James Beard Foundation Pop-Up Dinner by Manresa’s David Kinch and John Paul Carmonafeatured

Today, LMS New York correspondent, Taku Noguchi, reports back from JBF LTD’s pop-up dinner with Manresa’s chefs David Kinch and John Paul Carmona. See how Kinch translates his “uniquely California” fine dining restaurant experience into a fleeting meal set in Chelsea Market. Taku grew up in St. Louis and now lives in New York City. He is fascinated by the culture, creativity and chaos of restaurants.

A couple of years ago when the economy went south, there was a lot of doomsday talk about the future of fine dining – which of course relies on the deep pockets of the well heeled. Stock pickers predicted that the Burger Kings, Applebee’s and McDonalds of the world would reign supreme. While high-end restaurants struggled, and some unfortunately went under, the challenges of a cash strapped environment also ushered in an incredibly exciting era in the culinary world – one that showcased the resilience and creativity of these businesses and the people who run them. Instead of lying down defeated, restaurants became more nimble and savvy as businesses and chefs focused on innovative ideas to make more out of less, while continuing to move culinary evolution forward.

One interesting trend as of late is the rise of the casually themed “pop-up” restaurant concept, which has become ubiquitous enough to be known simply as Pop-Ups. Pop-ups are like temporary food exhibits – the menus, the people, the location are all only there for a brief run. After that, the space becomes something else – maybe another pop-up, maybe an office, maybe a shoe store. Pop-ups offer patrons unique, playful menus, dinner party style intimacy with elite chefs, and the thrill of participating in an exclusive, fleeting experience. For chefs, the format allows for creative leeway and a fun, different kind of challenge from service in a standard restaurant set up.

The James Beard Foundation recently seized on the pop-up craze, launching one of its own in Chelsea Market in New York City. The 27-day experiment featured guest chefs from far and wide, each for weeklong installments. The latest – and last – featured Chef David Kinch and Chef de Cuisine John Paul Carmona of Manresa, a two Michelin star restaurant in Los Gatos, California. Chef Kinch, whose accolades include the JBF Award for 2010 Best Chef: Pacific, specializes primarily in French and Spanish cooking, finished with a decidedly California touch. “I distinguish myself with a sense of place about California and where we are,” he explains. “I try to create a restaurant experience that is uniquely California.” Not surprisingly, he is known for uncompromising focus on seasonality, locality, and quality of product. Manresa, for example, enjoys an exclusive partnership with the nearby Love Apple Farm, which supplies Chef Kinch with most of his ingredients.

JBF LTD Pop-Up, Chelsea Market (NYC)

JBF LTD Pop-Up, Chelsea Market (NYC)

Many pop-ups are meant to be a communal experience, where diners are seated at shared tables. While the JBF pop-up lent itself to more conversation between strangers than at most normal restaurants, it didn’t nail the community bonding aspect of the pop-up experience. We sat down, the dinner started, ended, and that was it – no intro, discussion of the concept, or wrap up to conclude the night. What the experience lacked in theatrics, however, it made up for in décor. The colorful, open space had the flare of a hip gallery within the warehouse-y feel of Chelsea Market. The music was fun and relaxing, incorporating classic rock, 80’s throwbacks, and MJ. The long, black and white communal dining tables were each signed in red spray paint by the guest chefs (ours was signed by David Chang). Overhead, a delightful web of oversized Christmas lights stretched across the ceiling, mimicking a starry sky. For Manresa food, this was new digs.

Green Garden Gazpacho, by David Kinch

Green Garden Gazpacho

The Manresa chefs featured 4 courses for their pop-up menu. The opener was the Green Garden Gazpacho – a cool, refreshing start to the evening. I felt healthier for having eaten this soup. The word that kept coming to mind was “green” – in all the best senses of the word. Fresh, vibrant, slightly acidic, cleansing. Complementing the soup were miniature veggies, a delicious vegetable beignet, a garnish of edible flowers, and pickled green strawberries – small bites of tart sweetness. This appetizer was as California as Highway 1.

The next dish was the Romaine and Abalone Salad. While good dishes inspire a mental applause in my head, great dishes challenge my thinking. This “salad” was balanced, multi-dimensional, and packed with sophisticated flavors. For the rest of the evening, I found myself trying to re-analyze it and re-experience it – like watching a brilliant Lionel Messi goal over and over in order to figure out exactly what he did. The dish featured a large, pan-seared abalone sitting in a sauce of pureed nori, surrounded by avocado puree and leaves of romaine. The abalone was meaty but tender, the romaine provided fresh crispiness, avocado played the role of rich and creamy, and the nori delivered concentrated earthy flavor. The sauce that formed on the plate was reminiscent of something like marrow, black truffle, or foie gras…or maybe a faint reflection of all of the above. “I was tasting the nori puree today and thinking that it tasted like fish liver, in a good way,” Chef Kinch said post-meal. I wiped my plate down clean.

Porcelet by David Kinch

Porcelet with Polenta and Roasted Onions

The main course, served family style, featured suckling Porcelet on a bed of Polenta and Roasted Onions. What is porcelet, other than a fun word to say? According to the D’Artagnan meats website: “Porcelet is a very young, milk-fed pig that yields an extremely tender meat with a unique flavor profile that is more complex than that of a younger, suckling pig.” My guilt over eating “a very young pig” faded fairly quickly as I tasted the crispy skin, juicy meat, and fatty bits of belly, topped with pork jus – a true celebration of pork. Who loves eating porcelet? –> This guy <–. This dish wasn’t so much a new creation as it was a representation of hearty comfort food straight from the farm, as it should be. Due to my love of overeating, I was concerned at the outset of the meal that I might not get full – but this worry vanished after this course.

Hibiscus Butter

Hibiscus Butter

Continuing along the comfort food theme, Chef Kinch served a large Popover for dessert, with Hibiscus Berry Butter shaped like sorbet. Starch and butter: a simple but subtle and fun dessert, as if to move the bread course to the end. Sometimes you don’t need the crazy chocolate bomb cake. After all, that’s why some meals finish with a cheese course. This was somewhere in between, and it worked.

For me, the pop-up is yet another demonstration of the creative energy in the food industry. Fine dining is not a static concept. Perhaps now more than ever, chefs and restaurateurs challenge us to consider new ideas for elegant food and the settings in which we enjoy it. The constants are the appetite for memorable dinner table experiences and the spirit driving the people orchestrating them. As Chef Kinch puts it simply: “We try to make people happy. We don’t cook for ourselves. We cook for customers. In this business, we’re here to make people happy.” Indeed, the JBF pop-up made me quite happy, and then, poof, it was all gone.

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