Top Chef Opens Pop-Up Restaurant

  • On a recent Monday night, Camille Becerra wheeled a gigantic striped bass on a room service table into the dining room of the Gilt Hall hotel.  Covered in a mountain of salt (to preserve the flavor, Becerra said), the fish was greeted with an eruption of cheers, and guests pulled out their phones to snap pictures.

    Only three hours earlier, when the fish had been delivered at over three times their intended size, threatening to ruin her main course, Becerra hadn’t lost her cool. “The norm is chaos, so we embrace it,” she said.

    And Becerra, a former restaurant owner and Top Chef contestant, is making her career on that chaos.

    She and friend Lelaine Lau decided to inaugurate their traveling restaurant series, “the Cookery,” this summer. Each event is scheduled in a different venue– ranging from established hotels to artists’ lofts– with an original five-course menu. There’s no permanent wait staff, no kitchen supplies, no backup ingredients. Over the course of a single day Becerra must acclimate to a new kitchen, train her helpers, and cook a gourmet meal. Guests purchase their $128 tickets before they know the venue, the menu, or anything else.

    Becerra didn’t question the practicality of creating a restaurant in a single day; nor did her guests, who gladly forked over five star prices for a meal that was far from a guaranteed success. They inhabit a world where, Lau told us, there’s “fatigue around the word ‘pop-ups,’” and novelty equals quality.

    Originality pays– word has gotten out surprisingly fast.  Already, upcoming Cookery events are sold out, and there’s even a whisper of an “in-development” TV show.

    “The show is meant to be very New York-centric,” Becerra told The Observer, although she was contractually obligated not to say much more. “The show is basically based on these dinner parties from acquiring the product to the end of the night.”

    Becerra’s no newcomer to the restaurant scene. She began working on events after her Brooklyn restaurant, Paloma, burned down.  “At the time I was heartbroken,” she said. “I had put everything I had into it, and I had nothing.”  She seems to think that collaborating with most corporate partners, a near necessity in opening a new restaurant, would be akin to communing with the devil. “Manhattan has become so corporate that I can’t just say, ‘I love cooking, and I want to open a restaurant by myself,’ as I did in Brooklyn,” she said. “That couldn’t happen anymore.”

    The “peek-a-boo” dinner series, as she calls The Cookery, is more about the atmosphere than the food itself. “I love the romance of going to different places all the time– floating around, drifting from one end of the city to another, throwing these little intimate dinner parties,” she said.

    And Becerra embodies the feeling she wants to convey in her food.  She’s someone who carts her groceries from the farmers’ market in bags tumbling around the back of her Vespa.  “I feel like I’m flying,” she told The Observer in a far-off tone.

    The day of a pop-up event at the boutique Gild Hall hotel in the Financial District, Becerra met The Observer at the farmers’ market.

    “I saw these little spiky flowers, and I don’t know what they are, but I want to make centerpieces out of them,” she told us. Five minutes later, The Observer was carrying a plastic bag punctured with tiny snags from the thistle-like petals of some Echinops sphaerocephalus.

    Becerra didn’t need a shopping list. There was no readily apparent method to her wandering from shop to shop. But she knew what she wanted.

    “To always have a new menu and to always tackle something new is so awesome to me,” she said. “I think I’d whither if I had to make mashed potatoes and chicken sandwiches every day.”

    Mashed potatoes and chicken sandwiches, incidentally, were being prepared back in the hotel kitchen, though not for the Cookery.  The room service staff skirted around the Cookery chefs, amused by their relative finesse.

    “It’s my birthday tomorrow,” Becerra confided, grinning almost guiltily at The Observer, as she arranged celery in a vase.

    Out in the hotel dining room, the lights were low, and Eurythmics’s “Sweet Dreams,” repeated on the stereo, playing softly.  There were Becerra’s “spiky” flower centerpieces, at once quirky and elegant.

    As Lau delivered instructions rapid-fire (she’s someone who knows what she’s doing and wants you to know it, too), Becerra rattled off her courses, taking time to note unnecessary details and address the servers– strangers, for the most part– by name. First course, paddlefish roe with petals. Second course, “cuchifritos,” (“a take on my Latin heritage,” Becerra said.).  Third course, a watermelon and tomato salad and a zucchini blossom flatbread. Fourth course, the dramatic striped bass and a gypsy salad.

    As the guests trickled in, Becerra peeked into the dining room. “Did you go outside?” she asked The Observer. “They’re so cute, right?! Everyone’s so pretty!”

    Pretty or, well, colorful. African tribal garb, a pink (Gatsby-esque?) suit, and a few skullcaps graced the dining room alongside the more typical cocktail dresses and business suits.  A friend of Becerra’s, who said he was a producer, rubbed the bare chest of another guest while musing on the relative merits of waiters and pool boys in bed.  A flustered hotel waitress rushed back and forth every few minutes, refilling her tray of red gin cocktails.

    It soon became clear that the Cookery doesn’t hurry things. Half an hour was allocated for mingling, and the event, slated to begin at 8:00, was still going well into the morning. Guests, who were assigned to large tables of friends and strangers, chatted loudly, collapsing on one another in fits of laughter. Part booze (almost every course came with a specialty cocktail), part ambience– Becerra had stirred up her “romance.”

    The kitchen’s euphoria, though, dwarfed the dining room’s excitement.  In the final minutes of dinner service, Becerra was all smiles. “And now I can go partay for mah birthday!” she shouted.  She made a dirty joke, and, doubling over in laughter, told The Observer not to print it. “Kitchen pressure release,” Brian Sullivan, pastry chef for the night, explained.

    Becerra sprinted home to her apartment, and by the time she returned– cleaned up in a white cocktail dress– guests broke from eating their flaugnarde and gaznates on couches in the upstairs event space to sing a heartfelt rendition of Happy Birthday. She circled the room, thanking her guests for coming and asking them about their lives. A singer named “Polystylez (The Real Adonis)” played guitar.

    “Sometimes I feel like everybody leaped off the galaxy to go live somewhere on MySpace. I no longer have a sense of what’s reality, looking on my iPhone at a Facebook page, yeah. Just wanna ask, anybody left living: What ever happened to the human race?” he crooned.

    That sentiment seemed to fit into the tiny world Becerra’s trying to create.  After all, it’s what Becerra is setting the scene for—genuine, if fleeting, interaction.

    One guest, lounging on the couch in front of The Observer, extracted his arm from behind a swaying girl to upload a blackberry picture to Facebook.