Mystery! Intrigue! Food!: A Night with Pop-Up Lafayette

To get an invite to the hottest dining spot in town, you have to know people. If you’re lucky enough to know people, you then have to follow a series of instructions to get a ticket. It’s a limited seating event, in a secret location, thrown by a secret group of chefs who want to showcase the best of local food and make the case for a vibrant regional cuisine. While I was there I heard it called a foodie destination, art, a “dinner club,”and even “church.” This is Pop-Up Lafayette.

Pop-Up Lafayette Menu, 2013.
Pop-Up Lafayette Menu, 2013. BBQ style. Like your grandma’s house gone high-end art installation. Photo by Michael Dick of ISPhotographic.

So how I do tell you about the best restaurant in town without telling you who runs it, where it is, or how to get in?

Probably the best way is to tell you what I ate:

Red and gold beet terrine served with fresh pickles and tomato jam.
Red and gold beet terrine served with fresh pickled garden veggies and tomato jam. Photo by Michael Dick of ISPhotographic, Lafayette.

The first course was an array of pickled items served on a hunk of local wood. It was gorgeous to look at and a delicate starter. Beet terrine was squared off and served with pickled watermelon rinds, fresh fridge pickles, spicy radishes, and a light tomato jam served with a side of fresh baked bread.

The second course was fresh squash, uncooked, cut into fingers and lightly dressed with lemon juice, olive oil, and apple cider vinegar. The fingers lay on a light bed of fresh lettuce and were paired with half a grilled eggplant.

A salad of fresh squash served with grilled eggplant.
A salad of fresh squash served with grilled eggplant. Photo by Michael Dick of ISPhotographic, Lafayette.

The soup course was a cool tomato soup served in a jelly jar, with a gelatin basil leaf and a drizzle of fresh yogurt.

The entree course was pork ribs served two ways, a dry rub and in a Carolina gold sauce, with white beans and ham hock, a healthy side of Swiss chard, and pesto corn bread.

And the dessert course. I would kill your family and climb over their dead bodies to get another chance at this one: lavender ice cream served with gooseberry puree, and dressed with a hunk of fresh honeycomb and a slice of flaky pie crust. The lavender and honey were explosive, like nothing you get at the grocery store.

Cool tomato soup with a jellied basil leaf and a drizzle of yogurt.
Cool tomato soup with a jellied basil leaf and a drizzle of yogurt. Photo by Michael Dick of ISPhotographic, Lafayette.

All of this was served with a side of political exposition about food insecurity in the Midwest, ironically while this section of the U.S. feeds the world, and a plea to get locals excited about growing and cooking their own food again. In our talk after dinner, they discussed at length their desires to have alternative avenues for culinary creativity, and hope they inspire others to get to cooking in their own kitchens.

“Our political philosophies are layer upon layer,” one chef said. Another said, “We just want to cook beautiful food in an interesting way.” Another said, “We want to cook food we are lifted by.” Another argued that the Midwest doesn’t have an identifiable food culture apart from catfish and tenderloin sandwiches. They made a point of emphasizing their purveyors for the event: Everything was purchased or made or grown locally. Mt. Gilboa Farms from Benton Co., farmer’s markets, local gardens of friends and family, a pork farm from Mulberry, locally sourced honeycomb, Trader’s Point creamery, Union City beer from Indianapolis, all fair trade and/or organic. You get the picture.

Pork ribs served two ways with Swiss chard, ham and beans, and pesto cornbread. Photo by Michael Dick of ISPhotographic.
Pork ribs served two ways with Swiss chard, ham and beans, and pesto cornbread. Photo by Michael Dick of ISPhotographic.

The problem is the lack of knowledge and confidence us regular non-chef folks have in the kitchen. They spoke, for example, of the end-of-farmers-market routine, where the participating farmers donate what produce they have left over to local food pantries. The food pantries find that while they are grateful to have all this fresh food, people aren’t always sure what to do with it.

Lavender ice cream served with gooseberry puree, fresh honeycomb, and flaky pie crust.
Lavender ice cream served with gooseberry puree, fresh honeycomb, and flaky pie crust. Photo by Michael Dick of ISPhotographic.

As someone who likes good food and loves to eat, I wasn’t a strong cook until I got into the now discontinued “The Minimalist” columns from the NYTimes, where columnist Mark Bittman used a narrative recipe style to get you to take 3-6 fresh ingredients, add fat, heat, acid, and seasoning, and end up with a great, fresh meal. I kept going back to the squash salad course in my mind. This deceptively simple dish was quite good, perfect on a hot and humid summer day. I’d never eaten raw squash before. When I asked for a quick recipe to put on the site, they shrugged and discouraged it.

What Pop-up Lafayette would rather we do is get motivated, do dinner with friends, and learn how to cook from one another. Another alternative, one suggested, is to get into City Foods in downtown Lafayette for the regular — FREE — cooking classes they offer there as part of their mission. The other thing is to figure out how to repurpose leftovers, so, for example, how to roast a chicken, and then how to reuse the leftovers on days two and three.

What is quintessential Indiana cuisine — other than tenderloin and catfish?

Seasonal food. Corn in July, watermelon in August. Asparagus in the spring. And morels. MORELS. I don’t understand why restaurants here don’t serve corn. You can’t go anywhere in this area and get hyper-seasonal food.

What restaurants are most worthwhile in Lafayette?

Taco Rico. Sharma’s Kitchen. And I don’t want to ruin it, but the little hidden Asian restaurant next to Hodson’s Bay. Get a steak at DNR — it’s built into our genome to put meat over fire.

How do I learn how to cook?

I asked why more local restaurants don’t offer this array of local, sustainable food.

“They’ve tried. As a restaurant, in order to get the quantities you need, you need to be able to project what you need for the whole season. For a restaurant, doing it this way means living hand to mouth, and planning for business becomes a difficult balancing act. You have to live day-by-day, week-by-week for your menu. You can’t set a menu for six months.” Another chef chimes in, “Also, the customer base isn’t concerned with locality at this time, and they don’t want to pay the prices. People complain about the cost, so places stop serving local and organic food.”

The chefs also expressed concerns about how industrialization has scrubbed many choices from local foodways. You can’t get raw milk or soft artisan cheeses unless you know the legal loopholes or buy and sell on a black market. Bacon is treated differently from prosciutto by the food department, although they’re functionally the same thing. Grandma can no longer sell pies out of her own kitchen. The chefs compared European health code standards to American food standards and expressed frustration with the inability to access food resources that are right under our noses due to industrialization laws. “We’ve given the power to the wrong people.”

Moreover, they talked about the need we have as human beings to feel some regional ownership and pride over our food. Terra, one chef explained, is the flavor that’s particular to our region thanks to the minerals in our soil and the environment the food is grown in. That’s why an egg from your neighbor’s chickens looks and tastes to much different than one you buy at the grocery store. And that’s why your neighbor in New Chauncey’s eggs taste different from your neighbor in Benton County’s eggs. This, he said, is what makes food so special and why we should be pushing back against industrialization efforts. He questioned whether having fresh strawberries at the grocery in January, for example, is worth the environmental and human costs.

I asked the chefs how to turn things around and get people more attuned to what they’re putting in their bodies. Their answer was unanimous and emphatic: “Get in your kitchen. Stop cooking out of boxes and cans and spend some time in your kitchen.”

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Special thanks to Michael Dick of ISPhotographic for providing photos.

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