Why Detroit’s beloved one-off dining scene could use some fine tuning

Perfecting the pop-up

Dec 9, 2015 at 1:00 am

The 26 friends and strangers Detroit Bus Co.'s Andy Didorosi and Ashley Tyson gathered on a Hamtramck loading dock on a recent evening arrived with little indication of why the pair requested their presence or what lay ahead.

There was an element of mystery. There was an element of intrigue. And there was also a purpose, albeit an unorthodox one for a pop-up dinner.

As Didorosi explains it, the food — Chinese hot pots, an interactive dish — was almost secondary. The evening he and Tyson put together was focused more on the guests, the experience, and the results of placing some of the city's active personalities and entrepreneurs around a dinner table.

"The focus is not on the food — it's entirely on the people, and the food is the mechanism to connect have good time and a memorable experience," Didorosi says of the new dinner series. "For us, it's really about the people and bringing them to the table. Friends of ours and friends of our friends — 'Oh, you're doing this cool thing and so are you' — come have an interesting experience, and socialize with people might not otherwise socialize with or sit at a dinner table with."

It's a new purpose for a pop-up in the city, and that's precisely what Tyson and Didorosi shot for, as they made abundantly clear in the evening's title: "Not Another Fucking Pop-Up."

That sentiment is expressed to varying degrees across the pop-up scene, and that's partly why Tyson and Didorosi opted to take the dinners in the direction they have.

As more chefs, hotshot chefs, would-be chefs, part-time chefs, wanna-be chefs, and all their brothers and sisters start throwing pop-ups, some find the scene a little watered-down, saturated, and maybe a little stale. Some of the presentations border on lazy or amateurish. Others are lacking purpose. And the scene, as one chef put it, is in need of some "fine tuning."

Didorosi says it's a bummer to set out for one's favorite restaurant only to discover it's hosting a pop-up, and the only menu option is "some kid's experiment" served up by unreliable employees.

"Pop-ups have almost become an industry and in general kind of suck," Didorosi says. "I don't think I can think of one in the last two years where I said, 'I can't wait to go.'"

One well-loved local chef who helped pioneer the scene sees it the same way, noting that while there's nothing wrong with anyone throwing a pop-up, offering what's essentially a home-cooked meal for guests (half of whom are friends) and billing it as a pop-up is "watering down a cool event." And there are consequences, he says, as it's "risking the trust of the dining public, which is never a good thing. You need to reward the trust of the dining public." In other words, if someone feels burned by a crummy pop-up, they're less likely to risk their tight "dining out budget" on a pop-up next time around, no matter how good it may be.

Several others we spoke with offered similar thoughts. Most seem to agree an evening should provide something new, vital, and entertaining, like those pop-ups of the scene's early days way back in 2014. It could center around an unusual experience, some mystery, the activation of an underused space, a new type of food that's scarce in the region, an offering from a pro chef, something as simple as a surprise bottle of wine, or something that pushes the night beyond dinner party territory.

Of course, it helped that the early pop-ups were fewer in number and thrown by the tastemakers. That's how anything new starts out before it begins to evolve. And the pop-up's evolution isn't inherently a bad thing. They shouldn't and can't only be in a wild building out in the neighborhoods. Nowadays there are venues like Revolver dedicated solely to pop-ups, and some restaurants regularly forgo their usual menu to showcase a chef. Some pop-ups offer "walk-up windows" and others provide full service. Some cooks are pop-ups regulars, while others are part-timers in it for fun.

But no matter how it's done, the general feeling is that there needs to be more purpose and thought. That begins with the dishes. Dorothy Hernandez is Hour Detroit's managing editor, and co-founder of the Sarap pop-up. She and her partner offer Filipino food, which is generating a buzz, in part because incredible food comes out of the Philippines, but also because those recipes have yet to make it into many Detroit kitchens.

Hernandez concurs that the scene is getting to be "overexposed" and the term pop-up is "overused," but she still sees a lot of strong dinners around town. Sarap is among others' favorites, and she says she does it as a creative outlet to cook up something new that's in demand.

"My partner and I are very purposeful about it," she says. "We want to see if there's interest in other Asian-themed pop-ups, because there is no Filipino food in Detroit. We fill a void in terms of pop-ups. There are no others, that I'm aware of, that are doing what we do.

"There aren't that many places that serve Filipino food, and those that do open close down kind of quickly ... so while there's demand for Filipino food, there may not be sustainability in it."

But it's not just food from a country or region that can help carry a pop-up. Injecting creativity into a menu and evening goes a long way. One recent dinner that got tongues wagging offered an all-organ menu and another ran with a Charles Dickens theme. Another chef rolled out all Faygo-infused dishes, and it's those that Steven Reaume, the chef at Grand Trunk who runs the weekly POP dinner series above downtown Detroit's Checker Bar, lists as standouts.

"In my head, I'm trying to put the flavors together," he says. "As a foodie I'm wondering, 'How do they do that?' I like the idea of the challenge of getting Faygo in all your dishes and have them be unique and different."

Reaume stresses that the pop-up scene isn't dead, but it's being figured out as everyone tries new things.

"Maybe the bling is wearing off, but what's happening is the scene is refining itself. It might not be the big news, but it's still very much a part of the community," he says. "It's evolving and we're looking back at what works, and now looking at what's a good path forward."

He also points out that food has become entertainment, as is evidenced by everything from the rise of the celebrity chef to "food porn" taking over Instagram. Thus, branding is something to consider, and the importance of thoroughly thinking through every aspect, from the invites to recipes to dish presentation to marketing to entertainment so the event is "fabulous, fun, interesting, and curious" can't be overstated.

"You need to really put all those pieces together to sell something good," Reaume says.

He also offered somewhat of a counterpoint to those lamenting that the scene is saturated with unoriginal newbies. Although there might be a few green chefs taking a run at pop-ups with cringeworthy results, accessibility and developing new channels to success for those in the minors isn't necessarily a bad thing. The traditional route to the top — work your way up through a kitchen for who knows how many years — can hold back talent.

"I think it's important to still remember the pop-up scene as it has been over the last year or two has given the opportunity [for amateur chefs] to try their hand in the service industry and to get out in the public when they're young ... instead of getting in a restaurant kitchen and moving up the ranks," Reaume says.

"Now you have the opportunity to have your 15 minutes right away, to try to make it without a big amount of overhead."

But, ultimately, cooks need to make sure they're providing their guests with a positive experience. Jesse Knott, aka Corktown Jesse, is one of the scene's regulars. He pins some of the responsibility on the venues and restaurants that hold pop-ups for not essentially vetting their chefs or making sure the event is worth it, though Knott stresses he isn't the final judge on that matter.

Still, like others, he sees consequences for the entire scene when the market is saturated with mediocre performances.

"Going to a pop-up is a sort of a pain in the ass for a customer, because they have to wait in a line, pay the same prices for questionable-quality food, so it should be a priority for a cook or anyone doing a pop-up to absolutely step up their game and make it worth customers' time and money," Knott says.

"It should be pretty obvious that if people go to a couple bad pop-ups, it's going to leave in a bad taste in their mouth."