuru, with a preview of their latest menu.

Conservatory at The Courtyard Bangalore

Conservatory at The Courtyard Bangalore | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Turning permanent

Chef Kavan Kuttappa pop-up at Fusion 9, Hyderabad 

Chef Kavan Kuttappa pop-up at Fusion 9, Hyderabad  | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Naru Noodle Bar, chef Kavan Kuttappa’s flagship serving fresh, hand­crafted Japanese noodles, originated as do­-it-­yourself ramen kits. Kavan, former culinary head at Toit Brewpub and The Permit Room, says he “knew ramen is best appreciated in a live setting where the chef’s craft can be observed, and the assembled bowl of ramen could be served fresh”.

Kavan was delighted when Akhila invited him to set up a pop­-up in The Courtyard. He served miso ramen made with oat milk dashi broth, dark miso tare, black wheat noodles, toasted hemp hearts, and shallot oil; and lekei ramen — a soup of pork tonkotsu and shoyu, thick cut short noodles. There has been no turning back after that. Kavan did several pop­-ups in The Courtyard, then took his menu to Chennai and Hyderabad. Naru has now found a permanent home in The Courtyard with eight seats and a kitchen.

Food at Wilderness Retreat pop-up  

Food at Wilderness Retreat pop-up   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Bharat Chaganty, founder of the Gorge Supper Club, based in Hyderabad, compares the pop-­up scene to the sneaker culture in fashion, where exclusivity is the key. Bharat says, “Gorge was an evolution of what started as an online curated food delivery during the pandemic. I was inspired by Asma Khan’s Supper Clubs and shows like Chef’s Table.” Bharat started a curated online food delivery with his friends. Towards the end of 2021, when his friends wanted to build an app for home chefs, Bharat thought of unbundling the concept further and doing a bottom­up approach. 

His first pop-­up at the Wilderness Retreat provided a resounding validation for his concept. Tickets to Kavan’s Naru Noodle Bar pop­up at Chef Shankar Krishnamurthy’s Fusion 9, Hyderabad, were sold out in under an hour. Other pop­ups held by Gorge in Hyderabad include hosting Smoking Co., Mysore, at The Amlyn Cafe, and Chef Rhea Aaron at the Glass Onion.

Beyond the cities

This ability to move with a team and cook in different kitchens enables chefs to reach all parts of the country. Nestled in a tranquil village in Tindivanam, about 130 kilometres from Chennai, is Rachna Rao’s Homegrown Produce (HGP). What started as a mission to rewild, conserve, and improve biodiversity is now a welcoming venue with a natural forest and a kitchen garden. From April 2022, HGP has been curating meals by talented chefs. Chef Anuj Purwar, who previously worked with Noma, Denmark, and Bread & Chocolate, Puducherry, hosted katha (story), his journey through modern Indian cuisine with a five-­course meal.

Warjri sisters, Daphimanroi and Dakiwanri Warjri, at the HGP pop-up

Warjri sisters, Daphimanroi and Dakiwanri Warjri, at the HGP pop-up | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

In another memorable pop­-up HGP hosted the Warjri sisters, Daphimanroi and Dakiwanri Warjri, celebrating Khasi food from the hills of Meghalaya marked by clean flavours, unique ingredients, and unusual pairings. Khasi cuisine uses seasonal and sometimes wild ingredients, so the menu included soh shang salad — lettuce tossed in a tangy dressing with soh shang (a sweet and sour fruit), sohliang (a nutty fruit); ja tit (rice cooked with tit tung, a wild mushroom) and doh sniang (pork) cooked in nei iiong (black sesame paste). The meal ended with rice cake served with sohiang (a wild prune) compote sweetened with honey.

Sreedevi Mohan, a Bengaluru­-based landscape architect and an amateur chef says until recently, she would not have thought she would get the opportunity to cook in a restaurant kitchen. This summer, Sappadu, an authentic vegetarian restaurant in North Goa, collaborated with Sreedevi to host a supper pop-­up. Her quintessential Kerala menu was a celebration of fresh, seasonal produce, and included banana floret cutlets and idichakka thoran, a tender jackfruit stir­fry. Initiatives like this, promoting slow food and home cooking, bring another dimension to the dining, enriching the customer experience.

Koofteh Rizeh by Chef Nasrin Karimi at Wild Garden Café, Amethyst

Koofteh Rizeh by Chef Nasrin Karimi at Wild Garden Café, Amethyst | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Chef Gautam says the concept of the travelling chef is here to stay. “For home chefs and professionals, it offers a low-­risk, economical way to test their ideas without having to burn their hands,” he says. Unlike brick-­and-­mortar restaurants, pop­ups are not capital­-intensive. There is a decent income to be made, and as chefs travel — meeting diners, exploring seasonal ingredients at city markets and learning about regional cuisine — menus will only get richer and more vibrant.

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