On a recent Sunday evening, some 50 adventurous eaters made their way across a Hollywood parking lot and through the back door of the WuHo Gallery. Many had purchased tickets for the dinner weeks ago, but they had only learned the location three days earlier. It’s all part of the fun of Los Angeles Eats Itself, a series of pop-up dinners created by Marco Rios, an art gallery curator, and Jason Keller, who teaches art-based research, to commemorate some notorious chapters in LA history.
The evening’s festivities were dedicated to the gruesome unsolved 1947 murder of Black Dahlia, aka Elizabeth Short, who was—grisly alert!—found cut in half at the waist near LA’s Leimert Park. “We wanted to see if we could make food as symbolically rich as music or art,” says Keller of the series. The six-course dinner, prepared by chef Jonathan Moulton, was a re-creation of what Short might have eaten on her last day alive. All of it was notably soft, from the first course of a slow-cooked egg yolk and celeriac mousse to the main of braised short ribs and the orange and cocoa chiffon cake for dessert. Why? Because Short had terrible teeth and wouldn’t have been able to chew anything hard.
The art gallery had been transformed into a dimly lit, noirish dining room under the direction of the evening’s featured artist Julie Orser, who had also designed the smoky black dinner plates with an imprint of a dahlia, which all the guests received as a parting gift.
It was all macabre good fun, and by evening’s end people were making plans to meet at future installations of the series—perhaps, the Fleiss Feast, Manson Murder Meals, All-White Bronco Brunch or Northridge Edible Earthquake.
OK, this might not be for everyone—you need to assess the sensibilities of your guests. (Keller and Rios say they’d be open to curating customized dinners with more G-rated themes.) But pop-up dinners—one-off events in nontraditional locations—offer meeting planners an inspiring template for how to bring panache to group dinners.
Coachella: THE PROVING GROUND FOR POP-UPS
For evidence of what can be achieved at a pop-up, look no further than Coachella, the sprawling annual music and arts festival held in Indio over two three-day April weekends. Widely recognized as the country’s premier pop shindig, Coachella attracts at least 90,000 people each year, all of whom need to be fed, and some of whom expect to be fed very well. Shelleylyn Brandler, owner of TaDa! Catering & Events, has been feeding the artists and crews who appear at the festival for the past 10 years. “This year was a record-breaker,” Brandler says, speaking from Coachella between festival weekends. “We fed 1,850 people at a single meal. It was such an accomplishment and everything was absolutely beautiful.”
The stream of people is pretty continuous. Breakfast is served from 7 a.m. until 10 a.m.; lunch is offered from noon until 3 p.m.; dinner is served from 5 p.m. to 8:30 p.m.; breakfast for the overnight crew is at midnight and lunch is at 3 a.m. In all, Brandler and her crew dish out some 5,000 meals a day. Over the last decade, Brandler, who also does backstage catering for the likes of Beyoncé, Taylor Swift, Katy Perry and The Who, has nailed the sometimes challenging logistics.
As guests arrive, they’re checked in with a scanner—five staff members perform this function—and handed a plate. As they move through the gates, a greeter welcomes them and gives a summary of what’s offered at the various buffet stations. As the greeter explains, the buffets are set in the middle and corners of the room so they mirror each other. “We don’t want people lollygagging,” Brandler says. “We’ve moved 90 people through the buffet line in two minutes.” Because even the appearance of a long line can dampen the mood, Brandler arranges things so people will follow a serpentine route. “That makes things look fun,” she says. “It’s easy to walk around, and there are no sharp corners.” And, sounding like the rock ’n’ roll caterer she is, Brandler adds, “It’s pretty groovy.”
What’s equally groovy is the variety of offerings. At Coachella, as at any California gathering that draws tens of thousands of people, there’s a wide range of dietary preferences: carnivore, vegan, vegetarian, gluten-free, pescaterian, paleo, pescaterian-paleo, and on and on. “We have to have something for everybody,” Brandler says. For crew members who want to grab and go, there’s a hot dog station (“You’d be amazed how many people just want to eat hot dogs every day,” Brandler says) and a sandwich bar, where 15 different prepared salads are also offered daily. The pizza station offers vegan and gluten-free options, classic tomato-sauce-and-cheese preparations, and ritzier toppings like wild mushrooms and caramelized squash. For artists who are eating healthy before a performance, there are lots of lean, simply prepared proteins, nonstarchy veggies and a fruit cart.
Brandler also takes pride in offering the kind of fare you’d find in an upscale California restaurant. “Our daily specials are made from scratch and super-refined,” she says. Some examples: miso-glazed cod, salmon with peach-chipotle sauce, beef brisket with house-made tomato jam, a bruschetta bar, Caesar salad with freshly baked croutons and a made-from-scratch gumbo. Date farms dot the area, so warm dates with brown butter and sea salt are one dessert option.
Clear communication is critical to keeping everything running smoothly. “When they begin their shift, everybody gets a debriefing on how things went the day before and what we’re changing today,” Brandler says. “With people starting at all different times, the key is not just making this information verbal but printing it as well. So when people clock in, they’re given daily notes and they need to sign that they’ve read them. And we’ve implemented procedures that avoid accidents; this can be as simple as calling out ‘corner’ when you’re rounding a bend carrying hot food.”
Pop-Up Splendor: OUTSTANDING IN THE FIELD
The most opulent meals at Coachella were offered by Outstanding in the Field. Twice nightly at Coachella, for $225 a ticket, guests enjoyed a five-course, locally sourced sit-down dinner prepared by well-known LA chefs, with dishes like hamachi with crispy quinoa, salt-and-pepper prawns and alcohol-spiked cocktails. A roving culinary fest that was founded in 1999, the Santa Cruz-based OITF typically offers its communal “table-to-farm” meals on mountaintops, sea coves, ranches, museum rooftops and, yes, farms.
Recently, Outstanding in the Field has branched out into private events. It organized a 75-person event at the Limoneira lemon ranch in Santa Paula for bloggers and influencers when Anheuser-Busch launched its lemon-flavored beer, and has plans for a dinner for 600 in a Napa vineyard for Constellation Brands’ annual corporate get-together.
The fact that everything, including six-burner ovens, tables and chairs, needs to be loaded on trailers and brought to the remote locations constantly is no limit on creativity. “People have dug holes and roasted whole pigs on spits,” says Danielle DeMarco, OITF’s director of private events. “We’ve grilled fish over barbecue pits dug on the beach. We do wine pairings for each course, and if a planner wants the meal served on fine china, we’ll make that happen.”
Though the table settings can be as elegant as those in a hotel ballroom, guests need to be open to some informal last-minute shuffles. “Being in nature,” DeMarco says, “things are unpredictable. When we’ve done dinners on the beach and the tide has come in, we’ve had to pick up everything and move the table back a few feet. We keep blankets and tents on standby in case there’s an unexpected drop in temperature or the wind whips up. This is all part of the experience, and the guests think it’s fun. But you need to know your audience.”
Invitations prepare guests for the outing, telling them there will be a short walk to the table (guests with disabilities can generally be accommodated), and suggesting they wear low heels and bring sunblock and a hat. DeMarco says her team is prepared for everything, including rain, wind, necessary permits and, as has happened, an executive vice president who informed her at the last minute that he was on his way with 20 extra guests. “We always bring extra food,” she says. “And we were in the middle of a farm, so we just went out and picked some extra arugula and soybeans.”
THE SUSTAINABLE POP-UP
Paul Buchanan, chef-owner of Primal Alchemy in Long Beach, is another advocate of the “anything-is-possible” philosophy when it comes to pop-up events. He catered a wedding for a couple that wanted to marry under an oak tree on a remote mountaintop. That meant bulldozing a long stretch of dirt road to create a wide patch of flattened land for the reception. It was done, and the couple got the magic wedding it wanted.
“We probably do more logistics than the typical catering company,” says Buchanan, who caters events for two to 2,000 guests. “We just want to fulfill your vision. If you paint a picture of what you’d like your event to be, we’ll do the location scouting, pull any necessary permits and arrange all the rentals.” But most events don’t literally require moving earth. When Stolichnaya was introducing a new line of flavored vodkas, Alchemy turned the end of the Long Beach into a colorful bar and paired each dinner course with a different cocktail.
And a scenic outdoor location isn’t a must for a pop-up. When Aura Knifeworks, a Long Beach maker of high-end professional knives, wanted to introduce chefs to its line, an industrial park was the setting of choice. “There was no electricity,” says Buchanan, “so we built a spit barbecue and used a hand-crank for power.”
Buchanan prides himself on his company’s sustainable, seasonal fare. Working with local ranches like Cook Pigs in San Diego, he cures his own charcuterie. “We know everything about those pigs,” he says, “including what they ate and how they were butchered.” He works with foragers to find the best local fish and produce, and with enough notice he can even have farmers grow specialty crops. He catered the TED conference in Long Beach for several years, and his favorite was a soirée for 1,600 that was held at the Long Beach Aquarium of the Pacific. “We bought futures from farmers and had them grow vegetables just for us,” he says, “including five or six different types of radishes for pickling. At the event itself, we set up long winding tables, and all the local farmers, bread bakers and other purveyors stood behind the food they’d provided. All the fish we served was caught right off the coast by one local fisherman, and he was there, too.”
If Buchanan sounds like he’s picky, he is. That extends to vetting his clients. “As a caterer, I interview prospective clients as much as they interview me,” he says. “I want to make sure the event is successful and my reputation is protected. We always bring enough food for 10 percent over, and we have a back-up plan for everything. As an event planner, you can’t blame the caterer for what you don’t tell them. If you say there’s going to be 400 people and 500 show up, you’re going to run short of food. But if you keep track of your guests, we’ll take care of everything else. If you want blue platters because your corporate logo is blue, we’ll find them.”
Pop-ups have an air of spontaneity and shared experience that allows guests to get to know one another more than they would in a hotel banquet room or a restaurant— especially when the food is served family-style. “Whether you’re at long 40-foot farm tables or round tables for eight or 10, it’s, ‘Please pass the potatoes or the ribs,’” says Buchanan. “There’s a lot of friendly chatter at these events.”