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Food & Drink

‘Element of surprise and wonder’: Pop-up dinners give Baltimore chefs without a restaurant a table to call their own

Some of Baltimore’s most exciting dining experiences can’t be found in a restaurant.

Pop-up dinners and supper clubs are flourishing in the city, where diners in the know pounce on tickets for meals that feature one-night-only menus and are limited to a handful of guests.

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Pop-ups aren’t a new concept: There’s a long history of chefs organizing dinners to showcase their skills or highlight a particular ingredient or theme. But they have taken off during the pandemic, a time when many diners have shied away from larger gatherings, preferring to limit their potential exposure to COVID-19. At the same time, many within the restaurant industry have been rethinking traditional structures, eschewing long hours and often thankless work in favor of a more manageable path forward.

“I genuinely think that some of the best food in Baltimore comes out of these spaces,” said Kiah Gibian, the founder of the food truck Wilde Thyme. Gibian runs her own series of dinners in the garden outside Our Time Kitchen, a new food incubator she and chef Catina Smith recently opened in Old Goucher.

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“There’s something to be said about creative food people finding ways they can share this expression without having to do the backbreaking labor of running a restaurant every day,” she said.

We spoke with the hosts of some of Baltimore’s recurring pop-ups for an inside look at what it’s like to organize a dining experience for just one night.

David and Tonya Thomas, H3irloom Food Group and The Sinclair

For David and Tonya Thomas, organizing pop-ups has been both a creative outlet and a way to spread the word about the H3irloom Food Group, their new catering and events business, which launched in the thick of the pandemic.

“Initially, we started [the dinners] because we were starting the company at a time when COVID was still a thing,” David Thomas said. “We really wanted to showcase what we could do, and we thought a dining experience was the best way to do that.”

The couple, known for their prior work at the helm of Ida B’s Table near City Hall, held a first pop-up dinner in May 2021. The “Feast of Flowers” theme was an ode to springtime and showed off The Sinclair, the Northeast Baltimore event space run by the Thomases, with a lush spread of flowers hanging from the ceiling of the building’s grand hallway. Guests were serenaded by jazz pianist Lafayette Gilchrist as they dined on a seven-course meal featuring dishes such as rabbit fritters, smoked jerk prawns and duck sausage with squash blossom and fried collards.

More pop-up dinners followed, each with a different theme. Last month, the couple held the second installment of their “Story to Tell: An Ode to Hip-Hop” dinner series, a night centered on the history of the musical genre. David Thomas, a classically trained musician and former soul producer, planned a menu of rabbit and chicken ballotine wrapped in collards and served with mustard seed velouté, seared foie gras pie, sous-vide Wagyu short rib and more. Each course was paired with music and wine.

The food, David said, mirrored “the grit and the beautifulness of hip-hop at the same time.”

Diners scooped up the $250-a-head tickets in no time. The pop-ups, which usually seat no more than 75 people, are a “fully immersive dining experience” that take months to plan, Tonya Thomas said.

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They also offer some freedom and flexibility from the constant onslaught of the restaurant business and the strictures of the catering world.

“At Ida B’s, we couldn’t go as far as we go here because we still had a restaurant to run,” David Thomas said. “Catering is based on our clients’ needs: Our job is to fulfill their vision. With our dining experiences, this is us.”

Tae Strain, Ggoma Supper Club

Chef Tae Strain, owner of Ggoma Supper Club, speaks to diners about the food they are eating as he hosts a pop-up dinner Nov. 15 at JBGB's. Ggoma means "little one" in Korean.

Tae Strain’s first Baltimore restaurant was a pint-size affair. In his 20s, Strain opened Demi, a 20-seat spot tucked away in the basement of the Belvedere Square restaurant Crush. The eatery quickly garnered praise for the Baltimore County native, who won Baltimore Magazine’s “Best Chef” award in 2012.

Strain’s culinary career has taken him in many directions since Demi closed a decade ago. He spent time traveling and working in Asia, then moved to the West Coast, where he helped the celebrated San Francisco chefs Nicole Krasinski and Stuart Brioza open The Progress, a Michelin-starred and James Beard Award-winning spot. A job at chef David Chang’s Momofuku CCDC in Washington brought him back to the East Coast.

The chef is now eager to get back to his roots, in more ways than one. Strain’s new Ggoma Supper Club is a way of reintroducing himself to the Baltimore food scene, and of exploring his direction as a chef today.

“I want to understand what my food looks like now, what I’m trying to say now,” Strain said. “I’m slowly establishing those things with the supper club.”

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The pop-up takes its name from a Korean term of endearment meaning “little one,” and Strain, a Korean American who was adopted by a white family, approaches his new project through the lens of family and identity, though the pop-up’s New American, seasonal cuisine is not primarily Korean.

“The notion of family, for me, has been the driving force my whole life,” he said. “Giving [the supper club] a Korean name was really important to me because there’s a point in time where you need to embrace who you are in this sense.”

So far, Ggoma suppers have been intimate and familial, with a maximum guest list of 22. The monthly supper club leads a nomadic existence, roaming between different host restaurants in Baltimore and beyond, including Foraged in Station North and Olamaie in Austin, Texas.

The latest installment took place Nov. 15 at JBGB’s in Remington. Strain crafted a five-course menu for $126 a person, serving dishes such as wood-oven roasted rockfish and Korean fried wings and rice topped with black truffle shavings, matched with wine pairings by Free Run Wine Merchants. The chef ended the night with two dessert courses: a bay leaf and almond panna cotta and a chocolate pecan tart with espresso cream and passion fruit.

He’s planning more dinners in the months to come. Eventually, the hope is to open a new Baltimore restaurant. “It is something that is on my mind every day,” Strain said.

In the meantime, “supper clubs can give a lot of flexibility for expressing something without carrying a lot of weight,” he said.

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Kiah Gibian, Wilde Thyme Garden Dinners

Kiah Gibian’s first pop-up dinners were a way of showcasing a local farm’s seasonal bounty. In 2018 and 2019, Gibian collaborated with Hampstead’s Two Boots Farm on special dinners that highlighted the latest crops.

In more recent years, her attention has turned to another project: the launch of Our Time Kitchen, a culinary incubator that opened this summer in Old Goucher and aims to offer commercial kitchen space to up-and-coming chefs, and particularly women of color.

But Gibian continued to think about the creative expression and the communal spirit of dinner pop-ups.

“There’s some comfort in going to a space that’s only available for one night and often the menus are curated as a single choice,” she said. “They really are an expression of this person that’s feeding you.”

In August, she debuted Wilde Thyme Garden Dinners, al fresco nights for about 20 diners outside Our Time Kitchen. Tickets are priced on a sliding scale of $55 to $95.

Gibian’s most recent dinner, in October, was built around a science-fiction theme. The Wilde Thyme chef took comfort in sci-fi novels during the peak of the pandemic, and used tidbits from those stories to craft a menu, which served up touches such as acorn jelly inspired by Octavia Butler’s “Parable of the Sower” and prepared using acorns Gibian foraged herself. A charcoal-infused dessert from chef Catina Smith was modeled after a black hole. She invited diners to “poison” themselves at the start of the night with a cocktail clouded by dry ice, in a flourish inspired by a novel featuring a cloudy poisoned drink.

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Gibian has put a pause on the monthly dinners during the winter but plans to bring them back, perhaps with even more available seats, in the spring. The chef said she appreciates the “element of surprise and wonder” that accompanies the pop-ups.

“It’s a special opportunity and it’s kind of what we’ve designed our whole kitchen around: creating space where people can be creative.”

Catina Smith, 3 Petals

Catina Smith has worked in notable Baltimore kitchens, from Dovecote Cafe to Magdalena and the Alexander Brown Restaurant. But whether she’s working in a conventional kitchen or as a private chef, the artistry of her cuisine remains the same.

“I go to a lot of chef conferences, and the first question is always ‘What restaurant do you cook at?’” she said. “It’s disheartening. Just because you’re a chef doesn’t mean you’re a restaurant chef.”

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Eager to showcase her skills, Smith started 3 Petals, a dinner pop-up featuring three- to five-course meals with tickets priced at $65 to $125. She started out hosting the dinners at her house, and now holds them inside the Our Time Kitchen incubator.

The atmosphere is sleek, white-tablecloth fine dining, but the menu varies widely. Smith said she looks to take simple ingredients and make something special with them: Recent menus have featured Brussels sprouts salads with fried goat cheese, rainbow trout with pork belly, and a baked Alaska with activated charcoal, chocolate and cinnamon ice cream.

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Smith explains each dish to diners in attendance — the supper club is usually limited to about 10 people — and also invites a local artist to share their work as part of each meal.

“My goal is for it to feel restaurant-style,” she said. “You’re going to get a chef-quality experience.”

Despite the passion she pours into the dinners, Smith said she has had trouble getting the word out without the platform of a brick-and-mortar restaurant.

“Each time has been very difficult,” she said. Still, she’s hopeful that the dinners can eventually become a foundation for another dream: opening her own restaurant.

“I’ve been thinking about it,” Smith said. She’s giving herself a timeline of about five years “depending on what happens in the interim.”


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