#6: Pop Culture
The pandemic pop-up boom is changing restaurants for diners and workers alike
Hey readers! ✨ Welcome back to Lunch Rush, the official newsletter of Lunch Group, highlighting some incredible folks reimagining equitable futures for F&B. This month we’ll sink our teeth into the exciting world of pop-ups. Bucking the familiar models of restaurant labor and operations that have historically exploited so many, innovative culinary creators are taking the opportunity to test novel dining strategies, collaborating to share ingredients and experiences less familiar to many American palates in unexpected ways. Traditional divisions between front and back of house are often blurred, while hosts and pop-up teams work together to form mutually beneficial relationships, offering diners something refreshingly different. These ephemeral experiments in cooperation not only serve the current moment’s uncertainty, but also may lay the foundations for what hospitality could look like in a post-Covid world.
We’ll kick things off with an illustration from pastry chef and writer Natasha Pickowicz, the creative force behind bicoastal pop-up Never Ending Taste. Our interview features Chef Retno Pratiwi of Kaki Lima in conversation with writer Emma Orlow. Together they unpack the growing pains of a roving pop-up, alongside the excitement of carving out space for representation in the culinary landscape. Chef Kate Telfeyan offers us a riff on a traditional Sichuan fish soup, in the style of the dishes she’s served at her Vaguely Asian Pop-Up at Porcelain. And as always, we’re closing things out with suggestions and recommendations from friends and folks who inspire, pushing the envelope from home ovens and borrowed kitchens alike, always with community at the forefront of their thinking.
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An original commission for Lunch Rush by Natasha Pickowicz, sharpie, 2021
Natasha Pickowicz is an NYC-based pastry chef and writer. Since summer of 2020, Natasha has created her own pastry pop-up called Never Ending Taste, which explores the relationship between regenerative agriculture, social justice, and community bake sales. Never Ending Taste has been held at Superiority Burger and Yellow Rose in Manhattan, Brooklyn’s The Four Horsemen, LA’s Kismet, and San Diego’s Chino Farm.
Something to Chew On
Retno Pratiwi & Emma Orlow on Forging Space & Fried Shallots at Kaki Lima
Chef Retno Pratiwi (she/her) grew up in Jakarta, Indonesia where she developed a love of cooking and eating through her family. After moving to Boston to attend culinary school, she launched her own Indonesian pop-up called Kaki Lima in 2014, with her husband, Peter Gelling. Kaki Lima has since garnered intense fanfare, with events at local hot spots like KO Pies and Mamaleh’s Delicatessen, and glowing praise from Boston food media. After five years, the duo moved to New York, where Pratiwi is looking forward to hosting more pop-ups with her Indonesian bites very soon. You can follow her latest event on Instagram @KakiLimaBoston.
Emma Orlow (she/her) is a Brooklyn-based writer with bylines in The New York Times, Eater, Grub Street, and more. These days, she mainly writes about the hospitality industry and especially enjoys developing stories about the people carving out their own spaces within it. Lately, her reporting has led her to cover everything from the explosion of Instagram cake makers to the unique challenges of COVID-era dating. Prior to working professionally as a writer, she freelanced for food and prop stylists, interned in the curatorial department of museums, assisted several pop-up caterers, as well as held other miscellaneous service jobs.
*This interview has been edited for brevity & clarity. All photographs courtesy of Retno Pratiwi.*
Emma: Can you tell me a bit about how you started your pop-up in Boston? What did you feel was missing from the food scene at the time?
Retno: I moved to the States about a decade ago [in 2010]. My partner and I were living in Indonesia, where we met. He is from Boston originally and we ultimately decided to move to Boston together because his mother at the time was sick. I missed my family and friends back home in Indonesia. I grew up with a family that was always cooking; my mom would host and cook delicious, elaborate meals. I always liked the hospitality part of cooking, bringing people together through food and forming connections. So I went to culinary school in Boston. At the time, in 2012 or 2013, I was cooking mostly French and Italian cuisine. I was quite amazed that Indonesian food and techniques were underrepresented [in Boston]. There is still no Indonesian restaurant in Boston (or many other American cities), and very few Indonesian restaurants exist at all across the country in general, especially when compared to other Southeast Asian cuisines. But I do think that is slowly changing. Americans are becoming more curious about cuisines they encounter less often. So I think there’s a huge potential for Indonesian chefs. In cooking school, the same problem existed. There are a lot of techniques that we use in Indonesia that we don’t use here in the States. Even the way we grind spices is different: In Indonesia, we use a mortar and pestle, but here, we use a food processor. In Indonesia, we cook with banana leaves, wrapping the food before steaming, grilling, or boiling. So, after culinary school, I decided to learn more about cooking Indonesian cuisine. I knew about it just from cooking with my grandmother and mom growing up, but I still had to refresh my memory. So I did some research and recipe development. I called my aunts, my mom, and Indonesian friends. I was looking at cookbooks and trying to find a way to represent Indonesian food in Boston. And it led us to a six month culinary research expedition in 2014-2015 all over Indonesia to learn about regional cuisines.
E: What did that initial research process look like for you?
R: I missed Indonesian food so much. I couldn't really get it anywhere [in Boston]. Ingredients like fried shallots I took for granted in Jakarta. I couldn’t find the fried shallots that I liked, so I needed to know how to make them myself. I tried finding the recipe online and asked my family. I tried out a bunch of different methods until I found out one that I liked. With shallots available here, I slice them thinly, marinate them, dry them, and then fry them in a controlled time and temperature. It requires a lot of attention, but it’s worth it. That’s just one example. I felt like, okay, I am connecting the tastes of Indonesia with what people in the States would like and [balancing that] with what my mood is. For instance, making gado-gado — a traditional street food dish that you can find anywhere in Jakarta — it’s essentially vegetables and peanut sauce. In Jakarta we use chayote and long beans, among other vegetables. I tried to substitute something that people are more familiar with in the States. Any kinds of herbs that you might see here — sorrel, mint, basil, pea greens — incorporating them with the flavors of Indonesia by binding them with gado-gado peanut sauce.
E: When you were first starting out, how did you go about hosting your pop-ups? Did you reach out to restaurants?
R: The first pop-up I did was a neighbors-only party in 2014. I sent an email to 30 people. People liked it. At the time, I was living in east Boston. I decided to go to a neighborhood restaurant called KO Pies. I went to their back door and met the chef and owner, Sam Jackson. I told him I had just graduated from culinary school and I was looking to do pop-ups. He was very supportive. He’s from Australia, so he’s familiar with Indonesian food, and he was all excited about helping us and has been ever since. We learned a lot at the first pop-up: for example, hiring a dishwasher is money well spent. Sam taught us a lot about organizing and running a kitchen, ordering, and planning. We were so fortunate, every restaurant we partnered with taught us so much. It’s an incredible way to learn, and if done right, everyone gets to benefit — the pop-up, the host, and most of all... the guests.
E: How would you describe the food scene in Boston when you first launched? Were pop-ups something a lot of people were trying out back then?
R: Well, not that I knew of. There were some pop-ups but it wasn’t yet a widely popular means of sharing your food like it is now. I was first inspired to try doing a pop-up after my sister-in-law showed me an article about Wolvesmouth. They were doing a supper club in an obscure and interesting way. It excited me that I had a chance to do something similar. Through pop-ups I get to experiment with my skill, learn from others, create dishes, and share them with a supportive audience, all without the huge risk and pressure of running my own restaurant. When I first started in Boston, there weren’t many people cooking outside of the standard restaurant. I think it helped that Kaki Lima was somewhat early to that trend. I was excited by the concept – that it existed in a sort of gray area in the hospitality world. It was mysterious and exclusive. As I tried to navigate the many rules in the United States around cooking and serving food, I was inspired by how Wolvesmouth was creating an experience in a nontraditional way, as a supper club, operating out of their home kitchen. So that gave me confidence to start something myself.
E: In addition to your one-night-only pop-ups, you have also hosted some long-term residencies at places like Mamaleh’s. Does a residency versus a pop-up change how you think about the menu?
R: Yes, definitely. We did a six month residency at an 80-seat restaurant called Wink and Nod in Boston’s South End. When you are cooking for an unknown number of guests on a nightly basis, everything is different. It’s much, much harder in so many ways — from knowing how much to order to managing a full time staff. Dishes need to be efficient enough to fly off the line quickly. I find that in some ways there is less freedom with what you can cook and how you can experiment. That said, there are many chefs who can pull it off. With pop-ups I work extremely hard, and experience sleepless nights, etc. But once it’s over, I can sleep for a week and recover.
E: When developing an idea for a pop-up, do you always have a consistent concept or do you shape the menu around the restaurant that’s hosting you?
R: I often have to shape the menu around the restaurant. Every venue is different, they have different tools and different setups. So I have to make sure my menu will work with the tools they have on hand. It’s always fun to incorporate an ingredient unique to the restaurant, if I can. But only if it makes sense for my food. I won’t force anything that might sacrifice the essence of the dish. For instance, at Mamaleh’s, I used their homemade potato buns with my srikaya jam — which together made sense because it’s similar to a classic Indonesian dish, roti bakar srikaya.
E: Does it feel different operating a pop-up now in New York?
R: It’s very different! [The food scene] is very saturated and much bigger. You can find food that you’ve never heard of to food from famous restaurants. Unfortunately, I came here during the pandemic, so I can’t really explore that. I got my shot though, so I am excited to go out [laughs].
We moved to New York because my partner got a new job, pursuing his writing career. We had already done pop-ups in Boston, Portland, Maine (and Oregon), as well as San Francisco, Austin, Texas and Los Angeles. We had done catering events in New York before, but never a classic pop-up. Our first New York pop-up was at Hunky Dory a few months ago. It was still during the [peak of] the pandemic, so the offerings were limited. It was only takeout. It was not ideal, but it worked since I was cooking street food-style dishes. We served ketroprak (rice cake, tofu, and vermicelli in a tamarind peanut sauce), siomay sambal (steamed veggie dumplings with a spicy sambal), and mie ayam (ginger egg noodles with shallots and sweet soy sauce). There are a lot of factors that go into choosing a venue for a pop-up. The biggest one is their willingness to host! It’s no small thing to turn over your kitchen to someone for a few days. Kitchens are busy, chaotic, and fragile. Not everyone is up for that. It’s also important to me that there’s some personal connection with the owners or chefs. It’s really as simple as seeking out kind, supportive people.
E: There’s been such an explosion of new pop-ups here and it seems like restaurants are more open than ever to having a collaborative experience.
R: When I approach businesses about doing pop-ups they want to help us and collaborate, which is great. I’ve only done it once at Hunky Dory, but it was very successful — we sold out. I am going to try and do more. It's just about waiting for the next place who wants to host us. I have one pop-up lined up at Mad Tropical in mid-May. I think restaurants are increasingly seeing the value in hosting, how pop-ups can expose them to new people, and how having new menus now and then can help keep regulars interested. [Editor’s note: Businesses interested in hosting Kaki Lima are encouraged to get in touch.]
E: Can you share a little bit more about how your pop-ups operate? I feel like people might not know how much work goes into the behind-the-scenes.
R: I normally start by writing an email that educates a potential host restaurant about our food and what we do. If they’re interested, then we will ask them if we can come and see the space. Questions range from asking about their equipment to seeing if I need to bring my own special equipment or what they can provide. What date can we prep and cook? What is the storage like, and how much of it is available for us to use? And then on the day of the pop-up, we ask how much space in the kitchen is available for us, because sometimes we have to share it with their own service. If that’s the case, we adjust the menu accordingly. We also ask about purveyors – if I have to source my own ingredients, or if we can use theirs. Also making sure their drinks would match with the food we’re making… stuff like that. Cooking is hugely labor intensive. I work very long days the week before, just to prep everything. Then of course the pop-up itself is a long and challenging day. And when it’s all over, you have to clean! And since it’s not our space, and we rely on the generosity of the hosts, it’s important to us that we return their kitchen as clean or cleaner than we found it. Outside of cooking there’s everything else — promotion, managing social media, email lists, moving ingredients and equipment around, and tracking finances. Like everything in the hospitality world, running a successful pop-up is never simple.
E: What is the sourcing experience like? Has it changed since moving to New York?
R: With our event at Hunky Dory, I could use their purveyors, which was great. But for stuff I couldn’t find I would go to Asian markets in Queens or somewhere in Manhattan, such as at Top Line [in Elmhurst] or Kalustyan’s [in Midtown]. But yeah, online as well. Some of our harder-to-find ingredients have to come with friends in suitcases from Indonesia — whatever it takes to get the right stuff! But over the years, I’ve found most of what I need locally, or have found substitutions that work great.
E: What are some of your favorite Indonesian ingredients to cook with?
R: Hmm… a lot [laughs]. Right now, I’ve been eating a lot of canned skipjack tuna. Normally, in Indonesia, we’d eat fresh skipjack but during the pandemic, the canned fish has been super convenient. I sauté it with chili, galangal, shallots and lime leaf, and eat it with rice. It’s simple, but so good. That makes me happy during the pandemic.
E: Do you have any go-to brands at any of the supermarkets you mentioned? A favorite sauce?
R: That’s a good question. I like kecap manis, and for that I use Bango — it’s a sweet soy sauce. I think they have it at Top Line. And at Kalustyan’s, I think they have a different brand that would be my second choice, called ABC.
E: Has moving to New York during this crazy time made you rethink some of the ways that you cook? Are there certain dishes that you’ve had time to try out that you’re excited to serve to people in your next pop-up?
R: Yeah, I would like to focus on just cooking things that are healthier and more vegetable-based. So, right now I am developing some menus that are heavy on the vegetarian, vegan, plant-based dishes — whatever you call it — with some seafood occasionally making an appearance. But I am going to take a break from meat and poultry, if I can.
E: That’s interesting. I feel like a lot of businesses have used this time to re-evaluate what they’re doing and I have seen a lot of people who formerly had more meat-heavy menus, pivot to be more vegetable-forward. It seems like there’s a lot of things inspiring those changes, be it for climate change-related reasons or seeing how COVID-affected meat plant workers, and all of that. Did you grow up eating a vegetarian diet?
R: There was always vegetarian food on the table. I grew up with my grandmother, who is a vegetarian, though she doesn’t call herself one. I think my grandmother just didn’t like meat. We always ate a lot of plant-based food growing up. There are a lot of traditional Indonesian foods that are already vegetarian and vegan-friendly, so I’d like to explore more of that. I love meat but cooking meat for a lot of people can be extravagant. I think meat should be more of a special occasion kind of ingredient.
Kate Telfeyan’s Sour Fish Soup
Kate Telfeyan is chef and writer living in New York. She previously worked at the Bushwick location of Mission Chinese, starting as a line cook and working her way up to become head chef, until Covid-19 forced the restaurant to shut down in March 2020. Her Vaguely Asian Pop-Up was an opportunity to explore new modes of service as well as her own culinary identity at Porcelain in Ridgewood, simultaneously drawing inspiration from her French-Canadian mom, her Armenian dad, and her upbringing in coastal Rhode Island. In April 2021, she formally joined the restaurant as a co-owner and executive chef.
“The first time I served this soup was last summer when I was doing a meal delivery after being laid off due to the pandemic. This is my take on a traditional Sichuan-style fish soup that typically includes pickled mustard greens. My version utilizes pepperoncini to achieve the sour / spicy aspect. Growing up, pepperoncinis were one of my favorite snacks. We would always have a jar in the fridge and I would eat them one after another.”
SOUR FISH SOUP
Serves two as a main dish, or four as an appetizer
1 pound white fish (cod or hake will do)
2 tablespoons Shaoxing wine
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup pepperoncini
2 tablespoons garlic
2 tablespoons ginger
2 tablespoons netural oil
1 cup pepperoncini liquid
2 cups water
1 teaspoon fish sauce
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon black vinegar
1 teaspoon mushroom powder
salt & white pepper to taste
2 cups rice flakes
Garnish: julienned red onion, cilantro (whole stems), chili oil
Cut fish into two inch pieces. In a bowl combine Shaoxing wine, cornstarch and salt and mix until smooth. Add fish and mix to coat. Let sit while you prepare the soup.
Finely mince the pepperoncini and the garlic (you can also use a food processor). Grate the ginger using a microplane or box grater.
Heat oil in a wok or saute pan until just glistening. Add in pepperoncini, garlic and ginger and cook until peppers are softened, about 3-4 minutes, stirring often. Once the aromatics are cooked down, add in the reserved pepperoncini liquid and water and bring to a boil. Add in the fish sauce, sugar, black vinegar, salt, mushroom powder and white pepper. Continue to boil for another minute, then add in the fish and rice flakes. Cook until the fish is cooked through and the rice flakes are softened.
Garnish with the red onion and stems of cilantro, and drizzle the chili oil to taste.
A dedicated section to boost suggestions from friends and collaborators.
Carla Finley (she/her; founder and sole baker at Apt. 2 Bread; currently expanding the bakery into our guest room): In my off time, I've been enjoying handmade cannabis chocolates from THIS & THAT and great wine on my stoop from Radicle Wine. When I bake, I generally listen to my trusty friend Brian Lehrer, but more recently I've had h hunt's Playing Piano for Dad on repeat. Think meditative piano (swoon). The entire Tasty Morsels label re-grounds me, which is essential for me in today's world. I'm still grocery shopping for my elderly neighbor, coordinated through my mutual aid group, and when I need a sweet fix I hit up my bodega for hazelnut Quadratinis (don't @ me!).
Eric See (he/him, owner/chef Ursula in Brooklyn): I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about a few things: the idea of personal relationships having expiration dates and acknowledging that that is okay and healthy; how to continue to re-prioritize our employees & laborers while balancing the need for structuring a sustainable and fruitful business, so it can continuously feed and uplift the people within it; and discovering plants I grew up with but never knew they were food, like the yucca flowers that have grown in my grandma’s front yard ever since I was a child. I’m planning on signing up for Drive Change’s Hospitality for Social Justice Network to help me continue to explore and unpack my second thought, with mentors like Mavis-Jay Sanders.
Rāsheeda Purdie (stylist turned chef, founder of Ramen by Rā): My work merges soul with soul through food, infusing my southern roots with my love for Japanese food through ramen. I’m always raving about Sun Noodle. They make the best ramen kits. For Black History Month, I partnered with them to offer my Southern Ramen Recipe. They’re so great to work with, this partnership has been by far the one that I cherish the most. I’m excited about my upcoming chef series with Thrillist and my next dinner experience celebrating Juneteenth. As a chef, it's my mission to bridge the gap between cultures through food tastefully while enjoying the journey, one bowl at a time. #slurpslurp
Hannah Wong (she/her, chef/owner of HAE MA and culinary director of 1:1 Foods): I recently did a coffee tour and cupping at Coffee Project’s LIC campus for a new project upstate and was blown away by the care that Chi Sum and Kaleena put into their business & business partners. They source not just for quality and flavor, but also maximum social impact. If I’m craving comfort food, my go to is Pecking House’s fried chicken set. My friend Eric makes some of the most addicting fried chicken in town (and delivers!). One of the silver linings during COVID for me has been the emergence of pop-ups as scrappy unemployed chefs have found unorthodox ways of staying afloat, tapping into a new source of creativity born of hard times. Ha’s Đặc Biệt is a roving Vietnamese bistro by two former Mission Chinese chefs that proves you don’t need a brick & mortar to tell a deliciously personal story.
Thanks for joining our ever-evolving table of collaborators creating, cooking, and experimenting in F&B spaces, ephemeral or otherwise. 💫 Find us on Instagram to plunge into more pop-ups and personal stories from scrappy chefs and innovators making it work. As always, if you have a question, a comment, or project you think we should know about (or just wanna chat!), send us a message at email@example.com.