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No Kitchen? No Problem: The Next Wave of Dining Pop-Ups

The trend of “pop-up” restaurants seems ubiquitous these days, with chefs all over the country (and, in fact, all over the world) choosing to set up temporary shops in food trucks or kiosks or — most popularly — by taking over the kitchen at existing full-service restaurants. On its face, the “pop-up” model appears to be a low-maintenance and low-cost way for a creative cook to share their talents with the public minus the expense and difficulty of opening their own brick-and-mortar space.

However, the typical pop-up restaurant isn’t quite as simple to operate as outside observers imagine … and as more and more pop-up chefs opt for short-term stays in already fully functional restaurant kitchens, the concept starts to lose its mega-portable, always-on-the-move, can-happen-anywhere sense of fun and spontaneity. 

That’s why it’s a refreshing sight when a chef chooses to strip down their pop-up requirements and launch a bare-bones “restaurant” using just a folding table, a few hot plates, and plenty of advance preparation. This model suits itself beautifully to spaces with no formal kitchen areas like bars and performance venues, restoring the pop-up to its gritty and low-key origins without sacrificing flavor or food quality. 

Ross Noyes dining pop-ups
Courtesy Ross Noyes

Ross Noyes, an NYC-based chef who operates bare-bones taco stations, BBQ shacks, and brunch spreads (often including high-end ingredients like pork belly and paté) in popular bar venues like The Footlight in Ridgewood, Queens and Our Wicked Lady in Bushwick, Brooklyn, is a passionate advocate of the no-kitchen restaurant. We caught up with Chef Ross to get his take on these movable feasts: how they work, the level of freedom that they provide to chefs, and the unexpected challenges associated with this model.

The Manual: How did you start your dining pop-ups, and how did you develop relationships with the bars where you host them?

Ross Noyes: I was living in a warehouse with a large roof by the Navy Yard [in Brooklyn], and I put a couple of smokers on the roof and was cooking brisket, ribs, and pork shoulders as a hobby. The people I was living with would throw parties, and I’d cook a bunch of barbecue for the parties, I ended up meeting some bar owners through those parties, and [thanks to those intros,] I started running [my first] pop-up called “Valentine’s” at The Footlight, and business grew from there.

TM: Talk us through the process of preparing for your pop-ups and setting up your “kitchen” space on-site.

RN: These days, I have a larger-sized commercial kitchen [to use while prepping for events], so the process beforehand is a breeze. I place orders with the various suppliers I use and get everything delivered to the kitchen, and I have a small staff who helps me with prep.  But when I first started out, I was renting commercial kitchen space by the hour and that involved a lot of planning and strategy; I was taking the train to the butcher shop and the produce markets in Brooklyn and Chinatown, then carrying everything [over] in a huge messenger bag. It was nonstop running around, [so having a regular kitchen space now really helps].

Ross Noyes dining pop-ups
Courtesy Ross Noyes

When I do a pop-up at The Footlight or Our Wicked Lady, the on-site set-up is pretty painless. They usually let me store some equipment on-site, and the set-up is pre-planned. But I’ve done a lot of events where I don’t have access to the space beforehand, and those can certainly be stressful. Overall, when I’m setting up my work space, I’m looking for a couple of things; mainly, access to a handwashing sink and outlets for the [hot plates and other] equipment (my gear can blow fuses, so it’s important to have everything spread out between a few circuits).  As for service, I try to keep the pick-ups very quick, working [through my station] in a counterclockwise rotation {I’m left-handed, so this helps me stay efficient). I usually use “time as a public health control” written logs [to track] all of the cold ingredients, so I also have to find the space to display and update the logs as I’m running service.

TM: What are the biggest challenges of working in a space without a formal kitchen?

RN: By far the biggest challenge with a pop-up kitchen is being compliant with Department of Health regulations [which vary from city to city]. Most of the spaces I’ve done pop-ups in aren’t necessarily set up for food service, so it can take some creativity to keep everything safe and DOH-compliant. For example, access to a handwashing sink is crucial.

Ross Noyes dining pop-ups toss
Courtesy Ross Noyes

I’ve found that using the “time as a public health control” method to be the most successful way to manage things when there’s not easy access to a fridge. If the bar has a walk-in [fridge] that I can use to store all the back-stock [ingredients] for the night and I [stay rigorous about] logging everything that’s on the table as I go along, that makes me feel confident about [the safety of the food I’m serving]. 

TM: How do you develop your menus for these events, and what advice would you give to a chef who wants to try running one of these truly DIY pop-ups?

RN: [My menus vary] depending on the event [being hosted at the venue at any given time];  if it’s a busy DJ night or a live show, I’ll do tacos or something with a quick pick-up that people can eat with one hand. If [the bar is game for] something like a brunch or if I’m working at a venue with a [dedicated] dining space, then I [have the freedom to] do things that are a little more complicated. 

As far as advice goes, I’d say that chefs should try to start simple and build from there. Pick one or two menu items [that you’re passionate and excited about], and that’s a great way to start.

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