During the pandemic, entrepreneurial chefs have reshaped food culture across the country with tiny, homegrown pop-ups that thrive on social media.
Credit…Video by The New York Times
By Tejal Rao
LOS ANGELES — Working as a cook at Rustic Canyon in Santa Monica, Calif., Jihee Kim made dimpled, tender malfatti, and green pozole bobbing with mussels and clams. But all the while, she dreamed about opening her own place.
It would be like her favorite banchan shops in Busan, South Korea, where she grew up. Ms. Kim would sell starchy Japanese yams braised in soy sauce, delicate omelets rolled into perfect spirals with seaweed, and cucumber fermented with sweet Korean pears.
It was just a dream — until last year, when the pandemic forced restaurants to shut down, and a wave of unemployed, entrepreneurial cooks started to rethink their careers and reshape the takeout scenes in their cities with new, homegrown food businesses.
Ms. Kim joined a wave of restaurant cooks all over the country, improvising new pop-ups, advertising their menus on Instagram and changing the way so many diners order food.
It’s more unpredictable, and more chaotic. I have calendar alerts set up for more than 50 menu drops on Instagram, and notifications set for new posts on about 100 accounts. It’s worth it for the smoky cochinita pibil from Alan Cruz; candy-topped, triple-layered citrus cakes made by Sasha Piligian; and oxtail patties from Rashida Holmes.
Though I sometimes miss out on a spot, or a special, I also find my way to others. And a capricious algorithm points me to pop-ups all over the country, from Jessica and Trina Quinn’s plump pelmeni in Brooklyn, to Anwar Herron’s craggy fried chicken in Napa.
When Instagram introduced Shop and Reels tabs to its home page last November, prioritizing popular brands and influencers, I worried that the platform would become more hostile to tiny food pop-ups. But cooks made it work, relying on direct messages or linking out to forms, custom-built shopping pages or third-party apps.
This kind of decentralized ordering process can be disorienting for diners. It’s on you to follow each business closely, to remember each pop-up’s schedule, pickup rules and payment methods, and some cooks are better organized than others. Information trickles out in a mix of stories that disappear after 24 hours, and posts, and it can change week to week.
Despite this, and the fact that most pop-ups are unregulated by health departments, Instagram has become one of my favorite takeout menus. Perilla, Ms. Kim’s pickup-only pop-up, illustrates why.
Ms. Kim, 34, started Perilla last May out of her apartment in Koreatown, Los Angeles. Like all diners, I ordered the food online and never went inside, but I found the experience revitalizing and intimate — the same person who bought all the produce at the farmers’ market also prepped and cooked all the food. That same person took my order, packed it up carefully and delivered it to me in my car.
Throughout the process, there was a sense of trust, and a feeling of closeness to Ms. Kim’s kitchen.
“Hi, are you eating the bulgogi right now, or later?” she asked me over the phone, when I pulled up — a little late. “Because if you’re eating it now, I want to warm it up for you!”
As Ms. Kim got busier, she shifted operations to a friend’s unfinished restaurant space, which functions as a kind of cloud kitchen — a restaurant without a dining room. She brought in a few portable butane stoves and induction burners to handle the cooking, and her friend and fellow cook Sara Kang started helping out.
The setup may be scrappy — no ovens, no dining tables, no investors, no employees — but Ms. Kim’s food is not.
Ms. Kim works with whatever looks good at the farmers’ market when she goes, whether it’s a classic Korean pairing of cabbage and kombu, or a less traditional one of celery root and mushrooms. It’s delicious, beautifully presented and travels well, and it’s a thrill to have access to it every week.
This surge of new pop-ups can seem like a bright spot as restaurants struggle, or close, but the pandemic didn’t exactly create opportunities for cooks — in many ways, it made them harder to come by. Hundreds of thousands were fired or furloughed from their jobs, and of those who remained working on the front lines, many fell sick from contact with the virus at work.
With no safety nets in place, cooks emerged from the wreckage to build their own independent, makeshift businesses, redirecting their skills as fine-dining cooks, or their connections to purveyors and farmers, to new projects. It’s exciting, but precarious.
In May, Erik Piedrahita, formerly the executive sous-chef at Bon Temps in Los Angeles, constructed a brick oven and grill in his father’s backyard, a few miles from Griffith Park, the pickup location. Diners who placed orders via Instagram would wait for their orders and picnic, or drive the food home.
“I don’t have any formal training in barbecue whatsoever,” said Mr. Piedrahita, who started the Neighborhood Barbecue last spring on Instagram, and recently switched from taking orders through his direct messages to Tock. “But I took the knowledge I have from restaurants and tried to apply it to barbecue.”
Mr. Piedrahita, 33, buys meat from the same purveyors he did at Bon Temps. He brines and grills about 60 pounds of short ribs and 20 pounds of chicken a week, cooking them over fire, or more slowly over embers, and consistently sells out. The chicken this past weekend was dark and sticky, smoky and succulent.
Still, at least twice in the past months, he has considered giving up on the project entirely.
Though Mr. Piedrahita has visited restaurant auctions over the months to get deals on stainless steel prep tables, a powerful Vitamix and other equipment, he doesn’t have the refrigeration required for a larger operation. Most home kitchens don’t.
“I basically have a cloud kitchen at my dad’s house,” he said. “And in order to make it really financially viable, we’d have to expand to sell on more days.”
Without more refrigeration, that’s not possible, but forces of circumstance have changed his work-life balance and temporarily reshaped his ambitions. “I miss restaurants, but right now I get to see my dad every day,” Mr. Piedrahita said. “I have time to live a life, and not just be in the kitchen from dawn to dusk.”
On a busy weekend, Kevin Hockin sells about 600 thin-crusted, lightly charred pizzas pizzas through a gap in his fence, at home in Altadena, Calif. Side Pie is a small operation, but even if there were room to grow, Mr. Hockin thinks 1,000 pizzas a weekend probably would be the limit, for now.
“This pandemic has opened our eyes to how things need to change going forward, forever,” he said. “Everyone in the industry was used to working themselves to death and now, everyone’s rethinking it.”
After closing Collage Coffee in March, and putting construction of his new restaurant in Altadena on hold, Mr. Hockin worked on his pizza technique with Irfan Zaidi, formerly of Roberta’s.
He posted photos of pizzas, and chihuahuas in cute hats, on Instagram, and quickly developed a small but devoted fan base for the pies.
Mr. Hockin, 38, designed tie-dye merchandise to sell. Ms. Piligian, a former pastry chef at Sqirl, baked seasonal slab pies for him to sell for dessert. But after a neighbor repeatedly called the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health to complain, the operation shut down — temporarily.
Mr. Hockin reopened his coffee shop and is waiting for permitting at his restaurant space, so he can operate Side Pie legally. “It’s a total jam-up,” he said. “But I have to use this bootleg pizza operation out of my yard to cover the losses of my coffee shop and pay my employees.”
For cooks who don’t have the social-media savvy to promote their businesses on Instagram, or for immigrant cooks who might not be fluent in English, managing the writing, marketing and unexpected hiccups of customer service through direct messages can be a challenge.
Sophia Parsa, 29, collaborates with her mother, Farah Parsa, 62, and helps to package and translate her Persian home cooking to social media. It’s an essential part of their business, Golden Rice, which currently does pickups at the West Hollywood club Bootsy Bellows.
The women cooked their first pop-up in their home kitchen in Los Angeles last July, posting details on Instagram and inverting about 40 domes of Iranian-style rice with shiny, crisp bottoms into delivery boxes.
The tahdigs were piled with tiny, tangy barberries and came with mast, a thick, creamy yogurt with herbs. Their food has become so popular since that the Parsas have added three more cooks and two drivers to their team, and graduated from four plug-in stoves to more equipment.
Expansion is promising, but for many cooks finding success in the margins of the restaurant industry right now, it’s hard to sit back and enjoy it.
“It’s just weird to feel so excited about this at a time when restaurants are taking such a hit,” said Ms. Parsa about the growth of Golden Rice. “They’re all tied in leases and things they can’t get out of, and it’s a giant mess.”
Ms. Parsa worked previously as the head of community for an education start-up, but most of her new hires are cooks who were let go from their restaurant jobs during the pandemic. They’re the ones helping the pop-up scene grow.
“We’re not tied to anything right now,” she said. “We’re able to stay lean and that’s what makes it possible to do what we’re doing.”
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