Eating as an Event - 405 Magazine

Eating as an Event

The tasty, temporary pop-up dining experience in OKC.

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The tasty, temporary pop-up dining experience in OKC. 

Never start an assignment with a definition; your eighth grade teacher was wrong to tell you it was a great intro. It’s not. But when we’re talking about food pop-ups, and there are very different kinds, maybe a pseudo-definition is OK. For example, it’s worth knowing that Underground Ghost Kitchen, the brainchild of Chef Jessie Gomez and creative director Roger Herrera, isn’t a pop-up restaurant as much as it’s an event with food, but Gomez’s delicious food is central to the event. 

Typically, we think of a pop-up as a temporary meal service or even a temporary restaurant. The latter definition dominated search strings starting about 2014, but before that, it was mostly unheard of, at least in an online context. The history of pop-ups can be traced back to the 1960s, but those were mostly full-blown temporary restaurants, and the cons so thoroughly outweighed the pros that the form has mostly disappeared. 

Underground Ghost Kitchen is using the pop-up approach in much the same way Rachel Cope and Chef Jeff Chanchaleune used the Slurp events in Plaza District to test the viability of converting Chanchaleune’s Kaiteki Ramen truck into a full-service restaurant. It worked, and OKC has benefited from that experiment in the form of Goro Ramen ever since. UGK has a permanent location in mind, too, but the event aspect is not going away. 

“I come from an events background,” Herrera said. “We want Underground Ghost Kitchen to be multisensory, not just a dinner. We want to emphasize art, creativity and the whole experience that surrounds a shared meal.” 

A UGK event typically brings chefs together in a non-restaurant space to — forgive the word — curate an experience that involves creative, delicious food paired with adult beverages (including zero-proof cocktails), art, music and conversation. The events benefit from Herrera’s aesthetic sense, with stunning table settings and detailed touches that enhance the dining experience. At its heart, though, is Gomez’s drive to showcase his impressive culinary talents in a context that allows him to make the food he wants to make, and not, to paraphrase his words, check the boxes like a kitchen manager.

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“The inspiration for UGK, for me, came from a California sous chef at a Michelin-star restaurant who started doing pop-ups to get his food in front of people,” Gomez said. “It was a challenge to put myself out there. I don’t need people telling me what to do in my kitchen.”

There is definitely an edge to Gomez, but it’s the kind of edge that leads to greatness, and it’s balanced with a commitment to education — he’s an autodidact who reads and studies constantly — and a respect for his mentors, most especially Chef Joel Wingate of Cafe 501. He also staged at Roister, a Grant Achatz concept in Chicago, from 2021 to 2022. He puts in the work, learns, acknowledges his mentors and is passionately committed to excellence. Whatever UGK becomes, we will miss the pop-up days that helped sketch its substance. 

Chanchaleune successfully turned his pop-up into Goro, and now that he’s appeared on two national top 50 lists (The New York Times and Bon Appetit) and garnered a James Beard Award nomination for Ma Der Lao Kitchen, he’s still a believer in the pop-up approach. One Monday a month, Chanchaleune skips his normal day off and stages a pop-up at Ma Der. He said roughly 80% of the food he offers on those Mondays is not on the regular menu, and it was at one of those pop-ups that Oklahoma City’s greatest hot dog — a Lao sausage and pickled papaya masterpiece – was born. It’s now available at happy hour. 

“The Monday events give me a chance to have a playground to ‘chef’ it up,” Chanchaleune said. “I’ve also invited other chefs to help them get exposure and build relationships. Most young cooks and chefs aren’t able to make their own food, and the pop-ups give them a chance to meet the community and establish their own brand.” 

It’s the exact same approach that Sedalia’s Oyster & Seafood (one of our Best New Restaurants for 2022) took with its pop-ups with Palo Santo in the Farmers Market District, before owners Zack and Silvana Walters opened the family’s spot on NW 10th Street just east of May Avenue. Zack Walters was still working with Social Order Dining Collective when the couple started introducing their concept at different locations. They knew that their offbeat menu — fresh seafood, smoked and raw oysters and traditional Bolivian dishes — would need some introduction to a community for which these dishes were a new experience. 

“Had those other concepts not allowed us into their kitchens for a night, no one would know who we are,” Silvana Walters said. 

Chef Zack Walters calls pop-ups “the new food trucks” with an important advantage: much lower startup costs. “They also generate additional revenue for existing concepts and startups in ways that require far less overhead,” he said. 

And like Chanchaleune and Gomez, the couple emphasize the importance of young and new chefs getting their food in front of the public. “The pop-ups aren’t just good for new chefs and cooks, though,” Zack Walters said. “They can infuse energy into an established concept. With the appeal of ‘new and different’ and the power of social media, these events blow up. You don’t see a lot of established restaurants with lines around the block, but we see it with pop-ups all the time.”

Call the under-40 crowd a FOMO generation if you must, but that desire for new, unique, different and fun is helping to drive a promising way for concepts to introduce themselves, for existing concepts to generate additional revenue and for young chefs to test their skills with a public that is eager to taste the next big thing. If that includes you, check out for UGK’s upcoming events.

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