“Croquetas de jamon ready for table three!” I barked in my best Spanish pronunciation, sliding a dish to to my wife. “Padron peppers in two minutes.”
It was eight thirty on a Saturday night at Beer Rebellion, a small bar in Sydenham, specialising in craft beers brewed down the road in Penge. And I was running my first pop-up kitchen, providing nine tapas dishes under the name of Passion on a Plate.
When I had got up early that morning to make four tortillas before heading to a Crystal Palace bakery to collect five loaves of sour dough bread, I had been filled with a mixture of anxiety and excitement. Would the electric cooker at Beer Rebellion work okay? I had tested it the week before and discovered that some rings took a while to heat up? How would I cope if I had to prepare or cooking several dishes at once? Would the customers like what I served? Yet despite these worries, I was raring to go.
And an hour and a half into the service, I was loving every minute of cooking for paying customers. Standing there in the kitchen, wearing a chef’s jacket and white apron and hat, I was feeling like a proper cook. I was even becoming incredibly bossy with my wife. “No! The customers only need a small slice of quince with the cheese.” I had watched too many episodes of Hell’s Kitchen.
This pop-up might never have happened had I not attended several cooking classes at Leith’s. They not only gave me some knowledge and techniques, but, just as importantly, they boosted my confidence and helped to demystify the process of cooking.
The class that was perhaps most valuable to me was the one taught by the charismatic Omar Allibhoy, who came to London from Madrid to persuade more of us to eat tapas. I bought his book, Tapas Revolution, afterwards, and I had used some of his recipes for my menu at Beer Rebellion.
I later interviewed Omar for my book Ole! Ole! Passion on a Plate: The Rise of Spanish Cuisine in London. And, looking back, it was meeting him, and other inspiring Spanish chefs and owners of Spanish restaurants, that led me to answer the post from Beer Rebellion on my local community forum: “Want to run a pop-up kitchen? Come and speak to us.”
So I did. The manager, a laid back Kiwi, wasn’t concerned that I had never run a pop-up kitchen and he said tapas would go down well with the customers.
Once I had fixed a date, I then had to decide on a menu. I knew I was plunging into the deep end. Cooking at home is one thing; cooking in a bar is something else. But I felt this was a challenge I was ready for.
Recognising my lack of experience, I sought advice from Raffaele, the owner of Trattoria Raffaele, the fantastic Italian restaurant in my local high street, and Jorge, a chef at Barrica, a top West End tapas bar. “Keep the menu simple and short,” they both urged. So I decided to include five cold dishes and four hot.
I would make the tortilla, jamon croquetas, and sauce for the patas bravas in advance. This would mean that on the night I would only be cooking padron peppers and potatoes from scratch. I felt this was achievable.
Running your first pop-up kitchen requires military planning. You have to price your dishes; work out portion sizes; find good suppliers for your ingredients; think about what kitchen equipment (in my case a deep fat fryer, slow cooker, and toaster), crockery and cutlery you will need and how big the fridge is to store dishes made in advance.
As well as this, you have to work out how you are going to use the space in the kitchen to arrange your ingredients and plate up. You also have to design a menu, provide a spike for the tickets the orders are written on, have a good supply of tea towels, and bring a bottle of hand wash.
Adding special touches to the evening can help create an atmosphere. My wife bought red and yellow carnations for each table and placed them in the set of small glass jars I had spotted in a charity shop. She also bought some sunflower plants, which we arranged on the ledge of the kitchen, wooden boards to serve the iberico ham, and red and yellow napkins.
In the three weeks leading up to the pop-up, I practiced cooking the dishes. My attempts at creating a good alioli were disappointing. When the mixture kept splitting, my wife suggested I buy a ready made one. But this would have seemed like cheating, So I continued experimenting and, eventually, I got there (thanks to a Jamie Oliver recipe on You Tube).
I felt such a sense of achievement when I slumped down with my wife at the end of the evening at Beer Rebellion. We had served 49 dishes, and all had returned empty. I was still on a high the next day.
And now we are going to run a weekly tapas night in the bar.