The pop-up dining trend is freeing culinary imaginations and creating a guerilla version of event dining around Santa Cruz
It’s Monday evening in downtown Santa Cruz, and people are gathering inside Front Street Kitchen– the bustling line stretches out the door. Customers will soon sit down to bite into bao, a fluffy white Chinese bun encapsulating savory barbecued pork and cabbage. After serving them all, chef Noah Kopito will leave—but unlike a typical chef, he won’t be back tomorrow, nor the next day.
That’s because Kopito is the creator of Mortal Dumpling, a staple in Santa Cruz’s blooming culinary trend known as popups. These ephemeral dining experiences “pop up” into existence at kitchens around town, sometimes on a semi-regular basis, but sometimes as a one-off.
The temporary nature of the popup is its greatest appeal, says Kopito.
“Giving birth to things is a beautiful thing,” he says, “but so is killing them. There are enough businesses that get started and people say, ‘OK. It’s here to stay. And it’s always going to be here.’ There’s too much of that around. We need more things that come and go.”
The popup model is simple: a chef strikes up an agreement with a restaurant, cafe or craft house, borrows their kitchen for a night and offers a simple menu focused around a handful of dishes.
Twice weekly, Kopito erects Mortal Dumpling and offers Cantonese cuisine and dim sum dishes like steam buns, fermented veggies, pork belly stew, veggie- stuffed dumplings, and more. He takes comfort in knowing that should Mortal Dumpling ever bore him or his customers, he can put the popup to a quick and honorable death.
“It doesn’t peter out,” he says of the model, “it doesn’t struggle and it doesn’t have to resort to different tactics to get people in the shop. It’s a different type of life, and I think that’s nice.”
Popup chefs have a unique advantage: they don’t pay overhead or kitchen staff, and if their menu is a dud, they only lose one night’s investment. Liberated of heavy financial obligations, they are free to express themselves and experiment.
“The beauty of popups is that there’s not a lot of risk,” says Zach Davis, co-owner of POPUP, a new restaurant on Pacific Avenue dedicated entirely to popups. “If people show up, that’s great. If not, we’ll try the next thing.”
Davis and Kendra Baker launched POPUP earlier this year. Guest chefs rotate through their kitchen on a changing basis. Davis and Baker provide the space and staff. The chefs bring the dishes and ideas.
“The beauty of it is the spontaneity, the temporary nature of it,” says Davis. “While the thing that’s happening in this moment isn’t going to last forever, you can still count on the fact that there’s something around the corner. You wouldn’t want it to be Christmas every day.”
POPUP’s first event was with chef Anthony Myint, known for his San Francisco eateries like Mission Street Food and Mission Chinese Food. He offered two simple noodle dishes; one with chicken, shallots, ginger, and spices in coconut milk broth and the other with sautéed mushrooms and a white soy sauce over buckwheat noodles. POPUP has seen many chefs and menus since its inception. Just this month, the template restaurant offered Norwegian Aeropress-brewed coffee on Saturday and dripping meatball subs the following Friday. Mortal Dumpling owns the Thursday slot.
Another regular at POPUP, the Manresa Bread Project, delivers gourmet gluten; they offer sourdough loaves and artisan pastries like wheat berry levain and onion gouda tartines. Avery Ruzicka, the project’s co-owner and head baker, enjoys intermingling with her Wednesday crowd, which is almost always large and lively. “I think it’s really cool for people on both sides of the counter,” says Ruzicka. “I get to interact with each customer, and I really love being able to see who takes our bread home.” Though plans for a brick and mortar bakery in Los Gatos are in place, Ruzicka wants to remain a part of Santa Cruz’s community through popups.
“What’s great about this popup, for me especially,” says Avery, “is that so much of the Manresa staff lives here. Santa Cruz is our home.”
Indeed, the Manresa Bread Project isn’t the only Santa Cruz popup to sprout from its parent establishment, Manresa. When the acclaimed restaurant was forced to temporarily close its doors because of extensive fire damage this past June, its chef de partie Todd Parker stepped away from exclusive gourmet dining and onto the popup scene. He uses the opportunity to reconnect to the simple, southern cuisine he grew up with in Mississippi.
“A lot of chefs don’t have their own outlet,” said Parker, who enjoys popups as a means to explore while waiting for Manresa to rebuild. “They’re always cooking someone else’s food through someone else’s vision and they don’t have an outlet to do their own thing. That’s what’s so appealing about popups.” Parker bounces between Lúpulo Craft Beer House and, recently, Midtown Cafe, where he serves southern dishes like gumbo, red beans and rice, hushpuppies, grilled corn, pickled eggs and slaw.
“This is just a really beautiful place in the world to apply your trade as a cook,” said Parker of Santa Cruz. “The produce here is unbelievable. We have that Mediterranean climate, and it’s going on pretty much 12 months out of the year.” I met with Parker hours before his most recent gumbo night at Lúpulo. He chopped a mountain of cilantro while his roommate showed me the alligator costume he’d worn earlier to publicize his friend’s event.
Every seat in the house was taken later that night. Bowls of gumbo flew out of the kitchen and quickly filled the empty spaces on the bar and tables. Perhaps it’s the fleeting nature of popups that reliably delivers loyal customers. Everything about a popup is subject to change and no one, even the chefs, are ever sure of how long they’ll stick around. “It’s just like buying something consumable,” said Kopito. “When you buy something that you consume, you use it, it’s awesome, and then it’s gone. Then you’re left thinking, ‘oh, I need to get another one of those.’” BB
The addition of chef Roger Gowen is re-energizing the Shadowbrook
Our first encounter with new chef Roger Gowen’s emerging Shadowbrook menu was a pleasure from start to finish. Gowen’s ideas are gradually inflecting the dining experience at this astonishing landmark— astonishing because the reliable hillside restaurant has managed to stay on top of its game across more than 60 years. The charm has not diminished, from the gracefully meandering Italianate walkway to the multi-level architecture. Lake Como meets Oz. For good reason, locals as well as visitors persist in spending their special occasions in Shadowbrook’s pampering atmosphere.
After culinary school in Sacramento, Gowen worked restaurants in Los Gatos before coming to the Santa Cruz area.
“When I first moved here, I did catering for 11 years,” he says. “It was fun, but line work is even more so.” Gowen was sous chef at Shadowbrook before stepping into the top chef role. Shadowbrook’s new sous chef is William Poolman, most recently executive chef for a dozen Charthouse restaurants.
Gowen is diving into sourcing new local, organic ingredients.
“I’m working with local purveyors—also sourcing geese beef, ducks. I’m really interested in that.” Not planning on adjusting the “tried and true” menu favorites, the chef looks forward to concentrating on seasonal changes.
“The work is creative and enjoyable,” he admits, “and my staff is great.” Gowen manages 33 line cooks, bus boys, sous chefs and others. “A lot of hands and minds go into this work.”
The results proved more satisfying than ever, even with Shadowbook’s storied reputation. We began dinner with glasses of Frog’s Leap Sauvignon Blanc 2013 and warm ciabatta rolls. Service here balances warmth with professionalism. An appetizer of the chef’s new succulent calamari gave the entire concept of “fried calamari” new sophistication. Lightly—very lightly—breaded and dusted with cilantro, the plump calamari was joined by a zesty Asian slaw of napa cabbage, cilantro, radish and an overtone of jalapeño. A dipping aioli spiked with tomato and more spicy peppers sparked every bite into piquant flavor.
Another appetizer of salmon cakes came topped with miso-sauteed zest of carrot and zucchini, with pools of ponzu sauce in the corners of the plate. Moist and sensuous, the delicious cakes were glazed with wasabi ginger and sat on a bed of transparent sea greens. Very Pacific Rim, just as the menu promised. This dish, plus a glass of the bright citrusy sauvignon blanc, made the perfect appetizer. We liked another of chef Gowen’s new dishes, a salad of burst with autumn flavors. Mixed infant beet greens and baby spinach had been laced with toasted walnuts, slender wedges of Golden Delicious apple, and almost transparent
sliced beets. But the best thing was the exceptionally light, tangy buttermilk dressing. It blew away preconceptions of “heavy, creamy, overwhelming” usually associated with buttermilk dressing. Gowen’s skilled hand with saucing and glazing was becoming rapidly apparent.
Seated in a cozy alcove overlooking Soquel Creek on one side and the tiny sparkling lights across the front patio, we realized that our table, even within a large restaurant, felt completely intimate. The service
was impressively attentive, yet unobtrusive.
Switching to glasses of a meaty, spicy 2005 Georis Carmel Valley Merlot ,we settled into entrees of tender beef short ribs and absolutely classic Niçoise salad, showcasing a freshly made mustard vinaigrette that might have been flown in from Aix- en-Provence. A crimson slice of barely seared ahi sat on top of boldly flavored spinach, sided with tiny red potatoes, expertly sauteed al dente green beans, niçoise black olives, tomatoes and sliced hard-boiled egg. Defying cliché, this salad was elegant enough to qualify as a destination dish.
The braised beef short ribs were perfumed with star anise and a glaze of tamarind and plum. Rich and generous, the portion showcased exceptionally tender beef, intricately seasoned, partnered with ginger- infused rice and fresh green beans satisfying enough to stand alone. Had we saved room, we might have tried the evening’s housemade pear sorbet, or a crème fraîche panna cotta with rhubarb sauce. Gowen told us that his new menu would include a duck with orange sauce, an updated “lighter version” of roast chicken, and a hazelnut-encrusted trout
We’ll be back to try that dish for sure, as Gowen continues to help the stately Shadowbrook defy all stereotypes and expectations. CW
A side project farming premium pigs in the Santa Cruz Mountains has turned into a uniquely upscale business
Daniel Maxfield rolled up to his ranch a couple weeks ago to find a passel of pigs he relegated to one oak-forested corner of the property roaming free. He’d put up an electric fence to keep them in a woodsy expanse so they could forage for acorns and roam around pasture. But the pigs collectively decided to brave the shock and trundle on through the electrified barrier.
“They do what they want around here,” says Maxfield, stomping his heavy work boots along the dirt path to the breached wire enclosure. “I’ve got to start over now, teach them to respect the fence.”
Maxfield’s pigs—some black, some pink with black spots, all with big floppy ears over their eyes—are especially free-spirited. When they’re not foraging for apples, acorns, grass and plums and toppling electric fences, they lounge around in oak- and redwood-shaded patches of Mountain Whale Ranch, a 60-acre homestead deep in the Santa Cruz Mountains. “The happiest pigs in the world,” boasts Maxfield, who drives the half-hour every morning from his home in Los Gatos to the pig ranch where he spends most of his waking hours with his fat, happy wards.
Because they live such a fulfilling life, customers pay a premium for their meat. Up to $1,500 a carcass, depending on its age and how much of that prime grain feed it gobbled up. A full-bellied hog, perfect for bacon, is a little pricier because it has to mature a little longer and requires more feed. A good roaster, which tends to be a bit leaner, goes for about $1,000.
Despite the cost, every pig on the ranch is spoken for, some sold to restaurants and some to individuals.
“This is quite different from commodity pork,” says Maxfield, perched on a dinged-up stool near the open-air slaughter station, where he rubs the hog bellies to lull them before the kill. (Any hint of stress toughens the meat, which means they can never know when death is nigh.) “The quality of fat is extraordinary—the best fat—not that bright white you normally see, but more of a brown color.” Unlike those pink, antibiotic-pumped cuts from the supermarket, Maxfield’s meat is “red, almost beefy.”
He breeds a cross of Gloucester Old Spot and Mulefoot hogs—both natural foragers that thrive in forests and produce nutrient-dense meat with flavorful lard—a mix he calls Mulespots.
“From the time that mama gets pregnant to when the meat ends up on my fork—that’s a year,” he says. “The entire time, we make sure it lives a stress-free existence to get the best possible product. That’s what I want to eat.”
Growing up on a farm in the Utah mountains, Maxfield tended pigs from a young age. His family was poor, raising the hogs to eat.
“We’d breed every year,” he says. “Sell to everyone else, keep one for ourselves.”
He always liked the hogs because they were smart and social, with personalities a lot like a dog. They have a range of expression other livestock seem to lack. He hated seeing them cooped up. “They weren’t abused, but they weren’t on pasture,” he says. “They were kept in confinement, in these horrible little pens.”
When he was 15, Maxfield left the family farm. Eventually, he wound up in California, and after a decades- long career in healthcare and a stint at San Jose’s Tech Museum, he fell back to his roots. Laid off from the museum in 2008, a casualty of the recession, he began volunteering at Love Apple Farm.
The pigs started out as a little side project until Maxfield landed the ranch in 2012 thanks to a charitable landlord who offered the mountain acreage up for a cheap lease. The moniker came from a recipe in an old cookbook that called for “mountain whale,” what Japanese monks called wild boar.
“It stood out to me,” Maxfield says. “Also because the book Moby Dick had such an impact on me when I was younger. Farming life, on this micro-scale, is like chasing a big, white whale. I knew that then and I experience that now.”
Pork, he insists, is good for the planet in a way beef can never be. Pigs have a smaller footprint and more utility—virtually every part, snout to tail, is usable.
“With a cow, they take up so much space,” says Maxfield. “And their head is huge, but you can’t really use that. Well, most people don’t, except in some French cuisine.”
Maxfield’s way may not be the most profitable—he’d be in the black if he bought a lesser-grade feed—but it’s the only way he’ll eat it, thus the only way he’ll sell it.
“It’s a rebellious act,” he says. “You have to be a little nuts to be a chef and buy a whole pig, to extract the value out of a whole carcass. You need flexibility on your menu, to say that no we can’t just have cheek meat. You got to have just ‘pig’ on the menu, and create something around that. Make it worthwhile.”JW
Mountain Whale Ranch, 855 Jarvis Road, Santa Cruz. www.mountainwhaleranch.com. 408.398.5701.
Bake Back Santa Cruz
Forget visions of sugar plums—the real holiday treats can be found all around Santa Cruz
Staff of Life
Fruitcakes are a joke to many, but those bred on the dense cakes of candied fruits, nuts and spices can still be transported to culinary ecstasy by these O.G. energy bars. Panforte is a fruitcake particular to the romantic, walled city of Siena, Italy, and its popularity has become too great to restrict to the holiday season. The imported version at Staff of Life, available year-round, is very light on the flour, with all the healthier ingredients compressed into a tasty confection that can be stored, slivered and enjoyed for months. $12.29/lb. 1266 Soquel Ave, Santa Cruz, 423-8632, staffoflifemarket.com.
Hoffman’s Bistro & Patisserie
Baking is at the core of Hoffman’s. Chef/owner Ed Hoffman was trained as a baker, and the holidays showcase some of his best work: Dresdner Stollen is a traditional German pastry with candied fruit and marzipan; or if a chocolate holiday is more your thing, try
the Christmas Yule log, a pretty chocolate Genoise roll with butterceam mousse. Stop in for baked goods by-the-slice or order in advance. Stollen: 1 lb. $9.95; 2 lb. $18.95. Yule log: $28 for 10-12 serving size. 1102 Pacific Ave, Santa Cruz, 420- 0135, hoffmanssantacruz.com.
Beckmann’s is known for its breads, but the pies are yet another reason to be proud to be from Santa Cruz. Beckmann’s Classic Pumpkin pie took first place at the National Pie Championship in Florida in 2010, and the Rum-Laced Pecan pie walked off with first in 2011. The crust’s balance of richness, sweetness and comfy goodness is so very right that it conjures images of a lab full of dough nerds working round-the- clock to nail the recipe. The fillings are an ideal union of flavor, texture and just enough sugar. $17-20. Available at Shopper’s Corner, Deluxe Foods, or call 423-9242 for the store nearest you. Reserve pies for pick-up at your local farmers market at beckmannsbakery.com.
Every year around Thanksgiving, customers await the return of Ann Zoccoli’s fudge. Zoccoli ran Zoccoli’s Deli with her husband Bob up until about 10 years ago, and still makes many of the desserts. Mom/Grandma Ann’s fudge is only available for about a month, so make a note to take advantage of this window of chocolate opportunity. The current owners are third generation Zoccolis: her sons, Craig and Russell, and Craig’s wife, Patty. 89¢/piece. 1534 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz 423-1711, zoccolis.com
The Farm Bakery Cafe
The Farm is a bakery, cafe and gift shop that generates enough cozy warmth to keep customers’ temperatures elevated for hours after leaving the premises. The atmospheric experience is easily matched by the yumminess of the goods streaming from the oven. Three tarts are made for the holidays on a buttery shortbread crust: pumpkin praline, pecan, and chocolate pecan. $24-30. 6790 Soquel Dr, Aptos, 684-0266, thefarmbakerycafe.com.
New Leaf Community Markets
Made with organic flour, butter and sugar, the initial hit of molasses and ginger in this housemade gingerbread evokes “holidays” like little else. This is a classic, everyday bread best enjoyed warm, with some lightly sweetened cream cheese or a layer of butter, your choice of coffee or tea, and a friend. New Leaf also offers a few pumpkin-based goodies: super moist muffins, pies and cheesecake. Gingerbread $3.99/lb. Various locations, newleaf.com. MD
Gobble Gobble Hey!
Chez Panisse’s Cal Peternell offers holiday cooking tips and brings new book to Santa Cruz
Cal Peternell will spend Thanksgiving the way you’d imagine a chef from Chez Panisse would, with friends like Oakland restaurateur Charlie Hallowell. They’ll push tables together, crack good bottles of wine, and compare creative notes. But right now, Peternell is still on tour for his new book, “Twelve Recipes,” which he wrote for his son, who had just left home and was hungry for culinary building blocks.
Needless to say, dad is on speed dial. Peternell will be appearing at Bookshop Santa Cruz on Nov. 20 at 7 p.m., and I asked him to share some holiday cooking tips with our readers.
It’s almost Thanksgiving. What would you recommend for those of us who have to prepare dishes for the sweet potato with marshmallows crowd?
CAL PETERNELL: I love any holiday built around cooking and eating, but Thanksgiving is the burrito of holiday meals. It can be really satisfying, but it’s mono-textural in tone and flavor. I would never tell someone to ditch the sweet potatoes, but I like a bit of contrast, too. Take sweet root veggies that you can eat raw, like turnips, carrots, radishes, even fennel and kohlrabi. Slice them as thin as you can, then toss them with something as simple as lemon, olive oil, salt and pepper. It’s a crunchy, fresh, seasonal salad that provides a great counterpoint on the plate.
Let’s talk turkey.
Some people like the look of a whole bird, but I like to take it apart. Before cooking, I remove the legs and roast the breast by itself, bones in, mashing up butter with fresh herbs and garlic to stuff under the skin, which helps keep it fatty. I braise the legs and thighs separately with vegetables, herbs, white wine and chicken stock until the meat falls off the bone.
Do you have any Christmas cooking traditions?
We tweaked a holiday tradition that my mother used to do. She’d make a big pot of beef chili on Christmas Eve. Our oldest son was born on Christmas Eve, so it’s also his birthday party, but he didn’t seem excited about the chili, so we make Bolognese spaghetti instead, also very meaty and rich. We have a big colorful salad of different chicories with it, a sharp contrast that cuts nicely through the meat sauce.
What’s the best strategy for getting through the holidays without bursting at the seams?
Shift the focus to vegetables. Also, what I find unattractive about a plate of food during the holidays is that there are too many things on it. One way to deal with that is to serve your meal in courses. Another is
to narrow it down. Cook the rest of your favorites some other time. All those things don/t have to be served on the same day.
Many people find cooking intimidating. What’s the best approach?
I’m a fan of local, organic, seasonal food, but not everyone has that access, and because I wrote this book as encouragement to my son, I wanted it to be approachable.
In the Bay Area, we have great produce, but even if you don’t, cook anyway. There’s real pleasure to be found in the kitchen. It’s one of the last places where you can still make something with your own hands.
What’s the best part of being a chef?
The excitement of pulling together as a team to make the night go well. People call the kitchen staff a crew, and it has a certain similarity to setting sail in that once the evening begins, there’s no turning back. What you create has to be good enough.
How did you get started?
I worked my way through art school as a waiter, but always paid attention to the kitchen. After school, my wife and I moved to Lucca, Italy, where we restored murals. The way Italians integrate food into their lives spoke to me. When we got back to San Francisco, I asked a friend to make a list of the best restaurants around, and stopped by. Eventually a great guy hired me. I just worked my way up.
Any parting words of wisdom for novices in the kitchen?
Work with what you’ve got, learn from your mistakes, and go for it. WML
Cal Peternell will speak at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Nov. 20, at Bookshop Santa Cruz.