Pop-Up Madness: A look behind Toronto’s pop-ups, dinner series and roving restaurants

Pop-Up Madness: A look behind Toronto’s pop-ups, dinner series and roving restaurants

Rogue chefs are making some of the city’s most creative food in restaurants that are here today, gone tomorrow

On a late-February evening, 24 of us were huddled around two dimly lit communal tables at Ortolan, a tiny restaurant at Lansdowne and Bloor. We were there for Boxed, a four-hour, eight-course pop-up dinner—one of dozens of one-night-only culinary shows happening in Toronto right now.

Pop-ups, dinner series and roving restaurants have multiplied over the last couple of years, as the city’s up-and-coming chefs have broken out of the traditional culinary training model. Instead of working their way up through the kitchen ranks at old-guard establishments, they’re making their names by cooking audaciously experimental food in makeshift kitchens, and using social media to promote themselves.

The Boxed pop-up series is run by Matthew Sullivan, who, at 28, has staged in some impressive kitchens, including the Gramercy Tavern in New York and the Fat Duck in England. I had been following him on Twitter for weeks, reading micro-dispatches from his life and hoping for some news on how to secure an invite to his next dinner. Finally, a week before the event, Sullivan tweeted cryptically, “There may or may not be an upcoming dinner with five or six spots left.” I emailed him immediately and snagged two seats for $90 each—a high-risk investment, considering I had no idea what my $180 was buying me (he kept the menu a secret until the guests were at the table).

The crowd—food obsessives, thick-armed hunks with their exceedingly chic girlfriends, and bloggers sharing stories of previous pop-ups—nodded along to soft reggae playing in the background and delighted in assessing every dish, like chicken tails with dried scallops and congee, a strange and satisfying take on Chinese brunch. Each course came with unusual wine pairings from Zinta Steprans, who, in a T-shirt and jeans, gave the sommelier gig an effortless air. A dish of Lovell trout and beef tongue must have been a challenge to match, but she nailed it with a Bulgarian Domaine Boyar chardonnay.

Daniel Usher, one of Ortolan’s co-owners, is friends with Sullivan and ceded control of the place for the night. The two cooks laughed in the open kitchen as they plated the next course, lamb’s brain won tons in shiitake broth. When it hit the tables, the bloggers whipped out their cameras.

For chefs like Sullivan, pop-ups are a great way to bolster their personal brands. The buzz can lead to new opportunities in well-established restaurants or, as is Sullivan’s hope, to a fan base when they open a new place. He held the first instalment of Boxed at The Mascot, a café in Parkdale, last summer. The café doesn’t have a kitchen, so Sullivan prepped all five courses at a nearby grilled cheese shop with two butane stoves and two panini presses, one of which he used to sear an 80-day dry-aged steak. With the help of servers, he ran the food across a busy stretch of Queen West to diners in The Mascot’s thrown-together dining room. The event was like live theatre—anything could go wrong, but somehow it didn’t. The food was spectacular.

That feat, in part, prompted Sam Kalogiros, the owner of Yorkville hot spots Maléna and L’Unità, to hire Sullivan as executive chef of both restaurants last fall. Sullivan upgraded the menus there, refining some of his dishes from Boxed, but left after just four months and continued his pop-up project. “I was proud of every dish I created at Maléna,” Sullivan says, “but pop-ups give me more creative freedom.”

Over the last few months, I attended four pop-up dinners, and at each one, the chefs tried out daring dishes. During a $150, six-hour marathon dinner hosted by the Group of Seven, a collective of Toronto chefs who run a monthly supper series, each course was made with what they called “odd bits” of animals. Rob Gentile, the chef at Buca, an Italian spot on King West, wowed the 35 diners with a pig’s-blood custard tart. Mark Cutrara, of the nose-to-tail place Cowbell, earned a toast for his pig testicle sausage on a slab of tongue. Both dishes were divine, but, owing to their off-putting ingredients, won’t appear on restaurant menus any time soon. There were also duds, like a leaden tripe stew that sparked a debate: some diners were disappointed, but for the rest of us, the failure boosted the chef’s cred—the food may not have been great, but it was gutsy.

These events don’t require much in the way of set-up expenses. They’re held either in already established restaurants on Sundays or Mondays—off-nights in the business—or in low-rent spaces that barely qualify as restaurants. Andrew Richmond, a digital designer and fledgling chef, has held 18 instalments of La Carnita, a pop-up taqueria, since last summer. Although there are laws about selling food prepped in non-commercial kitchens, Richmond circumvents them by making access to the food contingent on buying a $10 piece of art. Ostensibly, you buy the art, and the tacos come as a bonus. Downtowners have become obsessed. For one incarnation at Richmond’s King and Spadina design studio, he tweeted the time and location just 10 minutes before lunch. Some 150 office dwellers descended on the place, consuming 450 tacos in less than 90 minutes, at which point supplies ran out and the pop-up was shuttered.

Likewise, last February, in an old Jamaican restaurant at Queen and Spadina, Jon Polubiec, the former chef at Rosedale haunt Mistura, set up a sandwich shop called Come and Get It, furnishing the place with bric-a-brac, pressboard counters and picnic tables. Posts on food blogs have ensured a constant stream of business. It could become a thriving midday restaurant. But it won’t. The building’s owner cut Polubiec a deal on the rent because he plans to raze it for condos before summer.

Pop-ups may be a little gimmicky (“For a limited time only” is, after all, one of the oldest marketing ploys), but in a city flush with haute pizzas and burgers, they signal a refreshing return to culinary risk taking. As diners, we’re willing to trade comfort for the rush of being the first—and quite possibly the last—to taste a chef’s creations.