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So who's coming for dinner?
WHETHER you call it a pop-up dinner, supper club, or private dinner, these often share a common trait - they're one-off, individualised dining experiences that aren't just about food, but also about entertainment, new dining companions, plus exotic locations. If that doesn't ring a bell with you, then it's probably because these dinners are often few and far between as they require months of effort and logistical planning. Not to mention, one of their most appealing factors is the exclusivity, so most of them only cater to fewer than 100 people each time.
One of the pioneers in this elusive industry is Lolla's Secret Suppers, which has accumulated over 2,500 followers on its Facebook page even though each supper session is open to only 20 to 30 people each time. One of its organisers, Pang Hian Tee, explains that they started their first Secret Supper in 2010 purely for fun, not for profit. He says: "It all started because we wanted to share the experience of food and wine. But our secret suppers are not just about the food and venue, there's always something more - for example we've had a sculptor, a Japanese keyboardist, and a Romanian jazz singer. But it's also been challenging because I've had nights where I was up till 4am washing dishes." So far, Mr Pang has organised a total of 11 Secret Suppers in the last five years, and this has led to him co-founding two restaurants - Lolla at Ann Siang in 2012, and Lollapalooza at Keong Saik earlier this year.
Tickets to their suppers are hard to grab too, as they often sell out within half-an-hour of each announcement, says Mr Pang. That's despite the fact that people aren't given any details about what they're paying for. One reason for this is that people are more well-travelled these days, he theorises. "People who come for these dinners tend to be quite adventurous. If it costs S$280 and you think you want to come, you just pay. We will not tell you where you're eating, where you're going, or who else will be there. So the people who come are quite special, and the conversation is usually quite good."
In fact, one of those who attended a Secret Supper was Crystal Chua, who later went on to start her own private chef business incorporating similar elements of the Secret Suppers. Her company My Private Chef started about three-and-a-half years ago, and caters mainly to corporate and residential clients. Business has picked up over the years, and she now gets a few corporate events every month, plus an average of one residential event every week. Explains Ms Chua: "A lot of our clients want not just good food - that's assumed in our country - they want to impress their guests beyond that standard restaurant meal. They want the theatrical, exotic venue appeal... it's also a bit of a status symbol for some."
Answering this similar demand is Stephan Zoisl, a chef who used to work with Ms Chua at My Private Chef, and now runs his own series of pop-up dinners called Nutopia. Mr Zoisl describes Nutopia as an "educational, social, theatrical culinary experience" that "tells stories through food and audiovisuals". He organises one-off themed dinners for the public, and replicates them only if a private client asks for it.
As a chef, Mr Zoisl explains that such one-off dinners are the perfect creative outlet. He says: "If you work in a French restaurant, you cannot wake up the next morning and decide to cook Spanish food. Cooking is like a language to me, and I don't want to limit myself to one language."
Of course it's that creativity that people seem to be looking for these days, as Janet Lim of Jiak Ka Bui puts it: dining these days is no longer just about sitting down and having a meal. She says: "I don't think you can just serve a three-course Italian menu with Burrata, pasta, and tiramisu anymore. People get bored very easily these days, so they're always seeking something different and looking for something unexpected." Her inaugural public pop-up dinner with a nostalgic theme takes place next Saturday.
On top of getting bored more easily, people are also more affluent so they can afford to pay for a new exclusive experience, says David Yip of The Jumping Table. As a trained chef who used to run his own restaurant, Mr Yip enjoys organising these pop-up dinners mostly to explore traditional cooking methods and long-lost ingredients he discovers on his travels. He observes: "I remember in the 90s, the trend was home parties - going to a friend's home to cook. Now people invite chefs to unusual locations to cook instead. I think people are like that - after a while they'll think it's boring and come up with something else. But the entertainment part of it, that's what will never die off. I think it will last forever, just that it will evolve."
The Jumping Table
WHEN it comes to food, David Yip has no problems going the distance, literally. In fact, he makes monthly trips to China alone just to look for old chefs, learn old recipes, and collect old ingredients for his pop-up dinners.
"It's a retirement hobby," says Mr Yip with a chuckle.
"For my pop-up dinners, I do more unique stuff in the sense that first of all I do things you can't find in restaurants. Or they are almost impossible to find. Long-lost menus or ingredients - that's the whole concept of what Jumping Table is about," explains the trained chef, who used to run a restaurant in Hong Kong.
Between running his restaurant and organising the occasional pop-up dinner that he does now, Mr Yip strongly prefers the latter simply because it allows him to indulge in both his love of food, as well as his love of travel and meeting new people. With pop-ups, he has no schedule to follow, and only organises them when he finds something interesting to showcase or ingredients that he wants to explore.
One example of a dinner he has organised was a meal prepared by chef Sin Leong - one of the "Four Heavenly Kings" of Singapore cuisine. That dinner was based on a typical wedding dinner menu from back in the 1950s, and it required Mr Yip to make a personal trip to China to hunt for the necessary ingredients.
Says Mr Yip: "These are things that people won't have a chance to eat. So much so that even (chef Sin Leong's) own chef didn't know how to do it, and he had to cook it himself even though he was more than 80 years old."
More recently, he organised a dinner based on a list of hard-to-find ingredients from his personal collection - things that even money may not be able to buy. For example, some ingredients were a batch of 50-year-old aged tangerine peels used in a braised duck dish, and 20-year-old aged chai poh that was a gift from his friend, used to flavour an omelette.
It's one of the reasons why his dinners are a bit more exclusive than others, as he usually only has a limited amount of ingredients to work with. That means he limits each dinner to an average of four to five tables of people, and the only way he publicises it is through his personal list of Facebook contacts.
His love for traditional Chinese food stems from having been exposed to a lot of Cantonese cuisine as a child, and a recent desire to relive his childhood, so he doesn't mind charging between S$30 and S$100 per person per meal, even though he loses money each time.
Says Mr Yip: "I'm actually very proud of the food I ate as a kid, but now you can hardly find that kind of cooking anymore. And the chefs of those days were really well-trained with very good techniques - it's something I want to bring back."
He adds: "I don't have to make money out of it, to be honest. I have no intention of doing that, and I don't need to be famous. My purpose is to introduce my friends to unusual food or food that I miss as a kid. And I want to introduce people to new ingredients, revive my childhood days, and share things I've learned. It's a very personal thing."
Jiak Ka Bui
WHEN Janet Lim first started organising pop-up dinners, it was a very simple, personal affair. Every year near Christmas time, she would invite a group of eight to 10 friends to her house, charge a small fee for a meal she cooks herself, and then they donate the collected sum of money to a charity of their choice.
Next Saturday, however, Ms Lim is finally organising her first proper pop-up dinner that's open to the public - an eight-course meal which she has fondly dubbed Jiak Ka Bui (eat until fat).
The menu is made up of dishes that Ms Lim describes as "familiar but modernised": babi tempra (fried pork with lime juice and soy sauce - a twist on the Nonya chicken dish); sticky rice bowl with an onsen egg; Spam (luncheon meat), kim chi, and bechamel fritters ; braised beef summer rolls with laksa pesto; and a sugee cake with White Rabbit candy ice cream.
"Pop-ups to me are more for fun," says Ms Lim, who used to work for the Spa Esprit Group, but is now running her own PR agency. "It also allows you to dabble in running a place without having to commit to rental or staffing issues. And I like being able to do different things, have different themes, and work with different chefs and people - the possibilities are quite endless for pop-ups."
The Jiak Ka Bui pop-up dinner features herbs grown by local urban farmer Edible Gardens, and it takes place on May 30 at Growell (107 Rowell Road) - a space that's co-owned by Spa Esprit Group and Edible Gardens. Tickets cost S$80 inclusive of a cocktail, and so far, almost all of the 50 available seats have already been snapped up.
According to Ms Lim, the reason she decided to venture into this larger-scale pop-up dinner in the first place was thanks to the encouragement of her ex-boss Cynthia Chua, CEO of Spa Esprit Group.
Explains Ms Lim: "I like cooking and I used to run a fair bit of events while working for Spa Esprit, so Cynthia said why don't you do pop-ups since it's a one-time-only thing, and you could do different themes. So this became like a fun, on-the-side kind of thing that I'm doing."
She won't be working alone though. Instead, she's running the dinner with a friend - food writer and consultant Annette Tan, who will be cooking six out of the eight courses for the night. The other two will be prepared by Ms Lim, along with the watermelon gin punch cocktail.
Says Ms Lim: "I think for us we just want people to really enjoy the evening. Make it an occasion to come together with friends and hopefully also get to know other diners in the a cosy, small space. And we'd like to bring back some very nostalgic, local and South-east Asian flavours, and we just want people to enjoy the night."
- The first Jiak Ka Bui pop-up dinner runs on May 30, 7.30pm to 10pm, at 107 Rowell Road. Tickets cost S$80 for eight courses and one cocktail. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org for more information or to purchase tickets.
THEY may not have a physical presence in Singapore just yet, but that is not stopping hotel and resort group The Luxury Collection (TLC) from making its presence felt here, through a three-night pop-up dinner titled Epicurean Journeys.
This series of dinners takes place at the MoCA Museum of Contemporary Arts in June, and each night will highlight one of three foreign chefs - from France, India, and the United States.
Yeoh Fay-linn, director of brand management at The Luxury Collection and St Regis, Starwood Hotels and Resorts Asia Pacific, says: "We want to introduce our newly renovated and/or opened Luxury Collection hotels and what better way than to bring their cuisines to Singapore, where much of the culture revolves around food."
Aside from choosing to hold the event at MoCA because of its size (it seats up to 60 guests), Ms Yeoh adds that "MoCA presents an unusual dining atmosphere" as an art gallery displaying works by Asian contemporary artists. Plus, its location in a popular dining hotspot like Dempsey allows TLC to "add to the buzz of the area's dining scene for those three days".
At the same time, "a true pop-up is one of surprise and innovation - turning up in unexpected locations for a one-off, limited time experience that offers a sneak peek".
On the first night of the pop-up dinner series, French chef Stephanie Le Quellec of one-Michelin star restaurant La Scene in Paris will cook a six-course dinner featuring her signature dishes such as a farm egg with acidulated egg yolk, green asparagus, and morel with yellow wine, and a duck foie gras with shrimp and turnip.
Day Two will see Manjit Gill of Bukhara (ranked 41 on Asia's 50 Best Restaurants 2015) and Dum Pukht showcasing tandoor (clay oven) cooking and Indian fine dining with six dishes such as a macchi tikka - fish kabab (kebab) with carom and yellow chilli.
As for the the final day, California's Jesse Llapitan of The Garden Court will prepare six items as well, including black Angus beef short ribs with saffron couscous, and ahi tuna tartare with an original green goddess dressing.
Says Ms Yeoh: "(The chefs) all offer cuisines that we are confident will be well-received in Singapore. The food culture here is so prevalent... with these pop-up dinners, those looking to check off their food trails lists of award-winning restaurants need not travel to India to experience Bukhara or Dum Pukht."
- Epicurean Journeys runs from June 4 to 6 at the MoCA Museum of Contemporary Arts (27A Loewen Road), at 7.30pm each night. Tickets cost S$248++ each, inclusive of wines. Log on to www.epicureanjourneys.sg for more information or to purchase tickets.