Pop-up one-upmanship

Just a slither of a shop at the best of times, the CHURCH design shop in Cape Town is offering a one-of-a-kind experience in extreme intimacy. Under the guidance of designer Peet Pienaar, the shop has been decked out in gold foil and 12 strangers are being fed at a table narrow enough to be a bench. Awkward initially, it is nonetheless charming in its defiance of the typical solitariness of restaurant eating.

Saving the situation are the double-sized wine glasses dispensing ample social lubricant during a four-course meal of home-made dim sum produced by the Beijing Opera. It is delicious, if sparse. My companion insisted on being quoted: “Hungry,” he said.

Hipsters and cool kids will know about the Beijing Opera — the dim sum enterprise of Yang Zhao, which feeds those who attend the You & Me & Everyone vintage (or fashionably second-hand) market sporadically held at the Labia.

The self-taught Zhao started making dim sum about two years ago. Initially it was just sticky buns but it has diversified and grown, responding to the tastes of her clients at the market.

Zhao has been contemplating opening a restaurant, but says that she had not comprehended the complexities until doing this pop-up restaurant, which is part of the Spier “Secret” Festival. “It’s been a learning experience,” Zhao says. She now realises that she has a way to go before actualising her dream.

This small-scale platform for novices, providing room to fail, is commonly regarded as the power behind the worldwide pop-up restaurant trend that, like food trucks, has swept the world. But this explanation ignores exactly why these temporary dining rooms draw an audience in the first place.

Yes, it is Facebook and Twitter that get the word out, but more importantly it is about exclusivity. It is about being cool enough to be in the know before anyone else, in time to snap up a booking of one of the limited seats to experience something that will never be repeated and that almost everyone else is missing out on. As Martin Amis writes in his memoir, Experience: “Nothing, for now, can compete with experience — so unanswerably authentic, and so liberally and democratically dispensed. Experience is the only thing we share equally, and everyone senses this. We are surrounded by special cases, by special pleadings, in an atmosphere of universal ­celebrity.”

The food-as-lifestyle craze is probably closely linked to the rise of the celebrity chef, such as Ferran Adrià, whose legendary three-hour meal has a two-year waiting list — not to mention the writings of Anthony Bourdain and his no-holds-barred quest to taste animals verging on extinction.

In the light of this, the name Spier “Secret” Festival starts sounding like a little joke about our obsession with the once-off food experience.

For the press launch, for instance, we were blindfolded, driven somewhere, guided into the venue and then given a Spier Chenin Blanc wine-tasting coupled with “food sketches” by Cara Brink, who has been doing pop-up restaurants for the past year and half with Toffie, the organisers of the festival.

We only knew that we were at the Spier Arts Academy in Cape Town’s Commercial Street when we left the venue and the blindfolds were removed. It was remarkable how clandestine sensory deprivation awakened the taste buds.

The Beijing Opera pop-up restaurant was the first of a number of them to promote the festival. Next up: Brink is doing a pop-up restaurant from September 27 to 29 and from October 3 to 6, which is likely to be boerekos with a twist if her July pop-up restaurant is anything to go by — and you will not be left hungry at all.

Festival organiser Hannerie Visser promises there will be more pop-up restaurants until the actual festival at the Spier farm over the weekend of October 27 and 28. The festival has already announced some international headline speakers, including the purveyors of crazy gelatine, the Jelly­mongers from the United Kingdom, and the ground-breaking food design collective Arabeschi di Latte, from Italy.

“That crazy Frenchwoman” Isabelle Legeron will also be there.

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Nadine Botha
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