Trends in the culinary world change just as fast as our tastes do. However, there is one trend that is simultaneously temporary and enduring: the pop-up restaurant.
These short-term eateries typically emerge in big cities, enticing foodies who want their secret enclaves to stay secret before anyone else realizes they’re cool. With the spirit of a similar ephemerality in mind, the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) opened Pangea on Jan. 15, the fourth of the restaurants on their campus. Open only until June, the chefs took the pop-up concept and turned it into a fine dining experience.
“The advantage of a pop up is that it’s temporary. You go into it for a short period of time,” Maitre d’Instructor John Storm said. “We’re located within a big institution so the economic advantages don’t necessarily apply to us, but out in the real world—restaurant margins are razor thin.” He explained that chefs will typically share spaces to execute different menus to avoid the high costs of rent and equipment. Introducing a pop-up was crucial for the CIA, however, to accommodate the amount of students who must spend 12 weeks working at two of the campus’ restaurants.
CIA sophomore Sierra Hardy said she thinks pop-ups are an opportunity for restaurants’ seconds-in-command to shine. “I think pop-up restaurants are really cool, especially [for] sous chefs, who are second to the executive chef. Pop-ups are a good way to get a name that deserves a lot of the credit out in the open.”
Once it was decided that a pop-up would be the CIA’s next restaurant venture, Storm and a team of six chefs, construction workers, decorators and marketing directors set out to establish Pangea, hoping to create a stand-out experience for both its student and its diners.
“You know the expression ‘too many cooks spoil the broth?’ We had six chefs around a table. Everyone had evaluation forms and at the end we’d exchange notes. We did that for 10 days straight. At the end of that tentative period, we were able to get a cohesive menu that made sense to all of these very trained palates, so it’s worked,” said Storm.
Pangea boasts two prix fixe menus: one for vegetarians and one for meat and seafood eaters. Each of the five courses comes with a plate for the table making for a 10-dish meal. Dinner begins with a winter vegetable broth and warm flatbread served with an assortment of dips and ends with tropical fruit-carrot sorbet and a cheese plate. Paying tribute to its name, CIA’s chefs wanted to create a menu incorporating flavors from all continents and cultures.
“Using what we know about culture and cuisine today, we tried to pull ingredients and flavors from all over the world. Doing that is a daunting task because you have to make very serious decisions and it has to come other in each course,” said Storm.
In addition to creating inventive flavor profiles, Pangea prides itself on experimenting with dishes that do not rely on meat as their centerpiece.
Hardy said, “I’ve never worked with a mostly vegetarian menu. I think that’s really cool and appealing to everyone. So many people nowadays have different dietary needs. And I respect that—learning how to cook, those kinds of foods are difficult to make and it’s even more difficult to make them taste good. I think this is a good experience in learning how to make vegan and vegetarian food taste really good.”
Storm joked, “This is a very risky menu. There’s no choice. And Americans love choice.” He added, “But it’s been well-received. People have said that the experience is less anxious—you’ve already paid, you already know you have a table, and you don’t have to make any decisions. It just rolls out and it has a very casual, laid-back feel.”
Behind the scenes, the students and staff of Pangea try hard to create a relaxed atmosphere. For weeks, Storm would make small changes to how the food was served, what dishware it was served on and dozens of intricate details the diner is blissfully unaware of.
Hardy recounted, “Really all of the changes have been small things. Where we want tables, if we want salt and pepper on the table, [or] how many people are serving a course.”
CIA’s senior director of special projects, Waldy Malouf, said that it is his aim to ensure that students benefit from these changes too. “At the CIA the student is our foremost and most important customer so every aspect of the restaurant from the smallest detail is taken into consideration for our students education and experiences.”
Hardy said it has been a positive experience as well as a familiar one. Pangea’s dining style is similar to that of a restaurant she worked at away from the CIA. “With Pangea I was interested in it because it was a prix fixe menu. With my externship I went to a restaurant that had a prix fixe menu like this and I worked for a chef who graduated from Vassar. So this has been a lot of fun,” she said.
After spending six weeks in the kitchen, Hardy will work the front of the house for six weeks, learning how to serve each course in what Storm calls a choreographed routine.
“It’s totally a performance. That’s one of the reasons we’re prepaid, too. You buy Broadway tickets and this is the performance. I don’t think there’s a restaurant out there that would debate the fact that it’s a performance,” he said.
So far it’s been going smoothly, said Storm. If it continues to go well, Pangea may become a permanent fixture, speculated Hardy and Storm.
Storm recalled, “We did a Caterina De’Medici many years ago before pop-ups were even [trendy] and now it is a full blown restaurant now. But at first it was located in a teeny room that had about 30 seats, minimal decor—but everyone loved it. It was the best-kept secret. That’s going back 20 years ago. My recommendation would be to make [Pangea] 150 seats.”
Hardy said, “I think if Pangea goes well and people are really interested in it, I think they may turn it into another restaurant. A lot of it depends on how many students are enrolled at the time.” She added that having the fourth restaurant has definitely enhanced her experience as a student. “When there are 20 students in the back of house there isn’t enough for everyone to do. Having this pop-up when there are too many students really helps out because I’ve learned much more than I would have if there were 20 students all trying to learn the same things I am.”
As an added bonus, Hardy also had the opportunity of tasting all of the menu items.
“My favorite thing on the menu is the dessert. It’s the perfect ending. There’s nothing wrong with that dessert.”