FIVE COURSES DOWN. TWO TO go. Almost done.

I hadn’t waited tables in 13 years and that was mostly at Baker’s Square. But more than halfway through Brian Fisher’s pop up dinner at Haywood Tavern in Humboldt Park, I still hadn’t dropped or broken anything. No burns. No screaming. No stabbings. No irreparable mistakes. No mad diners. Exceptional food served. Almost done.

That’s when I heard, “Are we ready for the surprise course?” from the kitchen. Quickly I mentally cycled from maniacal laughter to kicking something to remembering how I got into this in the first place. Shut up. Keep going. This is a dinner, not a marathon.

The author (center)

The author (center)

The 33 guests were eating their fifth course, which included generous slabs of chilled foie gras, on an ungodly arctic January night. It was so cold it didn’t matter that the one-night-only crew working Fisher’s dinner had no freezer at Haywood to use. The back porch was a fitting substitute with temperatures somewhere around zero.

“If something is missing, make do with what you have,” said Won Kim, who’s opening his own restaurant Kimski in Bridgeport later this year, and is often sought for his experience with pop up dinners; Fisher had called him to be his right hand for the Haywood event. (You can read about another recent one Kim worked here.) It’s exhausting just looking at Kim’s Instagram of dinners and art shows he puts on in Chicago, Miami and other cities. He started a web video series not long ago called “Sleeping is for Suckers.”


“The idea of a pop up isn’t new. They’ve been happening forever. But it is taking off right now with good cooks traveling around and being nomads.”


Sleep. That’s what was on my mind when I naively thought I was almost done running plates, clearing plates, filling water glasses and taking drink orders. Finish the rest, down a few bourbons, and stretch my weary bones out in my bed before sleeping the dead sleep of a server. I had only been on my feet for four hours, three at that point during service. That’s not even half a real shift. When you’re old enough to say “13 years ago” about your last server experience, you’re old.

No matter. I walked back to the kitchen, filled a tray with glasses of foie gras soup and doled them out to the diners. Some were momentarily in disbelief that they were about to ingest even more foie after the cassette-sized hunks of meat butter, but they didn’t complain either. So how the hell did I get myself into this? Oh, that’s right. I offered.

 

 

Drew Marquardt (right) meets the inexperienced guy who will be running plates. Won Kim (middle) is questioning his decision to give me that responsibility

Drew Marquardt (right) meets the inexperienced guy who will be running plates. Won Kim (middle) is questioning his decision to give me that responsibility

THREE NIGHTS BEFORE FISHER’S DINNER, I called Kim in search of his thoughts for a story idea I had on pop up dinners. My guess was that pop ups were a lot more work than most people realize and I wanted to show just that. When Kim told me during our talk to just come by Haywood for the meal and see how it all happens, I offered what I also guessed would be the only useful thing for me to do: move boxes, carry things, be a mule.

But when I walked in that night, Kim told me I’d be running plates. Fuck.

Chef Brian Fisher and Katelynn Beman plating dishes

Chef Brian Fisher and Katelynn Beman plating dishes

It was Fisher’s first public act of cooking since leaving Schwa as chef de cuisine in December. “I decided to host the Haywood dinner to see what kind of voice I had,” Fisher said. “Coming from such an amazing restaurant, I wanted to stand alone and find an independent vision.”

Graziano Why

 

In one week, Fisher’s idea started with a phone call to Kim, and ended with this blitz of deep flavors and serious craftsmanship. In that incredibly busy week, Fisher conceived the menu, tickets were sold online (and sold out within two days), Kim tapped his network of mischievous chefs to help, Fisher got product with a hand from Longman and Eagle’s suppliers, they locked down Haywood for the space, walked through the kitchen to bring in any equipment and tools that weren’t on site, cooked and served the meal.

“The idea of a pop up isn’t new,” said Kim. “They’ve been happening forever. But it is taking off right now with good cooks traveling around and being nomads.”

A pop up dinner allows a chef to bring his or her ideas directly to people without any restrictions. They can test new ideas and refine approaches before planting a brick and mortar foundation. The chef is the boss and makes the rules. The diners accept not knowing what they’ll get until it’s right in front of them.

Mike Popek (left). and John Douglass (right), mixing drinks

Mike Popek (left) and John Douglass (right), mixing drinks

Dan Salls of The Salsa Truck and The Garage and Drew Marquardt of Flesh for Food helped in the kitchen. Katelynn Beman and John Douglass managed front of house, with admirable patience for my inexperience. Mike Popek, bar manager at Haywood, took care of the bar. Throughout the night, everyone did a little of everything. Chefs washed dishes. Douglass and Beman helped with plating. Matthew Meschede, who shot video of the dinner, helped with printer issues before the meal began.

“The thing is about these dinners, we’re all equal. We all do everything,” said Kim, as he washed dishes during the dinner. “It’s nice because you get to do something outside what you’re known for in an establishment. Some cooks are always open to try something new, working in a new environment, and when shit hits the fan they’ll know how to put the flames out and make this shit happen.”

Fisher and Kim

Fisher and Kim

The dinner went well, but it didn’t just happen in one night.

“While it was very similar to a normal dinner service for me, the days leading up to the dinner were insane,” Fisher said. “Prepping in other chefs’ kitchens and scrambling for storage space made me realize early on what I got myself into. Working in the same restaurant night after night is like a security blanket; a place that you know in and out. If something goes awry, you know exactly how to fix it and where the tools are for that job. When you’re doing a pop up dinner, you’re out of your element completely. Your weaknesses will become exposed very quickly, which is why I’m glad that I planned so thoroughly beforehand.”

And as Kim said, “it’s a one-shot deal. If you fuck up that dinner, you’re fucking everything up.”

 

Prep

Kim grabbed noodles dressed in red chili sauce from a metal bowl with a long pair of tweezers and twirled them into a bite size. He placed them carefully into the empty bottom of an oyster shell; the first of 33 empty shells sitting on small piles of crushed ice. “It might be easier to use a fork instead of the tweezers,” said Salls.

“Na, I’ve got it now. Thanks.” said Kim. “The shells are beautiful. It’s insane that nature basically made a rock with something delicious on the inside.”

“How did someone find it in the first place and not think it was a rock?” I said, trying to add something since I wasn’t yet doing any actual work.

“Because they were fucking hungry,” said Marquardt. “Smashing anything trying to find something to eat.”

Salls and Marquardt also added red noodles to the oyster shells. The three plated in a small room directly next to the Haywood kitchen, while Fisher prepped other courses. Beman and Douglass were figuring out where to seat a few single ticket buyers. Popek was making drinks for the early arrivers.

Dan Salls and Drew Marquardt plating the everything bagel course

Dan Salls and Drew Marquardt plating the everything bagel course

And I was futilely attempting to remember which table was what number. Shortly before the first course plating began, Douglass had explained the table numbering system to me. “Near the door is 21, then 22, 23 and 24 for that six top,” he said. “Then the five top is 25, four top is 26. Then 31, 33 and 34. Then go clockwise for the seats: 33 one, 33 two, 33 three, 33 four. If we need to send something to one seat, we don’t say ‘to the brunette in the grey sweater.’ We say ‘table 34 three.’ For that six top we’ll do 24 ABCDEF. But we’ll figure it out as we go. All the food goes out at once for each course.”

“I apologize if I ask you to repeat this during,” I said.

“It’s OK. It’s my first time here too. We’ll figure it out. Also, only carry what you are comfortable carrying. I can only carry three plates. I don’t know anyone who can carry more than three without a tray.”

99 Amaze

 

“I’ll only carry two at a time.”

“Yeah, we only made what will go. So all the plates need to get there.”

As the plating continued, Beman asked me to fill water glasses. I dropped off carafes at two tables after filling, only for her to tell me that doesn’t happen in fine dining. This meal was $70 a ticket, after all. I also learned when pouring not to show the outside of my arm. Make like you’re about to hug people to keep your inside arm facing them, I was told. And do the same when placing and taking away plates.

“Ladies first, obviously,” she said, about serving the dishes. “Make sure you turn the plate around so the plate’s 6 o’clock is facing the customer. If you can only carry two, don’t go to the four top or five top. Don’t leave one plate at one table when there aren’t other plates there for the rest.”

“Each time you put it down, make sure it’s facing them the way we plated it,” Marquardt told me. “Ask us what’s 6 o’clock.”

What could go wrong? The first plates were almost ready to send.

 

Won Kim adding cold noodles in chili sauce to oyster shells for the first course

Won Kim adding cold noodles in chili sauce to oyster shells for the first course

1. Oyster, noodles, cucumber seed, Kimski pearls

When I dropped off the first two plates of the night to two very polite and understanding gentlemen, I foolishly tried to sound like I knew what I was doing.

“OK, gentlemen we have chilled noodles dressed in chili sauce, oyster, and…excuse me one minute, please.”

What the hell were those other things on top? I didn’t see them plate the cucumber seed granita and sauce pearls. Before it was over, you could play a blackout drinking game with all of the times I said “sorry,” “what do you need” and, of course, “fuck” during the night.

 

Endive salad

2. Endive: grapefruit, tarragon, frozen feta 

Kim assumed the role of dish explainer, which was a massive relief after my botched oyster course description.

Before the second course went out, the crew improvised a little when there weren’t enough of the same round plates. They grabbed similar oval plates and kept plating without missing a step.

Once the salads were all out, I made my next mistake. A woman in a grey sweater asked for a beer. I completely forgot what seat she was at and did exactly what Douglass told me not to do. Word for word.

“John, ah, beer for the brunette in the grey sweater? Sorry.” He smiled and said 24 D.

Shortly after the salads went out, Douglass asked Beman whether she thought we’d need to wash any silverware at some point in the night to carry through. And that was a key to the night’s success and any similar meal — if enough problem-solving people think of problems they can solve, especially ahead of time, the meal will go well.

Chef Fisher talks with guests Pan Hompluem, co-owner of Lowcountry, and John Daley of WLPN Lumpen Radio

Chef Fisher talks with guests Pan Hompluem, co-owner of Lowcountry, and John Daley of WLPN Lumpen Radio

The best aspect of the night was the casual air. The food was high level, and the feeling throughout was loose and fun. We joked with the patrons and each other. While Kim was explaining the salad course, one man yelled out “I like my feta warm!” Kim immediately snapped at him to shut up. Everyone laughed, even the yeller.

Middle of the course I asked a diner how he was doing.

“Cold.”

“Is it cold out?” I said, making my most earnest questioning face. He believed me for at least a fraction of a second. Most of the guests were down for a good sarcasm spar. It’s a strong force in midwesterners; a trait I’ll defend to my last breath.

There was a hum that elevated when going from the kitchen area into the dining room: laughing, talking, utensils hitting plates, ice moving in glasses. A tiny, quiet reprieve in the small walkway between the main room and back room where the crew plated, and then the kitchen noise took over. Movement, utensils hitting pans, jokes, sizzling, Run the Jewels 1 and 2 playing, the shhhhhhhh of the whipped cream dispensers for the breakfast for dinner course soon to come.

But before that, a meaty parfait.

 

Pork cheek posole parfait

3. Posole: pork cheek, hominy, avocado, shaved brussel sprouts, shallots

DJ and producer Derrick Carter was there that night at the five top booth and was easily the most fun person in the entire place. He exclaimed “ooh! a meaty parfet!” as we brought out the third course, which, yes, looked like a parfait. We both said “meaty parfets” at least three other times before that course was finished.

With all the posoles out, it felt like we hit a good rhythm. Fisher, Kim, Salls and Marquardt complemented each other’s movements as they cooked and assembled. Douglass and Beman led with the plates and told me where to go with what. Popek knocked out the drink orders rapidly. I felt a twinge of pride upon actually remembering table numbers. I even started saying “corner” when carrying stacks to the wash station.


“You go to a place that isn’t open, or maybe a place that doesn’t even serve food and we bring the restaurant to you.”


“Have you ever worked in a restaurant before?” Kim said, as I clumsily stacked clean plates on a shelf.

“Long, long, long time ago.”

He smiled. “Yeah, I can tell.”

By the time we cleared the third course, I was at least ordering my tasks. Leave drink order with Popek, then grab new fork for 23 one because it fell to the floor, drop off fork, serve drinks, make a bad joke.

 

The breakfast for dinner course: everything bagel, cured salmon, cream cheese spuma, capers. Can’t you tell?

4. Everything bagel: everything bagel spice-cured salmon, cream cheese spuma, caper, onion

Fisher consulted chef Gaetano Nardulli, another Schwa alumnus now at Barrington’s Near, as he started planning the menu. Nardulli’s advice: “Do what you know.”

“While I had some crazier ideas, he was totally right,” Fisher said. This dish was a sight to behold. A bagel blitzed to a spoonable consistency. Cream cheese shot through a whipped cream dispenser. You could taste the salmon’s freshness as much as the cure flavors. Fisher and crew struck harmony between familiar and a well-executed prank.

There were no demitasse spoons available to portion the spuma, but a couple of cocktail stirrers filled the need and service continued.

“This is the breakfast for dinner course,” Kim said to the diners. “Shout out to Kendall for making a 1:30 a.m. run for everything bagels. Without her, you wouldn’t have this course.”

 

Foie gras, banana jam, bacon marmalade, wafer

Foie gras, banana jam, bacon marmalade, wafer

5. Foie gras: banana jam, bacon marmalade, wafer

I sadly regret not photographing the faces as the diners learned that the largest food item on their plates was foie gras. The wide eyes were hilarious.

Two diners agreed they first thought the everything bagel would be star of the night, but with this dish they were considering a new front runner.

As we cleared the last of this course’s plates, I felt sweat all around my face and up my neck. Back at the washing station, with Run the Jewels 2 in the middle of the track “Early,” I briefly daydreamt of bourbon and taking my boots off. Then it was time for the surprise.

 

DJ and producer Derrick Carter is excited about the foie gras course. He was pretty excited about the other courses too

DJ and producer Derrick Carter is excited about the foie gras course. He was pretty excited about the other courses too

6. Surprise course: foie gras soup, chestnut, cranberry

“More foie?” one diner said, mostly excited with a touch of fear.

Some diners were a little intimidated by the surprise course, only because the previous plate offered far more fatty liver than they were accustomed to. But, again, no one complained. And, again, I saw a lot of smiles as they ate.

This is right about where I went on autopilot. Beman had to repeat herself a couple times starting around this course before it registered that I had to refill water and check drink orders.

 

Pork belly prepared porchetta style, cornbread, collards, black eyed peas

7. Pork belly: cornbread, collards, black-eyed peas

This dish was a reminder that simple preparation of great ingredients can be just as pleasing as reimagined dishes. The belly was porchetta style, braised and seared.

I didn’t know until later, but somewhere around the surprise course my recorder shut off. All else I remember from this course are basic actions: plates, water, drinks, bus, repeat.

 

Cereal milk, gelled

8. Cereal milk: barley, rose hip, honey milk

Any fullness fatigue that set in among the diners quickly went away when we brought out this masterful play on familiar comfort. Long, squared off bars of the milk mixed with sheet gelatin and agar agar. I too snapped out of my haze when the crew started assembling this course.

Before Kim could explain it, some dug in and started guessing what it was. I couldn’t help myself and convinced a table it was homemade tofu. When the table then heard it was cereal milk, their eyes lit up. They smiled like kids that finally won the duel with their parents over whether they could have a cookie before dinner.

Chef Brian Fisher thanks all who helped with the dinner as guests applaud

Chef Brian Fisher thanks all who helped with the dinner as guests applaud

With the dessert plates cleared, Fisher and crew came out for a standing ovation. Fortunately, there was a whole bar of the cereal milk left over after service. And most of a bottle of bourbon. And some of that awesome salmon.

 

What’s next and why pop ups?

“I think it went amazingly well,” said Kim, about the dinner. “At most it was a little chaotic, but I don’t think it ever got out of hand. It was organized. He had great people working around him, from front of house to back of house. When you have good hands helping out, how could you go wrong?” Fisher is now planning more dinners, one slated for the end of February and a collaboration toward the end of March.

FisherPopup_Happy

“I invited Richie Nakano, a chef I’ve always dug from San Francisco, out for a few days,” Fisher said. “Hopefully it comes to fruition. We’re both really excited about it.”

After the dinner, I asked Kim why pop up dinners are worthwhile.

“These aren’t restaurants where you just walk in off the street,” he said. “These are semi-exclusive experiences in a casual manner and it makes it an adventure. That’s the whole idea: you go to a place that isn’t open, or maybe a place that doesn’t even serve food and we bring the restaurant to you. There are no formalities. I get to joke and swear at you. It’s like going to a giant dinner party.”

Watch for information about future pop ups by Brian Fisher at his Facebook page.

 


Ben Feldheim is an award-winning journalist who has written for Chicago magazine, Chicago Tribune, Chicago Red Eye, Relix Magazine, Indy Nuvo and several other websites and alternative weeklies. Feldheim also has contributed to the autobiography of Mötley Crüe singer Vince Neil, and written other music and celebrity-focused stories. Today, Feldheim writes for Rush University Medical Center by day and several other publications by night. Read his writing and watch his videos at benfeldheim.com.

Matthew Meschede is a filmmaker from Chicago. He features food, art, music and culture. Check out more at matthewmeschede.com.


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