Our Pop-Up Kitchen Scene

They arrive in three cars packed with coolers, bags of food, and more. Inside are the ingredients and spices, many of them unusual and unique, that will go into a meal created by a roving restaurant that opens just occasionally and only to those who can get a ticket. In those packed cars also come utensils, glassware, plates, table linens, flowers, candles, incense, music -- all the makings for a one night gastronomical "experience" known as a pop-up restaurant.

Pop-ups aren't new, but they are enjoying a surge in interest in metro Detroit and around the country as tough economic times open opportunities for chefs, bakers and would-be restaurateurs to try out their skills in TBA locations -- bars, bakeries, restaurants, even charities and social clubs -- without the investment of a brick and mortar building. Think of them as culinary Flying Dutchmen.

The traveling restaurant that's come by way of three cars to Ferndale's The Oakland Art Novelty Company bar earlier this week is Komodo Kitchen, an Indonesian-style pop-up that brings not only a meal built around foods and plants from the Pacific island nation, but also an education about its culture.

It's almost as much about the experience, says Komodo Kitchen's proprietresses, Gina Onyx, Deanne Iovan and April Boyle, as it is about the culinary creation.

"We're appealing to the five senses," says Onyx, who was born and raised in Indonesia and brings her background and passion to the cooking. "When you come in you smell Indonesia, you hear Indonesia, you see Indonesia."

Boyle, Iovan and Onyx, who's made her name as a personal chef and caterer, could be considered pioneers in metro Detroit's pop-up kitchen scene.

Komodo Kitchen's moveable feast at The Oakland attracted 22 guests to a Valentine-influenced meal that featured South Sea Sweetheart "Kool Sla," a mix of green papaya, mango, jicama, kiwi, pineapple, avocado and beet (in a heart shape for this meal) over a bed of crispy lettuce crowned with Michigan farm-raised shrimp poached in their own Thai basil Kemangi Wangi vinaigrette.

The main course was Gulai Kambing Gumbira served with Nasi Pandan -- Michigan raised, organic lamb braised for 18 hours in passion fruit, exotic spices, herbs, creamy coconut milk, and served with pandan jasmine rice. The dessert -- though dessert is not common in Indonesia, where fruit is preferred at the end of a meal -- was Javanese cocoa and coffee custard topped with cardamom whipped cream and a rose cardamom meringue.

Sandy Levine, The Oakland's owner, provided the space and prepared a specialty cocktail for the meal, a Slow Loris with Grand Marnier, Japanese yuzu, orange juice, cardamom sugar, arrack and Parigot Cremant Rose.

It was Komodo Kitchen's third pop-up affair. The previous two were held at the Pinwheel Bakery in Ferndale. Each has sold out faster than the previous one.

There was no mistaking the theme at The Oakland. Indonesian orchestra music played, jasmine was in the air and the two long tables were decorated in silk, batik and raffia, orchids and candles. In the kitchen, behind heavy black velvet curtains, the trio prepared the aromatic, attractive plates of food to be served in an enchanting setting.

Komodo's partners, all Ferndale residents, used cooking classes as their launching. They learned about ingredients like palm sugar, a sweetener from the tree that's different from typical American sugar, and pandan leaves -- used in recipes and in tea -- and other natives spices and plants.

They are still in the exploration stage of a business plan and haven't yet decided whether to start a full-blown restaurant or perhaps go the way of a culinary product line. Part of making that decision will be based on customer response, their own working relationships (in what can be a tense environment), and the effect on their personal lives.

"We are definitely finding there is an interest," says Iovan. "Our first one sold out in 2-3 days, the second one in six hours.  This one in 90 minutes."

Boyle says metro Detroiters have an appetite for the food and for the allure of one-of-kind dining events. "I like the pop-up, the underground of it," she says. "It's not every day. It's a surprise. It's something different."

Metro Detroit counts nearly half a dozen pop-ups with the Tashmoo Biergarten (see sister publication Model D story), the Sci-Pie Guys, which have popped up in Woodbridge Pub, vegan-centered Detroit Brunch, Native Kitchen, a bakery, and Neighborhood Noodle (a major success that's been back-burnered as its founders take on other ventures) adding to the ranks. Even the Detroit Institute of Bagels fits the bill, with its frequent appearances at local coffee bars and other places.

"There's a mix of pop-ups," says Jess Daniel, founder of the now dormant Neighborhood Noodle. She has since moved into advocacy for food industry startups, pop-ups and restaurant workers through FoodLab Detroit, which has as its mission the promotion of a socially and environmentally responsible local food industry.

"A lot of people do pop-ups as a means to test out the market and understand the sales market so they can eventually open a brick and mortar business. Access to capital is not easy not for food businesses in general, but particularly here in Detroit," Daniel says.

The occasional chefs often first try out their menu ideas on friends, who serve as test audiences. Sometimes the input comes from more experienced sources. Komodo Kitchen has even gotten guidance on recipes, which lean vegetarian and vegan, from George Vutetakis, owner of vegetarian restaurant Inn Season in Royal Oak. Part of their business preparation and introduction to the industry is happening at Daniel's FoodLab Detroit.

"We're still learning a lot," Boyle admits.

Amongst its many objectives, FoodLab Detroit promotes a local and sustainable approach to commercial dining. To wit, the women of Komodo are all believers in locally sourced and Michigan-made foods, using them whenever possible. For instance, their shrimp comes from a shrimp farm in Okemos. For products available only from Indonesia, there is a store in Warren and, of course, Onyx who regularly visits her homeland, draws from family and business connections.
"A lot of times the general conversation is more focused on how [pop-ups] are cool and fun … how they bring energy and creativity to the city," Daniel says.

Beyond the table talk, however, are conversations about the future. What's the ultimate business goal? Can a viable business be established? Is there an on-going market? Can financing be obtained? There is a difference between drawing a small crowd once a month and bringing in business five to six nights a week.

"People think pop-ups are good because they're going to start a million new businesses," Daniel explains. "But it's more complicated than that."

Daniel is wrestling with similar issues as she works on a plan to turn Colors Detroit, a Detroit restaurant with a mission to help entrepreneurial chefs train and strike out on their own, into a permanent pop-up space in the evenings. Currently, Colors Detroit serves only lunch.

Daniel and FoodLab have already had some success, nurturing Native Kitchen and its organic, gluten-free and specialty baked goods. They are currently showing up in establishments such as Rocky Peanut Co.

"I have been struggling to find the audience for my products. My first solo pop-up opportunity was a very serendipitous event and happened because of a product I came up with, a vegan oatmeal stout scone with Shandy frosting using beer from Detroit Beer Company, last year," says Native Kitchen founder Loni Weems.

Native Kitchen has found fans but still hasn't quite found its feet as a full-time business. Weems has discovered that success is a long road that requires her to balance her aspirations against the demands of regular work, home life, and transportation issues. Still, count on seeing Native Kitchen continue to pop up at Eastern Market or Rocky Peanut Co. "I have been very lucky in being able to find people who believe in what I want to do with Native Kitchen and have helped me get this far," Weems says.

As it's become clear that metro Detroiters have an appetite for Komodo Kitchen, the trio of partners have begun meeting regularly and planning test kitchens. Even during this interview they break into test kitchen talk over lemongrass bars...and whether they need more lime or lemongrass. They are planning their next event.

While they're not settled on what's next, their love of food and serving new and surprising tastes to hungry metro Detroiters is clear. And the diners show their love in return, giving applause and requesting reservations for future dinners.

"That's the reward," Iovan says. "You're going crazy all day setting everything up, hoping it's going to go well. In the end everybody is happy. They let us know, and we say, 'Okay, we'll do it again.' I was going to throw in the towel and leave, and then we say we want to do it again. It's just so rewarding."

Komodo's next pop-up takes place March 16 at MOCAD, the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit. The meal will be more a catered style than sit-down dinner.  Future pop-ups are announced on the Komodo Kitchen website and Facebook page. Reservations can be made at the website.

FULL DISCLOSURE: April Boyle is the wife of Brian Boyle, the co-founder of Issue Media Group, publisher of Metromode, and Iovan works for Issue Media Group.

Kim North Shine is the development news editor for Metromode and a freelance writer.

All Photos by David Lewinski
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.