On the edge of a pop-up eat out revolution

A smoked whole Szechuan trout from current Glory menus inspired by greens and vegetables as well as fish and shellfish produced aquaponically. (Photo: Aart Verrips)

What’s popping up like a batch of just-right toast is a succession of popular chefs with adventurous streaks, some confirmed nomads, some instant converts, all with refreshed focus.

For Jozi eaters-out, the pop-up chefs trend is also just-right. It’s turned into an instant hit, bringing our favourite chefs back into our lives, albeit for short runs.

Part of the allure seems to be that these events are one-offs and exclusive. They’re booked out well in advance, despite being fairly pricey.

“Joburg just loves events. Like expos! I’ve never seen so many expos for so many funny things in a city.” That’s what Eloise Windebank says. She and Chef Alex Windebank had Farro, the much missed restaurant in Illovo, until lockdown started.

You get the poppers-up, the chefs and the poppees-up, the venues, not always restaurants by any means. One was an empty corner shop.

One of the current poppees-up is The Peech Hotel’s restaurant, Basalt. It’s where the Windebanks have done two weekly stints, all dinners and lunches sold out pretty much when word got out. 

I laughed at Eloise’s remarks about doing the Farro pop-up series at luxurious The Peech on her instagram posts: “Upholstered chairs! Working lightbulbs! An actual kitchen!”

Yes, that pop-up in an empty corner shop was theirs. They actually chose it.

“We were in the ripped-out guts of an old restaurant,” she tells me, “with a boombox, fairy lights so we could see by them and someone there lent us some chairs. There were three plug points in the whole place and no kitchen at all. We got to entertain our fantasy for running a bar with food. We could never do that at Farro. Each of our pop-ups has us living out another fantasy. The pop-up we did at 44 Stanley was the fantasy about us running a small-plate, delicious bites and drinks place. There was half a kitchen there.” 

I guess the fantasy of The Peech pop-up is the set tasting menu, the mark of a fine dining establishment, where Farro was very contemporary eating and drinking, à la carte.

One of Farro’s small plates at their 44 Stanley pop-up was ricotta cappelletti with mushroom and asiago, something like Marie-Lais’ favourite raviolo. (Photo: Daria Higgins Images)

Vicky Peech says the idea of a pop-up series was to give themselves something wonderful to do while they can’t host the international travellers they used to depend on. But the main thing is giving chefs an opportunity to get back into the kitchen and even reunite with some of their pre-pandemic teams, of whom many haven’t been employed since April. Then, it seems Jozi guests can’t get enough of the pop-ups. Vicky sees quite a few people booking for two or more of the experiences. 

The Farro lunches and dinners are five tasting courses, with or without wines of Groot Domaines paired with the courses and tea pairings from the Tea Chest for non-drinkers. I saw the menu included one of my favourite Farro dishes, their egg yolk raviolo with spinach and Asiago cheese. Another food friend still feels hurt by the Farro naartjie and chocolate dessert having gone with the restaurant but something akin was on their pop-up menu by way of naartjie ice cream with chocolate cream and cocoa. I hope she got some. 

I met Eloise and Alex at what was a kind of pop-up at their own bakery before they opened Farro. I wrote then about how difficult it was to find. Behind some industrial buildings, which were behind a parking lot, which was off a little-used street. Once there but with no clues, you climbed an outside staircase and then an inside one. It was the hiddenest bakery and seemed not to have a name. 

The Windebanks were fresh from the UK, Alex being from there originally and having been a chef at a couple of British Michelin starred places. But at their bakery they were making rolls and things for other businesses, getting established in South Africa in quite a practical and lucrative though unglamorous way. They delivered the goods so no one really ever went there, except for the people who knew about the monthly Sunday lunches that had nothing to do with the bakery but were at long tables crowded into a packing room. There was a different Sunday lunch from a different country each time. Mine was Moroccan.

That day, in the kitchen, they told me they were planning a restaurant all the time. It would be Farro. The food at the lunch was far too excellent for me not to believe them.

Another practised popper-up is Nick Scott, sometimes called Great Scott! for the astonishment evoked by his projects. One of them was Glory, behind a block of art deco flats in a Melville courtyard. It was part of a grand plan involving an organic chicken farm, chickens hung properly and served cooked either the eastern way or the western way as platters. He’d been getting a wealth of ingredients from doughty Thai farmer in Springs, Yong de Jong, who also supplied the major Chinese shops and markets in Cyrildene. However, she landed up locked down on the other side of the Indian Ocean and rethought her life there.

Meantime, long before lockdown, Nick had shut the Melville Glory and moved it into his Westdene home, where he prepared meals for a dozen or so guests every now and then, with less chicken and more eastern fresh vegetables. Yong was still in Springs and her produce was the source and inspiration for his dinners, many of which were being held on other premises by invitation, as very popular Glory pop-ups.

The Thai farmer’s produce was the source and inspiration for Glory’s dishes, this being a vegan spread. (Photo: Aart Verrips)

As we emerged from severe lockdown, Scott sought other suppliers and hooked up with the pioneering aquaponics farm called Ichthys, in Midrand. Now he receives the freshest organic greens and vegetables as well as trout, tilapia and shellfish from the same system. This supply inspires his current menus.

Nick and his partner, who is also Glory’s creative director, Caroline Olavarrieta, popped up at Brik Café’s restaurant in the Rosebank area of Jozi very successfully and for an extended period. Brik’s impeccable ethos (consciously curated, locally sourced, proactively cooked) is almost Glory’s overlay.

A great pop-up location for chefs, including Nick and partner, has been the Reva Townhouse at Riverclub in Sandton and Glory has shone there recently to much pop-up acclaim. A short while ago Vusi Magicman Ndlovu, ex head chef of the Marabi Club, popped up and performed wonders.

Nick says Glory has been popping up with their set menus for quite a while but something new is happening now. They’ll be popping up a whole restaurant at Brik, instead, starting now. It will be Glory at Brik and I hope Nick’s sour chilli mussels in their lemongrass, turmeric and coconut milk broth is on the new a la carte menu.

For the La Petite Maison partners, chefs Tyeya Ngxola and Tim Stewart, the pop-up at The Peech Hotel was their first but they’re not finished. Both self-admitted “100% control freaks”, they found being in someone else’s kitchen without a view of the guests worrying at first but they thrilled to the old excitement and adrenaline service rush they haven’t felt since they had to close their excellent fine dining restaurant at the beginning of lockdown.

They also got to work with two of their previous staff members as well as their wine confier, Clive Hlabathi of Toasted Barrels. He’s the man responsible for sourcing the very, very special wines La Petite Maison was known for and he played sommelier during the pop-up.

While Tyeya and Tim produced the main tasting menu, Basalt’s own head chef, Feni Malebye-Lutalo, produced the vegetarian one. It was something of a reunion because all three are graduates, inter other places, of Italy’s ALMA La Scuola Internazionale di Cucina Italiana.   

La Petite Maison’s two brilliant chefs are booked for pop-ups, including champagne lunches, till February and into March 2020. They’re hooked.

Chefs Tyeya Ngxola and Tim Stewart of La Petite Maison thrilled to the old adrenaline rush. This is their utterly perfect crisp and richly tender duck with sweet-sour plums. (Photo: Daria Higgins Images)

Tim and I discussed the pop-up allure being much of a Jozi thing, maybe because coastal restaurants depend on internationals much more than local Jozi people who have always eaten out a lot themselves. Or, at least they did before Covid-19 but there are strong signs that they are getting more used to it again. Tim knows Jozi guests always want fresh experiences, even on his and Tyeya’s menus. 

“People here look out for the next thing, the next original experience and especially something exclusive,” he said. He also said it was surprisingly delightful to make as much in a few days as they used to make in a month at the restaurant. He and Tyeya are just as keen to try new ways of restauranting, like pop-ups.

Chef Candice Philip, who had Grei at the Saxon for far too short a time before lockdown, is doing a stint at The Peech too, now and into the early part of December. Hers is also a five-course tasting menu, paired with cocktails.

Two beautiful privately owned gardens, Shepstone Gardens and Beechwood Gardens, that have been hired out in more normal times as constant wedding venues, have become pop-uppees. Shepstone Gardens has had a succession of different catering companies do themed day feasts for the public. Beechwood Gardens recently had the star chef of the now-closed Jasmine Fusion popping up there.

Secret Eats is a monthly surprise occasion, this month involving two pop-up chefs, both still a surprise till the evening at a venue which is also a surprise.

The novel thing about pop-ups is that they’ve actually changed the focus of not a few excellent Jozi chefs in this time of the new and unexpected. And we get to have our lavishly buttered toast or brioche and eat it. Just what we like. DM/TGIFood

The Peech Hotel pop-ups enquiries and bookings 072-594-8116 or  [email protected]   

Glory at Brik Café 071 509 3131 or [email protected]


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