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Top chefs are taking their restaurants on the road

Maverick chefs like Heston Blumenthal and René Redzepi have been uprooting their restaurants and creating temporary pop-ups around the globe. Lucy Shaw finds out what drives them to undertake such a stressful and expensive enterprise.

A dish at the Noma Tokyo pop-up

Always ahead of the pack, two years ago René Redzepi of new Nordic restaurant Noma in Copenhagen – voted the world’s best restaurant a record four times – took the unprecedented step of relocating his entire restaurant and team to the Mandarin Oriental in Tokyo for a five-week pop-up.

Having tested the water in August 2012 with a sell-out 10-day Taste of Noma pop-up at Claridge’s hotel in London, where ants crawling on lettuce leaves were among the dishes served, Redzepi’s bold bid to recreate his restaurant in Tokyo was the first temporary residency of its kind that has since spawned a series of spin-offs.

Having observed his success from the sidelines, everyone from Heston Blumenthal, Grant Achatz and Albert Adrià to the Roca brothers have followed suit with highly sought-after pop-ups of their own.

The highs and lows of Redzepi’s Toyko residency were captured in a revealing 2016 documentary called Ants on a Shrimp, which explores the effort and preparation involved in moving one of the world’s top restaurants to the other side of the planet. In one uncomfortable scene, Noma’s head of research and development, Lars Williams, is filmed chopping up a live turtle in an underground kitchen and turning it into soup.

A purist in his approach, rather than rehashing Noma’s famous foraged dishes, Redzepi and his team created an entirely new menu using local seasonal ingredients sourced from all over Japan.

A year later he embarked on a 10-week temporary residency in Sydney in a purpose-built space in Barangaroo. This year, Redzepi has his sights set on Tulum in Mexico, where he and his team will cook for seven weeks from 12 April to 28 May in an open-air space between the jungle and the Caribbean Sea. Tickets for the experience are priced at £472, and if Tokyo and Sydney are anything to go by, they will sell out in seconds.

Heston Blumenthal took his The Fat Duck to Melbourne

Taking a different tack to Redzepi, when Heston Blumenthal and his 54-strong team upped sticks to Melbourne for six months last February, while his three- Michelin-star restaurant The Fat Duck was being refurbished, rather than devising an ambitious new menu for diners lucky enough to bag themselves a ticket to wonderland, he instead endeavoured to emulate his beloved Bray flagship as faithfully as possible given the parameters he had to work with.

The project was financially backed by Crown Resorts Limited, one of Australia’s largest gaming and entertainment groups, which paid for staff flights and the sizeable cost of accommodating 54 staff in downtown Melbourne for the duration of the pop-up.

Recreating a tiny 16th century Berkshire building within the Crown Towers skyscraper was never going to be easy. Everything was built from scratch with the end game, when The Fat Duck pop-up was over, of turning the space into a second Dinner by Heston Blumenthal, to twin with the original at the Mandarin Oriental in London.

“The ceilings were five metres high and the space was nearly three times the size of the original so it was a very different version of The Fat Duck, but the aim was to recreate the experience as closely as we could, which meant shipping over 14 tonnes of cargo to Melbourne, including the plates, cutlery and even the menus,” explains head chef Jonny Lake, who had the gargantuan task of leading the kitchen during the residency, ensuring each of Blumenthal’s fiddly, fantastical creations came out of the kitchen looking perfect.

From 89,000 hopefuls, 15,000 diners got to enjoy a slightly tweaked version of The Fat Duck’s famous tasting menu for AU$525 (£300) a head. Among the dishes were retired classics like bacon and egg ice cream and snail porridge.

One of the most challenging elements of the project was sourcing specific ingredients, with Lake forced to ad lib with alternatives when they weren’t available. “Sometimes the dishes turned out better than the originals – the lamb was the best I’ve ever worked with,” he enthuses.

Joan Roca, Josep Roca and Jordi Roca setting out on their culinary world tour

Bizarrely, it proved far trickier to source vital ingredients from nearby Japan while out in Oz than from the UK, forcing Lake to find substitutes from Korea. “Sourcing was a huge undertaking. We sent our sous chef out seven weeks early to order all the ingredients and test the dishes before the rest of the team arrived,” Lake reveals.

Having debated the idea of an all-Australian wine list, in the end the pop-up went for a strongly antipodean list peppered with Old World classics for variety, some of which were shipped over from The Fat Duck’s cellar.

Another challenge was getting used to cooking and serving in a much larger space, which didn’t lend itself to the transportation of hundreds of intricate plates. “It made me realise just how much the small space at Bray influences what we do,” says Lake, who admits it took a month and grueling hours for the team to find their groove.

A strawberries and cream dessert crafted by the Roca brothers

“I wouldn’t want to count the hours we put in at the beginning but eventually we were doing 16-hour days,” he says.

In an interview with Australian newspaper the Herald Sun, Blumenthal revealed that during the pop-up he was working 22-hours a day, leaving him “deliriously exhausted”.

For Lake and the rest of the team, the blood, sweat and tears were worth it. “We’ve always been a close team but the pop-up made us realise just how much we needed each other. We knew it was a special moment, and everyone really went for it,” he says.

“Working at The Fat Duck for so long, you don’t realise how the place is perceived until you have a bit of distance from it. It was amazing to see people so excited about the experience every day”.

Last year, four titans of Spanish cooking – Ferran Adrià’s impish younger brother, Albert, and the three Roca brothers of El Celler de can Roca – took their shows on the road.

Adrià chose London as his playground, taking over the restaurant at the Café Royal hotel in Piccadilly for 50 days last spring. Titled ‘50 Days by Albert Adrià’, the residency was the chef’s first project outside of Spain, where he runs successful tapas bar Tickets in Barcelona.

Known for its outlandish molecular cuisine, the theatrically themed Tickets serves quirky dishes like exploding olives, basil air waffles and mini ‘airbags’ stuffed with manchego cheese foam. Priced at £150 a head, Adrià’s London residency involved a tasting-menu dinner at Domino restaurant. Among the dishes served were miniature meat pies; king oyster spaghetti with black truffle and sour cream; and chocolate air waffles.

At the same venue, El Celler de Can Roca in Girona – twice voted the world’s best restaurant – popped up at the Café Royal for four days last August as part of its five-week world tour sponsored by Spanish bank BBVA, which included stints in Argentina, Colombia, Mexico, Peru, Turkey and the US. Brothers Joan, Josep and Jordi took 40 members of the Can Roca team with them on their travels, including chefs, sommeliers and waiters. The project came to life after endless requests to open a second site.

“We liked the idea of taking the restaurant to other parts of the world and experiencing what it would have been like if it had been launched in other latitudes inspired by different traditions and ingredients,” explains Joan Roca. “We did it to step out of our comfort zone and to challenge ourselves by diving into a new reality to learn about new cultures and cuisines, improve our skills, boost our creativity and build closer ties with our team.”

David Muñoz and Grant Achatz collaborated on an Alinea pop-up in Madrid

Menus at each of the pop-ups were a mixture of El Celler de Can Roca classics and new dishes made with local produce using traditional techniques from the host country, giving each of the stops on the tour a distinct identity in a similar way to Noma’s culinary adventures in Tokyo, Sydney and Mexico. While getting the ambitious project off the ground and seeing it through took a lot of work, the hard graft was worth it.

“It was a huge challenge to acclimatise to a completely new city, work space, culture, ingredients and equipment in 24 hours while grappling with jetlag,” says Roca. “A lot of mental flexibility is required, but we became stronger as a team. At the end of the day, wherever the team is the restaurant is.”

In a similar move to Blumenthal’s, when American chef Grant Achatz closed his three-Michelin-star restaurant Alinea in Chicago last spring to refurbish it in time for its 10th anniversary, the restless chef was hungry for an exciting new project. Having had to face a chef’s worst nightmare, these days very little fazes Achatz.

In 2007 he was forced to recreate dishes from memory after temporarily losing his sense of taste following surgery for stage 4 tongue cancer. Keen to push himself and his team, Achatz embarked on a pair of five-week pop-ups last spring in Madrid and Miami. Pivotal to the Madrid venture was Javier Gutierrez, the business brains behind Marbella’s only two Michelin-starred chef, Dani García.

The idea for the pop-up came about in 2015 while Gutierrez was dining with El Bulli alumnus Achatz following a four- day culinary tribute to Ferran Adrià in Marbella. “Grant was keen to do a similar pop-up to Noma so I asked him if he’d like to do it in Spain.” Gutierrez says. “I told him I was the man to make it happen and we shook on it. It was a huge gamble.”

With a seven-month turnaround, Gutierrez had to work fast, and secured the breakfast room in the NH Collection Eurobuilding in Madrid for free via a strong relationship with the hotel chain’s CEO. The hotel also agreed to put up 50 members of the Alinea team for free during the five-week pop-up. Meanwhile, a designer friend transformed the interiors free of charge, turning the bland breakfast room into an edgy contemporary dining space.

The venture was a 50/50 collaboration between Alinea and Grupo Dani García, with the former covering staff costs and the later paying for the flights and picking up the food and beverage bill, which included expensive ingredients like black truffle, caviar and Wagyu beef. “We spent €3,000 on ice alone, which we used in place of a plate in one dish,” Gutierrez reveals.

In a bid to at least break even, Gutierrez was bullish in his pricing strategy, charging €500 for the food alone during the first week of the pop-up, which saw Achatz go head-to-head with Mohawk-sporting enfant terrible Davíd Muñoz, whose three Michelin-starred flagship DiverXO happens to reside in the same hotel.

“We went super high with our pricing, which was another gamble as I had no idea how people would react to the cost, but all 1,600 tickets sold out before our first service,” gushes Gutierrez, who took bookings via the Tock pre-payment system used by Alinea in Chicago.

Like Redzepi, Achatz was keen to use Spain as his canvas, paying homage to the country and its culinary traditions in bespoke dishes created solely for the pop-up, following expeditions to Madrid’s markets.

However, he also wanted to bring a slice of Alinea to Madrid to give guests a taste of what it feels like to dine at the Chicago original. He did so by weaving a few of the restaurant’s signature dishes, like the green-apple helium balloon, into the menu, which also featured dishes like razor clams, coriander and carrot; octopus, aubergine and smoking cinnamon; and a bouillabaisse inspired by a Joan Miró painting.

Proving just how much of a draw Achatz is, half of the pop- up’s clientele flew in from outside of Spain for the experience, with diners travelling from Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Sweden, the UK and the US.

Having raised €80,000 in sponsorship money, in the end Gutierrez made a €40,000 profit, while Alinea lost €60,000 in overtime payments, though neither were doing it for the money, as Gutierrez explains: “Launching the pop-up was very hard work and time consuming, but it’s something I’m really proud to have done. The most valuable part of the experience for me was the way it unified our teams and the friendships I made.”

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