Mimi Zeiger

Critic, editor, curator and instigator.

June 27, 2011

What Happens When

a post-bust pop-up restaurant


Architecture, Articles, Elle Kunnos de Voss, John Fraser, Pop-up

There’s nothing that so thoroughly represents the sweet spot between culture and consumption in our current zeitgeist than the pop-up. Cheap, flexible, and low-risk, it’s the go-to model for galleries, shops (both entrepreneurial DIY and haute retail brands), and restaurants. Pop-ups mushroom in New York, London, and Berlin, even as economic bubbles burst. When retail vacancy rates hit soaring heights in 2009, the pop-up went from being a strategic action practiced by arts groups to a global phenomenon embraced by entrepreneurial types and corporate brands alike. Arts organization No Longer Empty may install contemporary art exhibitions in vacated storefronts, but their pop-up mission was dwarfed in scale last holiday season when Toys R Us opened 600 temporary 2,500 square foot stores across the country—a total of 1.5 million square feet of provisional real estate.

Enter New York City-based chef John Fraser. In January he opened What Happens When, a short-lived restaurant installed in a storefront just off Pretrosino Square in Soho, and closed it in late June. Pop-up restaurants aren’t a new phenomenon; they’re just a step below food trucks on the culinary trend scale. But Fraser, best known for his Upper West Side eatery Dovetail, looked to the model as an experiment, a chance to take off his Michelin-starred toque.

Even as foodies identified it as a “pop-up” he deflated the language, preferring to call it “temporary.” The name of his downtown restaurant—spelled out in hot pink neon—asks what happens when you design menus and interiors with an expiration date in mind. The answer requires indulging in that tension between staunchly pragmatic and more visionary.

First, the sober facts: Originally meant to remain open for until fall, when the building was slated to be demolished, Fraser’s enterprise shuttered early due to trouble with its liquor license. In the few months the restaurant was open to the public the chef kept experimentation high by keeping overhead low. He held a short-term lease well below market rate and rather than soliciting swanky investors, he used the fundraising website Kickstarter to raise start-up capital through small contributions.

And the conceptual: Every month Fraser and interior designer Elle Kunnos de Voss would create a “movement”—a prix-fixe menu and an environment tied to a particular soundscape. Within six months, the pair created 4.5 thematic changes on a shoestring budget. The challenging winter movement, based on a composition that included source material described as “Snow slowly covering plastic foliage brought to Walden Pond in Concord, MA”, featured stark white tables and chairs contrasted against a nearly all-black interior. Diners were asked to participate in the meal by setting their own table with utensils from drawers under each tabletop. To anticipate the movements to come, de Voss installed a grid of J-hooks in the ceiling and used lamps with 15-foot cords, so that the lighting could easily transform.

Come spring, the chilly abstraction thawed a little with a forest theme: trout, frog legs, and 8-bit jungle beats. The design for movement two, an armature of oversized pine needles and moss. Number three, an impression of Renoir’s The Boating Party rendered in striped fabric. And number four, a variation on a jazz theme, used 9,100 feet of string to create an installation that riffed on rhythm and tempo. “What Happens When has been interesting because I’ve really had to think about how to make the maximum impact with the least money. And being temporary I don’t have to think about durability,” she notes, remembering the late hours weaving the twine through the J-hooks.

To add a little southern comfort to the fourth mix, chef Fraser concocted a cocktail that bridged the distance between jazz capitals New York City and New Orleans. Bacon-infused bourbon, maple syrup and bitters—a Manhattan with a Cajun twang—to be sipped under de Voss’ fleeting geometries. However, the booze also proved fleeting, as Fraser’s issues with State Liquor Authority became troublesome, What Happens When “went dry” with a design for 4.5 playing off of 1920s gangsters and prohibition. So, with one last toast to the culinary experiment, the pop-up was corked.