Sydney, AU: Meals On Wheels

The popular pop-up Taco Truck gathers quite a crowd. Photo: Simon Schluter

By Dani Valent | The Sydney Morning Herald

The popular pop-up Taco Truck gathers quite a crowd. Photo: Simon Schluter

Blink and you’ll miss them. Pop-up restaurants pick a site, fire the burners and trade for a month, a week, or even a single night. Dani Valent goes in search of Melbourne’s funkiest temporary eateries.

The sun goes down in Melbourne town and most of the city’s laneways retreat into shadow. As the suits are sucked into trains and trams, a raggle-taggle crowd of the hungry and hip wend their way to an alley near Queen Victoria Market. Something’s happening. You can sense the fun before you smell the chipotle salsa: chatterbox queues, background tunes, it’s Taco Truck time. ”I only heard about this at 4pm on Facebook,” happy customer Simone says, biting into a fish taco with poppyseed mayo and sipping on a cup of wine poured by a youthful merchant from the Young Guns of Wine project, which has carved out a tasting depot in the art studio that’s playing host. ”There’s food, wine and art, all things I love,” Simone says. ”And it’s only here for a few hours. It’s that spontaneous aspect which makes it really cool.”

Taco Truck owner Raph Rashid also owns the burger van Beatbox Kitchen. Most weekends, his trucks ply the inner north, creating an instant festival atmosphere every time they crank up their mobile cookers. Regular customer Megan loves the social aspects of such gatherings. ”It’s not just you and your friends sitting down for a meal,” she says. ”You usually end up chatting to someone while you’re waiting.” That was always the plan, Rashid says. ”Along with serving good, fresh food my greatest motivation is to smash the usual restaurant boundaries that keep people at their separate tables.” He’s also motivated by the idea of invigorating neglected locations. ”Where we park in West Brunswick [Brunswick Park] is an old-style country park,” he says. ”People come with their picnic rugs, put them down, order food. You give people a new way to appreciate their surrounds.”

Inner-urban watcher Barrie Barton, founder of Right Angle Studio, the publisher of The Thousands city guides, thinks imaginative use of locations is key to a great pop-up. ”We’ve got an under-utilised city grid and inner city areas that are yet to be gentrified,” he says. ”Pop-ups can re-envision dormant spaces and build life into them.” Melbourne is a natural fit for these restaurants, which are usually publicised via word of mouth and social media. ”Melburnians are very forensic with how they experience the city,” Barton says. ”They like to hunt things out and they like to tell their friends what they’ve discovered.” The geography is amenable too. ”The Sydney CBD is more tightly packed than Melbourne and you don’t get the feeling that people live there, they just work there and then leave.”

Madame Truffles. Photo: Ari Hatzis

Some pop-ups are born out of pure enthusiasm. Artist and sometime barista Mark W. Free ran the Black Coffee pop-up at Somewhere Gallery in Little Collins Street for 10 days earlier this month, serving coffee (no milk, no sugar, no espresso). ”Melbourne is fixated on espresso,” he says. ”I wanted to see what we could do if we took it out of the equation. A pop-up is perfect for an experiment of this nature.” The fly-by-night nature of Black Coffee suits Free right now. ”I’m only 24,” he says. ”I’m not ready to lock myself into a full-time business. I can give this a shot, see if I like it, then walk away and take a deep breath.” There’s also the thrill of chasing the next experience. ”Melbourne is saturated with such good-quality stuff that you’re always looking for that next level,” he says. ”It’s not enough to have a really good cafe or bar because everybody knows about the good places. You need other exciting little things to keep people interested.”

Jumping in without fully committing also appealed to truffle pop-up vendors Simon McCrudden and Bernadette Jenner. McCrudden and Jenner were inspired by truffle shops they saw in France. In July, they ran Madame Truffles in a space owned by St. Ali in South Melbourne. ”We wanted to make truffles feel more accessible, not daunting and mysterious,” McCrudden says. ”The good thing about doing it as a pop-up is that you’re not investing your life in it. You can do it for three or four weeks and then get back to your normal life.”

Madame Truffles shopper Karen loved the experience: learning about truffles, cooking with them and sharing the news with friends. ”There’s a certain exclusivity that you get from selling something with a limited supply and within a limited timescale,” she says. ”For the consumer, it makes you a member of an exclusive little club.”

Black Coffee pop-up

Not all pop-ups trade on exclusivity. Taste of Melbourne is an annual event that will storm the Royal Exhibition Building from September 15 to 18. Prominent local restaurants such as Sarti, Stokehouse and St Peter’s prepare dishes for a large and diverse audience, hoping the exposure translates into bums on seats in their real restaurants. The Press Club Group’s Shane Delia thinks it works. ”We see huge numbers of people from Taste in our restaurants the week after,” he says. This year the group is offering a degustation of dishes from its family of restaurants including Press Club, Maha and St Katherine’s. ”It gives us a forum to show what we can do but it’s never going to replicate coming into the venue,” Delia says. ”It’s fun, it’s a snapshot.”

At the other end of the scale are ”hashtag dinners”, grassroots diner-led events organised mostly via Twitter, according to culinary interest. Melbourne-based Twitter streams have included #duckfest, #carbfest, #porkfest and, just last week, there was #truffest. Tweeters can follow a particular hashtag, then book in (or help curate) the resulting events, anything from group bookings at restaurants to special dinners that fill whole venues. ”It’s people driving what they want,” food blogger Ed Charles says. ”Hashtags mean individuals can gravitate to things that suit them. It’s not like Facebook, which is trying to fit you into groups. No one’s really in charge, it’s just a network that’s plumbed in.”

Micro Kitchen, part of the State of Design festival in July, saw designers and chefs (including Andrew McConnell and Joseph Abboud) collaborate on a soup of the day, served upstairs at the GPO. It was the second food pop-up curated by publishers Broadsheet (Broadsheet Cafe ran during the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival). ”We write about what’s happening in Melbourne and this was a way for us to move from being observers to participants and to collaborate with people we admire,” editorial director Nick Shelton says. ”It’s a way for our readers to get an overview of what we’re enjoying. Come today, come back tomorrow, you’ll get a variety of different perspectives.”

It’s that transience that lures Taco Truck customer, Adam. He wouldn’t be here if the food wasn’t good – ”it’s super tasty” – but he’s really enamoured of the experience. ”It’s about getting out, meeting people, being part of a moment,” he says. ”It happens and then it’s done. If you want it, you have to be there and be there right now.”

MORE MELBOURNE POP-UPS

The Chasing Kitsune Japanese food truck popped up during the State of Design Festival in July, with locations drip-fed on Facebook and Twitter.

❏ Chef Ryan Flaherty developed dishes he’s now serving at The Estelle via a series of SED (Society of Eating and Drinking) dinners co-hosted with like-minded chefs and front-of-house professionals.

TOYS (Taste of Young Sydney – and now Melbourne) inhabits restaurants for flight-of-fancy themed dinners.

The Scarf non-profit social enterprise takes over restaurants to run dinners, which also operate as hospitality training workshops for marginalised youth.

POP-UPS AROUND THE WORLD

❏ Los Angeles chef Ludo Lefebvre has been running LudoBites, his fine-dining pop-up restaurant since 2007. The seventh iteration is just finishing up a five-week season at a downtown LA diner that sold out in one minute. Dishes include bouillabaisse milkshake (ludolefebvre.com).

❏ Roy Choi’s five Kogi trucks crawl Los Angeles serving Korean-Mexican tacos. A recent special was Beetleblood Taco with blood sausage and kimchi (kogibbq.com, Choi pictured right).

❏ Thomas Keller will recreate his Californian restaurant, The French Laundry, at London department store Harrods in October. But the £250 ($395) price tag is too steep for many, including passionate foodie Sabrina Ghayour, who will host the Keller-inspired French Launderette pop-up for just £2.50 at the same time (harrods.com, frenchlaunderette.blogspot.com).

Gochiso, Japan’s first food pop-up, recently staged its second dinner in an art gallery and got around the issue of having no kitchen by making it a raw-food affair. Dishes included Blanket, rolled daikon slices filled with nut cream (http://bit.ly/nDStTA).

❏ Food raves, also known as ”craves”, started in San Francisco and have spread to other cities. Think bustling Asian-style markets but unregulated and rent-free.

Super Marmite is a French website where home cooks post details of meals they’re making and nominate the price per serve. Click ”yes please!” then pick up your dinner (super-marmite.com).