A pop-up dinner is a dining experience for one night only. Leaving restaurant life behind, I have commitment issues now. I’ve been hosting my ever-changing moveable feast since 2017 and in that time, I’ve fed hundreds of people without fancy kitchen equipment, running water or electricity.
Most of the time, it’s just me, a cast iron pan or two, a fire pit or a camp burner, and the goal is to serve up restaurant-quality food in unexpected places to 30-or-so people. The project is all about building community one pop up dinner at a time, getting people to think about where their food comes from and sustainability, and just doing some good. Oh yeah, The Paisley Notebook is also one big social experiment. But, we’ll get to that.
Here are five things I’ve learnt along the way:
Our food system has become such a tangled web and we have every right to not trust where our food is coming from.
That’s why I turn locals into tourists and I take my guests on an edible road trip direct-to-the-source for a hyper-local experience, where every ingredient passes through my hands. My thinking is that for someone to see the value in something, they need to get up close and personal with it – to play with it. Once you see the work, love and effort involved in our growing seasonal organic produce, we now value it. It’s my job to plant a seed and start the conversation, and a dinner table is the best place for that. We’re breaking bread with the farmer and there are no wait times to hear from customer service about the origin, growing practices or harvest date because my farmer is a person with a face, a name and a family. With every pop up dinner, we follow the seasons and I tell the story of the organic farmer. Together, we change perceptions and behaviours, letting people connect the dots for themselves. And as the menu is always a surprise, you have to be up for an adventure and therefore open-minded.
2. Figure it out
I’m a planner. And I’m also a Virgo. So, there’s always a plan of a plan. I have our supported local farming industry for long enough to know that Mother Nature will dish out whatever she wants. I work closely with my farmers to talk to try and predict the business of growing food, but ultimately Mother Nature dictates my menu.
We also figure out a rain plan. With plates, cutlery, napkins, tables, chairs, décor, glassware on the packing list, the food is the smallest component of what I do and I host dinners! Going back to the plan of a plan: when it comes to execution on the day, it’s time to just let go and figure it out. It’s a good thing that entrepreneurs are problem solvers because something always goes wrong!
3. Farmers are superheroes
For years, I’ve seen my farmers as my secret weapon. Every year, they are faced with the unpredictability of the seasons. From wildfires and pollination issues to climate change, disease pressure and more, they’ve dealt with it and will continue to year-in and year-out. It’s always the chefs who are transported into the spotlight – I wanted to flip that because great food starts on the farm and that’s the understory that’s often overlooked.
As each farmer is different, so every dinner is different and each dinner is inspired by the beautiful imperfections that go hand-in-hand with supporting local (and not the consistencies that the restaurant industry strives for). Oh yeah, it’s also important to note that if you want to experience a farm dinner, you should also eat like a farmer – meaning, using the #2 or imperfect veg.
4. Magic in a table
In such a fast-moving world, it’s kind of my superhero power to stop time around my communal table. When my guests share a meal, random strangers are transformed into friends. The best thing is when you take a moment to look around my table and you realize that I don’t have a demographic; it’s a very value-based group. That is what food is supposed to do. And I’m proud that my orchestrated feast is a without the privilege or price tag usually associated with magical experiences. This isn’t just food, it means so much more. With every pop up dinner, our little eco-system slowly grows and grows.
5. Canada is incredibly edible
Since jumping over the pond from England and stumbling on this food thing, I’ve been trying to learn about the world through food. To truly call Canada home, I’ve been travelling province-by-province and getting to know local producers and suppliers that share similar thinking. It’s pretty cool to then teach Canadians what is possible in their backyard. From lentils and legumes, honey, wheat, hops and maple to wine, more booze, fruits, vegetables, wild game or ethically raised meats, and even rice, Canada is oh so edible that I don’t have to import anything except my spices.
Ok, now let’s bring on the summer so we can play outside and you can experience it for yourself (even if we are 6ft apart, togeether).