HONESTY AND EXPERIENCE: HOW THE POP-UP IS EVOLVING

7 -min. read

Pop-ups, hey? A very 21st century phenomenon, the ephemeral concept has had a rollercoaster ride over the last few years. First they were brilliant, a resounding breath of fresh air, a chance for retailers, chefs or galleries to test the waters without the financial constraints of city centre rent, contracts, and other businessy-nasties.

The Pop-Down Restaurant. A Step too Far?
The Pop-Down Restaurant. A Step too Far?

Then? Pop-ups began having their own pop-ups, and the permanently popped-up claimed itself as a temporary pop-up; pop-downs happened, and multi-million pound industries decided to pop-, with little worthwhile to -up. Those five letters conjoined by a hyphen had captured the zeitgeist and, as we all know, that’s when the hipsters yawn.

However, the concept is inescapable — largely due to all the positives that led to its initial explosion — and so they continued apace; under the guise of ‘takeovers’, ‘residencies’ or ‘nomadic … ’. Today, the pop-up has won out; cynics fatigued by the fact that, whatever the guise, they probably go to one every weekend, anyway. And bloody enjoy it.

The trend has entered our contemporary lexicon, and it isn’t going anywhere — which doesn’t mean that the pop-ups themselves don’t still endure their own ups and downs. The movement is so ubiquitous that many transient events require an army of PRs just to get people through the door, and even roaring successes can leave themselves open to judgement.

Noma Sydney
Noma Sydney

René Redzepi is, undoubtedly, one of the planet’s most revered chefs — which goes some way to explaining how his Copenhagen-based restaurant’s 10 week pop-up in Sydney earlier this year sold out within minutes; even at around £335 per person for 12 courses plus wine. The waiting list? Some 27,000. Noma toppled Ferran Adrià’s elBulli from the peak of The World’s 50 Best Restaurants while the Catalan icon was still in business, and it continues to be hailed as one of the most innovative kitchens around. A 2012 pop-up at London’s Claridge’s, A Taste of Noma, cleared 3,400 bookings in two and a half hours, but wasn’t met with the same universal acclaim — even if the naysayers had already admitted they wouldn’t even be dining there.

René Redzepi in Sydney
René Redzepi in Sydney

The problem? Its setting. Redzepi’s stint at Claridge’s was met with derision from some quarters; in-the-know journalists turning their noses up at the punk rock chef — famed for his rustic approach, and locally foraged ingredients — lording it up at the swanky Mayfair hotel. ‘In its local, seasonal militancy, Noma is an inspirational project’, wrote Tony Naylor for The Guardian. ‘This Claridge’s event tarnishes that aura.’

The keyword here: honesty. Sure, not everyone is going have René Redzepi popping up at their hotel, their retail development, or local disused industrial space; but if a culinary figure of that regard can draw bad press from a pop-up, then every oversight should be analysed. After all, not every pop-up will sell out in seconds regardless of what the press say. Noma’s Sydney event has been rightly lauded, though, Australia’s rich ecosystem inspiring Redzepi’s team to new heights; the temporary space’s designers, Foolscap Studio, capturing the essence of their Copenhagen home having spent research time in Denmark. An honest approach that captured the restaurant’s spirit, a far cry from the glitz and opulence of Claridge’s.

yök Casa + Cultura, Barcelona
yök Casa + Cultura, Barcelona

Honesty; transparency; sustainability; locality; essential ingredients for forward-thinking projects in 2016, intrinsic pieces in the jigsaw of success for creatives, entrepreneurs, hoteliers, restauranteurs … In Barcelona, these ingredients form core points in the manifesto of design-led hospitality venture yök Casa + Cultura. Following a major eco-renovation, the three apartment project fosters local culture and experiences, and is now home to a monthly culinary takeover by self-taught British chef Philip Dundas.

Philip Dundas's Radish at yök Casa + Cultura, Barcelona
Philip Dundas’s Radish at yök Casa + Cultura, Barcelona

Dundas was behind ‘London’s first permanent pop-up’, PipsDish at The Garage, and is somewhat of a pioneer behind the new breed of ephemeral space — where the project is as important for those behind it as it is the guests; encouraging collaboration, nurturing new ideas, and letting the liberating environment of the pop-up serve as a conduit for the greater good. Philip’s Radish takes place on yök’s terrace over the course of a weekend every month, and follows the chef’s philosophy of simplicity across ingredients and technique.

The narrative of this story is simple: pair likeminded concepts, present something purposeful — don’t pop-up for the sake of it, instead fostering a concept that is rewarding for all in its honesty and merit. A sprawling Tuscan retreat with art, culture, and cuisine, at its heart, Villa Lena is another project with high principles running through its veins. Alongside artists-in-residence, a boutique festival, workshops, and collaborations with musicians and designers, this summer will see a trio of New York chefs — Jill Donenfeld, Margot Protzel, and Alexis Delaney — sharing their experience in the Villa Lena kitchen; autumn seeing guests and locals led into the woods by dog Stella in search of white truffles.

Villa Lena. Photo, Coke Bartrina
Villa Lena. Photo, Coke Bartrina

Of course, a common thread unites Villa Lena’s guest chefs and truffle dog: environmental consciousness, sustainable agriculture, foraging, and … honesty … but what do the chefs take from the experience? New ideas, fresh perspectives.

Carousel, London
Carousel, London

Many of the world’s emerging chefs cut their teeth in highly-regarded kitchens around the world; education and collaboration as important as one another. Giving starring roles to rising stars who’ve paid their dues in those esteemed kitchens is London’s Carousel, a literal revolving door of cooking talent, both its diners and protagonists able to lose themselves in new experiences.

‘The key is to bring a different kind of experience to the table every time, something you wouldn’t otherwise be able to find in London. So it’s not just people from abroad; it can be homegrown chefs looking to take the leap and start their own thing. The more established we become, the easier it gets. A few people struggled with the concept at the very beginning, but that’s less of a problem these days.’  Chef Ollie Templeton — who runs Carousel with his brother Ed and cousins Anna and Will Templeton — has welcomed little known names with experience in exceedingly known kitchens (El Celler de Can Roca; Noma; Mugaritz; Viajante) to join him for stints, and understands the importance of collaboration.

Carousel, London
Carousel, London

And it’s not just emerging names who’re fans of a little kitchen merry-go-round. Last year’s The Grand Gelinaz Shuffle saw all manner of big-name rotation: René Redzepi found his way to Bangkok’s Nahm, Virgilio Martinez to Denmark’s Henne Kirkeby Kro, Italy’s Lido 84 welcomed the honourable Alain Ducasse, and Brooklyn’s Blanca played host to Brazilian star Alex Atala — to name just four of 37 international trades. ‘You take a new perspective’, explained Atala to Bon Appétit of his experience preparing dishes in a new environment.

Virgilio Martinez
Virgilio Martinez

You see, if those behind an experience aren’t being pushed, aren’t savouring challenges or finding inspiration in new adventures, then how can their clientele be expected to find true excitement in their offerings? Going back to that sustainability and thoughtful foraging of the ecosystem, the aforementioned Virgilio Martinez (of Lima’s Central, the world’s number four rated restaurant) cites exactly that as the influence that drives him. ‘You stay for one week in a little house with an Andean community, and you start to understand how they are — you talk to them about organic, ecological, they have no idea,’ Martinez explained to Lifestyle Asia during a yet another pop-up, this time at Hong Kong’s The Landmark Mandarin Oriental. ‘But they adore the soil. They have this gratitude about the soil, the crops, they grow things naturally. That’s my main inspiration now.’

Central, Lima
Central, Lima

So. Pop-ups: think you’ve seen it all? Innovators and free-thinking creatives are on hand to ensure the trend won’t be going anywhere any time soon; but most interesting is this kind of anti-trend for what I may proffer as the ‘pop-around’. The low-key alternative to big-brand intervention, the mi casa es su casa approach where all parties benefit from a meeting of minds. Just remember: if you’re thinking of adding an ephemeral element to whatever project you might be undertaking, make sure not to stray far from honesty nor experience. The rest will look after itself.

*Lead image: Villa Lena by Ellie Tsatsou

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James Davidson
James Davidson is a contributing writer for THE SHIFT and editor-in-chief of We Heart, an online design and lifestyle magazine that he founded in 2009 as a personal blog and now receives over half a million monthly views.

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