By Michael Davidson
While the debate over the future viability of the pop-up model rumbles on in the food media, Maricela Yee, founder and owner of Little Shop Artisan Box, is not letting that stop her from entering the foray with her first-ever pop-up dinner.
Little Shop Artisan Box offers monthly gourmet foodie boxes that showcase Bay Area artisans, and the dinner was held on Friday Jan. 25 at the recently opened Sound Room in downtown Oakland. Each of Maricela’s pop-ups has a different theme and uses tasty local treats that Maricela sells in her Little Shop Artisan Box to make a five-course meal that highlights one product with each course. Talented Chef Peter Jackson runs the kitchen.
Chef Jackson is no an old hand at the underground food scene as he hosts many dinners with his Canvas Underground dining group. The concept is similar to another local pop-up called Behind the Cart, where each course highlights a local food vendor and his cooking expertise.
With this dinner, however, Maricela is not just exposing her diners to these new foods in their local area, she also showing them that each is not just a easy snack to chow down but can be a key ingredient for a delicious dish. I heard many patrons discussing how well the chef had been able to incorporate all of these food items into each dish without taking away from their flavors or presence with each dish: from the hot salsa from Oakland’s Santipapas, to my favorite, the Barlovento (also from Oakland) ghost pepper chocolate with its pretty strong kick that was cooled down by the crème fraiche and bananas.
The sweet potato soup was amazing just on its own, but once chef added the crushed macademia nuts from local savory nuts company Oren’s Kitchen, the dish went to a whole other level with taste.
I was fortunate enough to get down and dirty with the staff Friday evening by offering up my hands in the kitchen. It didn’t take long for Chef Jackson to have me making some purée from roasted chilis which was quickly followed up with the caramalization of more bananas that I have ever tried to cook.
Jerk’n Pickle Jalapeno Beef jerky
Chicory Salad, Winter Citrus, Roasted Almonds, Soy-Balsamic Reduction
Oren’s Kitchen Coconut Chili Macadamia Nuts
Sweet Potato Soup, Curry Leaves, Kefir Lime
Santipapas Organic Hot Red Salsa
Roasted Sturgeon, Green Garlic, Hominy
Jenny’s Jars Cranberry Jalapeno Jam/Boucherie Andouille Sec
Crispy Pork Belly Confit, Celery Root Puree, Sautéed Brussel Sprouts
Barlovento Ghost Pepper Chocolate
Banana Tart Tatin, Vanilla Lime Crème Fraiche
Getting to work alongside the staff highlighted a unique aspect of pop-ups, and one that I feel will keep this model alive: each pop-up is like Day 1 for a new restaurant, which makes the experience challenging yet rewarding as each night is an opportunity for patrons to try a completely new restaurant concept.
After most of the patrons had left and the music had stopped, I found a moment to sit down with Maricela and learn more about the story behind the making of this first pop-up dinner.
How long has Little Shop Artisan Box been around?
The first box I put together was in December 2011. Since then I’ve had the pleasure to put over 13 themed Gourmet Foodie Boxes together, with over 60 wonderful local, small-batch artisans and farmers.
Why did you start it? What is the idea of the box?
In 2011, I was spending most days in the kitchen pickling and preserving the beautiful bounty of California from the farmers markets. I had so many leftovers that I thought of putting it in a CSA box and selling it to people who liked the unique flavors I do. I started doing some research and met people who honed down their recipes for over a year. From then on I wanted to feature these professionals in our neighborhoods who share a passion for food. I wanted to bring a face to the food, so I showcase five different artisans every month in a seasonally themed box and tell their stories.
Who are your clients and are they just local?
People who subscribe to the Gourmet Foodie Box like supporting their local businesses –“locavores” — and they are “foodies,” people who are eager to try new flavors and quality artisan food and snacks.
I have subscribers in Georgia to Hawaii because I ship nationwide. People love sharing the goodies of their hometown as gifts. And the Bay Area is the hottest place for the culinary culture with highest per capita of foodies.
When did you think about doing the dinner? What inspired it?
Actually Peter Jackson thought of the idea of combining Canvas Underground and the Little Shop’s themed January box. When I told him it was “spice-adelic,” he was very excited. The dinner was meant to showcase the ease of eating local and creative use of the products.
I thought it would be like the Food Network show, Chopped. In it, there is a black box of odd ingredients that the chefs are challenged to make a delicious course with. Well, he did it. Peter came up with a creative menu using each of the artisan ingredients in the five- course meal. Our foodies also got to meet the makers of these delicious products and hear their stories from the artisans themselves.
How did you end up working with Peter Jackson?
I had worked with Peter Jackson before as I have featured him and his cold smoked andouille sec in a previous month. He is the only person making this chorizo hybrid. His talent and passion for unique taste and flavors stood out to me. It seemed like a natural partnership.
How did you choose the location?
The Sound Room is the newest, hottest jazz club in Oakland. Partially connected to it is the Uptown Kitchen, a large beautiful commercial kitchen, making it the perfect place for a pop-up and cool space to entertain. It’s a nonprofit — bringing jazz to people who might not be able to afford it like the disenfranchised and the elderly. They have a great mission and I thought that their classy flights of wines would pair perfectly with each course.
What are your plans for the future regarding pop up dinner like this?
The dinner was a success. We fed over 35 people who had a great time, loved each course. The mood of the room was as vibrant as downtown Oakland. I think it is very possible that we will work together and recreate another fantastic menu with the next box’s theme.
Where will see you next and how do we order a box?
People can subscribe to our monthly gourmet foodie boxes at Little Shop Artisan Box — or send them as gifts for favorite foodies in their life.
Michael Davidson is a local scientist by day and GrilledCheezGuy caterer by night. He also hosts his own pop-up events called Behind the Cart and is debuting a new pop-up on Feb. 23 called Eat My Heart Out. He lives in Oakland.