Tucked away above the Starbucks on Water Street is the Sensorium Gallery. It’s an art gallery and the workspace of designers and artists Neille Hoffman and Ken Kornacki.
And last week it was the site of the latest pop-up dinner in Milwaukee.
The setting isn’t so unusual, says “Wisconsin Foodie” host and Lake Effect contributor Kyle Cherek, once you know about the growing “pop-up dinner scene” in the city. The next one is just a few days away (see below for more info).
These events, open to the public who are in the know, pair unique spaces with the culinary creations of some of the city’s top chefs. In the case of the recent “Periodic Table” event that Cherek attended, he says Hoffman and Kornacki wanted to create an “ethereal environment” for dining amongst an art installation. The gallery itself was a perfect white space appointed with a long table seated for 20, lit with candles and burned out leaf patterns covering the floor. Attendees dished on five courses created by two of the city’s best chefs, from the SURG Group: pastry chef Kurt Fogle and two-time James Beard Award semi-finalist Justin Carlisle.
As avant-garde as this setting might sound, Cherek says people shouldn’t be intimidated.
“These are not haughty experiences,” he says. “It doesn’t matter what shoes you’re wearing, if you’ve got the right sport coat on, or if you know anything beyond hot dogs plus mustard tastes great when you also add ketchup. Come as you are but be open to new experiences.”
Of course, to go, you have to know. Cherek says the pop-up dinners aren’t hidden, per se – go into the restaurants of some of the participating chefs and you’ll often find cards announcing the next dinner. But it’s mostly word-of-mouth advertising.
“It’s like fishing,” Cherek says. “If you’re lucky enough to catch it, please come. In all cases, it’s about 20 to 30 people. They have to be parsimonious about how they advertise…If everyone responded, they’ d have to turn people away, which is not what they want to do.”
But Cherek says if you are determined to go to a Milwaukee pop-up dinner, there are three you should know about.
1) “The Periodic Table” series: At the aforementioned Sensorium Gallery, Cherek says the chefs combined Carlisle’s farm-to-table commitment and molecular touches with Fogle’s pastry background to create never-before-tasted dishes. But even despite their vast experience, the event was a risk; neither chef knew how the event would go, especially cooking and serving in such a tiny space.
“We were tailgating basically,” he says. “They were turning out molecular gastronomy while tailgaiting.”
2) And You Will Know Us By The Trail of Crumbs... is a roving pop-up dinner group. Cherek says it’s the brainchild of six core chefs who craft their culinary artwork around a theme. For example, a recent pop-up dinner help at Woodland Pattern was themed around “banned books,” complete with a poet reading excerpts from these “prohibited” works.
Such themes allow chefs to step outside the menus of the restaurants where they work – and to work together.
“Watching these chefs in action, finishing off each other’s dishes, assisting, having a different technique, it’s the equivalent to watching musicians jam in front of each other and the delight that they have,” Cherek says. “They’re just doing it for themselves and for the love of the music, it’s great that everybody else showed up and yes, they’d love to get a drink later, but this is the fun part for them, and it’s really for the love of food.”
3) Food For Thought Dinner: Created by Nell Benton of The National Cafe on West National Avenue, these events also revolve around a theme. The next dinner (which is for the charity Joy House), on January 21st is themed “nursery rhymes.” Benton will take on the theme challenge alongside four other Milwaukee chefs Paul Zerkel, Gil Petrovic, Thi Cao and Justin Aprahamian.
“It’s a journey, it’s an experience, and it’s happening all over the place in Milwaukee with chefs who are doing it because they want to because they love the food,” Cherek says. “It’s their art form and it’s a way that they can express it more honestly than their own menus.”
Contributor Kyle Cherek is the host of the Emmy-nominated television show "Wisconsin Foodie," seen widely on PBS. He also writes his column "Amuse Bouche" for Milwaukee Magazine, and hosts the web series "Chef Talk with Kyle Cherek.”