(Photo courtesy of The Paris Popup)
Don’t look for The Paris Popup in Paris alone. Instead, this roving restaurant goes from town to town, combining French touches with local inspiration to create memorable dining experiences. Named “the Best Pop-Up Restaurant of 2016” by Le Fooding, a popular French food guide, The Paris Popup was founded by Chef Harry Cummins and sommelier Laura Vidal, who were later joined by Julia Mitton. London native Cummins and Montreal-born Vidal came up with the pop-up idea in 2012 while working at Gregory Marchand’s Frenchie restaurant in Paris. Their events can last a single evening or multiple months, and each one is different since The Paris Popup adapts and borrows from its surroundings.
I was lucky to eat at the Arles pop-up last year on opening night. The restaurant was situated outdoors in the center of the French town where Vincent Van Gogh painted many of his famous works. The waiters brought around bowls of the most incredible, dense, warm bread, followed by plates of baby artichokes with hazelnut and aioli and paper-thin slices of melt-on-your-tongue prosciutto with rosemary. There were dishes of tender, seared pork belly over aubergine puree topped with a fried shiso leaf, and bowls of summery pesto gnocchi. The Arles event was the trio’s 21st pop-up and the evening went as smoothly as if the restaurant has been there for years.
I was intrigued by the idea of this transient supper club, so I got in touch with the three restaurant magicians to discover just how they do it. We chatted via email while they were back home and planning to spend their next few months in London.
What was it like to go from the idea for The Paris Popup to the first event? What kind of preparation goes into each?
Laura: We first came up with the idea through one of Harry’s trips to London visiting friends and attending a spontaneous pop-up focused on food and music. His friends had a band, the Ramshackle Union Band, and we thought of doing something with them in Paris. In the end, the band couldn’t make it, but as we had still planned everything, we did the one night pop-up anyway. It started at Verjus, a small restaurant where the owners generously lent us their space.
That first pop-up was so scary. Every single one after that, no matter how prepared we were, gave us the same adrenaline rush of an opening: intense, tiring, exciting, and challenging.
We did our first seven pop-ups in Paris at different friends’ restaurants on their closed nights. The concepts really evolved over time. From being small tasting dinners (seven-course meals including wine pairings) to a big food festival where we welcomed more than 400 guests, we experimented with lunches, brunches, cocktail and wine themes, collaborations, and so much more. In the end, our desire to learn about other cultures and foods inspired us to travel around the world in 2014 from Paris to Barcelona, London, Montreal, New York, California, Japan, and Morocco.
We prepare for our pop-ups by discovering high quality local produce through talking to chefs with similar ideas and philosophies, searching for traditional beverages that we could put our own twist on (tea and sake in Japan or making our own vermouth with local spices in Morocco). Harry then creates his menus based on seasonal and local products, but he is also inspired by his travels.
Depending on the size of the venue, the available produce, equipment, resources, etc., it can take from three days to two weeks to prepare.
What kind of interactions do you have with the general food community being such a different style of restaurant?
Laura: Because every pop-up is like a new restaurant opening, we always feel like we have a bit of an underdog status and have to bring our best game when we rock up to a new town! We are usually very much welcomed though and we are always so grateful about that. People we meet along the way, be it our guests, suppliers, fellow restaurateurs, or critics, can be curious about how our traveling trio will actually succeed in setting up a bona fide restaurant in a short period of time. But then opening night comes around and it all comes together—the chaos, the energy, the pop of opening wine bottles, the amazing food, the heat in the kitchen… It’s definitely a restaurant, even if it’s just for a short time!
What parts of running the pop-up make the extra work worth it?
Laura: The best part of running a pop-up is the people you meet along the way. If food is a way to the heart, then this applies to a community as well—food leads you directly to the center of any culture and its people. Julia [the third partner, who is in charge of human resources, accounting and location scouting] often travels back to Fez now as her boyfriend lives there (they actually met through one of our pop-ups!), and when she does, the restaurant staff with whom we worked on the 17th pop-up all run up to her for hugs… it’s so touching. Or this summer, the restaurant that hosted us in Spain for our “Paris hearts Barcelona” event surprised us by driving the six hours to Arles where we did our summer pop-up. After dinner we all shared a couple of delicious bottles of wine. We do what we do for these moments of conviviality.
What has been your favorite pop-up so far?
Laura: We all really enjoyed Les Sept Soirées Ensemble because it was our return to Paris after having traveled around the world and it was also the first one where Julia was onboard.
Julia: It was a big collaboration and there were so many great moments: from going to get a whole suckling pig on a tiny scooter and getting lost on the highway outside of Paris, all the while balancing the pig between my legs, to spending days in the sun in the 12th arrondissement re-writing menus and wine lists, to the look on people’s faces when they took their first bite. It was so rewarding to work with the existing staff and seeing their enthusiasm as the week wore on. It was exactly as you dream a pop-up to be: punchy, delicious, energetic, and super fun.
Harry: I love doing pop-ups in Montreal around the end of summer September when the produce is so abundant, so beautiful, fragrant and inspiring. I recently collaborated with hyper-talented Patrice Demers who is a renowned pastry chef and so passionate about food. We did a four-hand dinner and it’s a part of our concept I love because we can interact with chefs like him who are really strong and open to sharing.
Where would your dream pop-up take place?
Harry: We always fantasize about where we could travel next because there are so many countries with rich food cultures. One dream is to take The Paris Popup to Peru (Laura is half Peruvian) and perhaps do a South American tour. The produce is so different, interesting, and inspiring, and the proximity of Chile, Argentina, and Uruguay could make for some interesting wine discoveries.
Do you have any advice for other young people who aspire to go into the restaurant business?
Laura: Just know that you are getting into a realm where the boundaries between business and pleasure, personal and professional, are often blurry—and that’s okay. Living your passion is why you should do this. The restaurant industry will bring long hours, sometimes sweat and tears, blisters, burns, and naps stolen in the afternoon on strategically aligned chairs that form a “bed,” but it is worth every minute and we wouldn’t trade it for anything else.