Pop-up food events hit Tokyo

Popular abroad, the pop-up phenomenon reaches the Japanese capital

Pop-up food events hit Tokyo

The Gochiso Pop-Up team, with Chihiro Moriyama (in grey), Melinda Joe (orange) and Eriko Miyagawa (green)

Let's play a word association game. If we say 'pop-up', what word springs to mind? Chances are 'pop-up book' would score highly, as might 'pop-up ad' or even 'pop-up camper' (if you're the outdoorsy type). But how about 'pop-up food'? It doesn't seem like the right fit, somehow (unless you're thinking Pop Tarts, which are a different kind of 'right' altogether). If anything, it sounds a bit messy.

The concept is already popular abroad, however, and a trio of Tokyo-based foodies have just launched Gochiso Pop-Up, an enthusiastic startup attempting to spring a culinary surprise on the capital. 'What we deal with,' explains Melinda Joe, one of the poppers in question, 'is pop-up dinners. A group of people will go into a space, which may or may not be a restaurant, but they'll take it over and stage an event for a limited amount of time. What we're really interested in is taking over unconventional spaces. We haven't ever talked about taking over a restaurant. A restaurant is too obvious.'

Both Melinda and her partner Eriko Miyagawa are well placed to get things going. Melinda is a food writer well known to Tokyo gourmands, while Eriko is a film producer and coordinator with an impressive CV that includes Kill Bill, Lost in Translation, The Kite Runner and Babel. The third member, unavailable to meet us today, is Chihiro Moriyama, a graphic designer who worked under Alan Yau, the brains behind Wagamama. They met 18 months ago, and started visiting Tokyo's myriad restaurants ('our own little gourmet food club'), before Melinda jetted off on a trip to London and found herself at her first pop-up event.

'I'd known about dinners like that in New York and San Francisco, amongst other places, and I just thought, wouldn't it be cool to do something like that here,' she says. Eriko, who had spent time in Tokyo working on a project with New York chef David Bouley and subsequently built up an enviable network, thought it was entirely doable.

Melinda continues: 'We started talking about how there's a lot of culinary talent in Japan, young and undiscovered, but it's so hard to actually get a foothold in the industry because it's so cliquish and hierarchical. If you're a chef low on the totem poll, you're really not supposed to shine. We thought that maybe these pop-up events might be a great way for people in that position to try and show off a little bit.'

A worthy and interesting idea, no doubt, but in a city of some 88,000 restaurants, surely the talent pool is overwhelming. 'We need to have people with some experience,' says Melinda. 'We don't want to spring a commis out. We're looking for people who are doing unconventional things, not within the mainstream.' At the moment they're working with Maria Suzuki, a chef who trained at Tsuji Cooking School, and began her career at Bouley in New York. 'She's well seasoned,' laughs Melinda, 'and very open minded. She's interested in exploring raw food as a form of fine dining. These people are really highly trained, but it's such a tight market. There's not really much creative outlet.'

Eriko continues: 'With the right venue and exposure, who knows what could happen. Even when you go to a really nice restaurant, how often can you talk to the chef and get involved with the food? It's also nice for the chef to really communicate and express themselves with their guests.'

In a city as food and fashion conscious as Tokyo, where Monday's hip new trends are passé by Sunday, it's surprising that the concept of pop-up dining hasn't already come and gone. As someone who spends her professional life exploring the city's best restaurants, however, Melinda isn't sure that Tokyo is necessarily the culinary leader it's believed to be. 'One of the problems with Tokyo, despite being such a first-rate food city, is that when something is popular it just blankets the city. With everybody doing the same thing, it's in danger of becoming stagnant. What we see ourselves is as a kind of stimulus to try and find people who want to do something a little bit different, or even really radically different.'

Gochiso Pop-Up staged its first pop-up dinner earlier this month at a large and very hip looking house in Shibuya, choosing 'Make Yourself at Home' as a theme. Both Eriko and Melinda were delighted with its success ('the only complaint was that we were the waitresses!'), though they're aiming for very different things with their next event. 'It's going to be much more conceptual, more intellectual,' says Melinda. 'It'll be a re-examination of what fine dining means; the artistic side of food.'

'Our concept is "Food is Art",' Eriko interjects , 'so we're currently negotiating with different gallery spaces. It's a bit tricky because we do need certain things, like a kitchen!' Asking about forthcoming events prompts 15 minutes of frenzied listing, detailing all the ideas Gochiso Pop-Up hopes to explore in the future. There are plans to put on an event in a school ('we'd take over a cafeteria, bringing haute cuisine into a space that is kind of the antithesis of that'), a Japanese garden ('the Gochiso Tea Party') and even the Japanese wedding industry (Eriko: 'in Japan, the wedding is like a factory: the food is anonymous, it tastes like anything else, and it's not memorable'), but they're concise on what they are ultimately aiming for. 'What is very important here is the dialogue, what people say after,' says Eriko. 'We want to get the names of these chefs out there.' Give it a few months and you might find 'pop-up menu' rolls off the tongue with no trouble at all.

For more information on coming events, follow the Gochiso Pop-Up Facebook page. The 'Food is Art' event will take place on July 23-24 at Art Statements

Jon Wilks
Please note: All information is correct at the time of writing but is subject to change without notice.


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