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Jackintheboxophobia, though not a technical term, per se, plagues the many who defy the platitude that “everyone loves surprises.”
You wind it up. You know it’s coming. You preventatively wince and recoil in anticipation as your shoulders creep up to your ears. Then, boom! Surprise! Yay…
We’ve all been there.
But what if we flipped the script on surprises and tried to cultivate the philosophy of Surprisologist, Tania Luna? In her TED Talk and in her business, she encourages us to seek out experiences where we venture into the unknown, to relinquish some of the have-to-know-what’s-coming control, and to find delight in uncertainty.
As someone who always researches a restaurant’s location, menu and photo gallery before dining, the idea of attending a pop-up dinner forced me to arrive with no frame of reference and a willingness to be surprised. And surprised I was.
Pop-up restaurants are, well, popping up acrossthe country as opportunities for rising and veteran chefs to flex their creative muscle, try out new techniques, create more intimate environments, and buck complacency, all without the commitment of the time and money necessary for restaurants of the brick-and-mortar variety – and Sacramento is no exception. We are the farm-to-fork capitol, after all, and the pop-up restaurant movement allows for perhaps even more immediacy in that transaction.
Sylvanna Mislang, of The Roaming Spoon, is a chef with just such a vision. Since we can’t use terms like “opened her doors” or “established” here, we’ll say that she packed up her bag of cooking tools and tricks and headed out starting in November of 2013. Since then, she has been offering six-course dinners to a dozen diners – or “guests,” in her words – twice a month in locations ranging from coffee shops to art galleries, right here on the grid.
I sat down with “Chef Syl” before her most recent dinner – a nod to the Russian cuisine she enjoyed on her summer trip there – over coffee. Each time she brought her arm down from taking a sip of her cappuccino, I caught a glimpse of the fresh tattoo on her forearm that reads “Bon Appetit” in Russian.
Without further ado, the scoop on The Roaming Spoon:
How would you describe your cooking style, or voice?
I like my dishes to be simple, but ironically, I guess, complex. Like deceptively simple. And not to be cliché, but food is eye candy. You eat with your eyes first, so I just have to put out something amazing. I really like to play with color, spices, and fresh herbs. Luckily, a farm I work really closely with, Rocking TH, has beautiful produce and lots of edible flowers too, so that’s really fun.
Why do you choose to get your cooking out to the people in this way?
I’ve always liked being in the kitchen. I’m not saying I’m done working in restaurants, but I’m over the politics right now. I still wanted to feed people, though, and this allows me to do that. And pop-ups give [chefs] the opportunity to do something out of the norm and showcase some talent and artistry. It kind of reminds me of flash mobs because it’s something unexpected, somewhere unexpected, and it just comes together and happens.
How did you come up with the name for your pop-up? Why a spoon?
You can do so much with a spoon; it’s your stirring utensil. When I first came up with the concept, I’d thought of calling it Gypsy Spoon because Gypsies roam, but someone in Southern California already had that name, so I thought about it some more and checked with friends and we liked the idea of a roaming spoon.
What is the most ambitious dish you’ve chefed up so far for Roaming Spoon?
That’s a tough question. That’s like asking “What’s your favorite thing to cook?” I would say my carrot caviar. It’s really simple once you’ve made it, but at first I wasn’t sure how it was going to turn out. You’re using tapioca, but you don’t want that gummy texture, so I had to experiment until I was happy with it.
Do you find that you’re experimenting more these days now that you alone choose what’s on the menu, and it’s your name attached to the project?
I have to be experimental. It’s a 100% vegan menu, and 95% gluten free, so I’m missing eggs, I’m missing butter, I’m missing ingredients that usually make it easier for dishes to come together. I have to take it to the next level and be resourceful.
Why did you choose to showcase the vegan diet?
There didn’t really seem to be a market for that yet, or anyone doing this sort of thing in a way that catered to vegans. When I worked at The L [Wine Lounge + Urban Kitchen] and at Blackbird, I was kind of the go-to person for making dishes when vegan diners came in.
Some people assume everything has to have tofu in it, but that’s not true at all. I wanted to expose a new way of eating vegan. I’m kind of rebranding a bit right now, but at first, my motto was “My Modern Take on Vegan Cuisine.” Basically, I wanted to really step it up for the vegans out there.
Are most of your guests vegans?
No, actually. I’ve really only had a handful of vegans so far, which is great because people are trying new things.
What are some of the challenges that this dining model presents for you as a chef?
Finding the right location. That’s it. The menu is pretty easy for me, actually. I’ve worked in produce forever, and see produce every day working at The [Sacramento Natural Food] Co-Op, so finding a unique spot is the challenge.
Have you ever hosted a dinner where there isn’t a kitchen?
[Laughs] Yeah, without a kitchen, I prep a lot at home, or in a commercial kitchen and bring it all with me along with a camping stove I bought at REI. Propane is really important!
If you could host one of your dinners in any space in Sacramento, where would you choose?
We’ve been really lucky to have dinners in so many great places already – Exhibit S [now defunct], Orphan, Body Tribe, The Delta Workshop, Shine Coffee, Dad’s on Freeport, and The Mill – all with people who have been so open to the idea. If I could have a dinner anywhere? Hmmm…The Crocker.
Anywhere in particular in the museum? Inside? Outside?
I could take over wherever! [Laughs] I’ve just never asked. We ask people on our website and at dinners for recommendations for spaces, which is cool because then you create community.
Your cooking model really relies on that community.
Absolutely. And we try to build that before, during and after dinner. Chloe Henry is my creative director, and she handles all of the media, so she has us on Facebook and Instagram and Twitter to get the word out. She takes care of everything; she’s like a ninja. So social media helps to promote our events, but also a lot of word of mouth. I totally encourage diners to blast photos of their experience online to share. Not obnoxiously, though. I just read that article about how phones are ruining dining. So obviously I don’t want that, but the Internet has been huge. We also have a friend in Pam Giarrizzo from her blog, Sacramento Vegan, who really helps to spread the word too.
And also, if a diner wants a recipe, I’ll definitely send them an e-mail and shout it out to them. It makes me really happy to know people want to share my cooking. It gives me a sense of accomplishment. I feel like I’m doing something right.
What is it about the pop-up phenomenon that you think gets people excited and engaged?
Is it a phenomenon? [Laughs] I think it’s a fun way to get people excited about food. It kind of breaks down that wall between chef and diner, so you get a lot of ooohs and aaahs when you deliver dishes to the table. And I usually go out and explain the story of the dish, list any of the farms and even give some insight about the preparation, so guests feel like they’re a part of it. People seem to be more conscientious about where their money is going, too, so this is an anti-corporate option for people who want that. Basically, it’s a new dining experience, and I’m giving my diners an experience they’ve never had before.
Sacramento has branded itself as the Farm-to-Fork Capital of the nation. How does your cooking fit into that model?
It’s right there. I have relationships with farmers through the Co-Op, and farmers like Rocking TH and Manna Mushrooms. Sometimes I’ll even go out and harvest the produce myself. So, yeah, I definitely fit in that category.
How has Sacramento received the idea?
Guests sometimes come in and refer to an article they read about me in the Sacramento News and Review, or in The Sacramento Bee and it’s just been so positive. I’m truly honored that people come out. I’ve always been in kitchens, but no one knew who I was, and I was OK with that, but now my name is getting out there, so I’m taking baby steps. I’m just really humble and grateful.
What’s the most interesting topic of conversation you’ve heard come up amongst strangers at one of your events?
We’ve got a pretty diverse demographic. People have come in from San Francisco, Lodi, Folsom, Sacramento, and anywhere from early twenties to sixties. Whoever comes is really cool people, so sometimes when I’m cooking in a corner or off to the side, I’ll just hear a burst of laughter and know they’re having a really good time. People who are strangers become friends. The menu brings people together and they start sharing.
Do you have any aspirations of bringing people together in a traditional restaurant?
No, not right now. People ask me that at the ends of dinners, but I think it’d be too much stress and I wouldn’t get to be home. If the right opportunity presented itself, though…
Lest the idea of a vegan, gluten-free pop-up restaurant conjure up ideas of pretentious exclusivity, and preachy table neighbors, you’ve got another think coming. Surprise! Instead, I was met with a candle-lit table adorned with Russian nesting dolls, a Moscow mule, plenty of smiles and introductions, and my first glimpse at the menu.
Oftentimes, the categorization of a particular restaurant’s cuisine as “vegan,” “molecular gastronomy,” “nose-to-tail,” or “gluten-free” can be something of a turn off for people who have preconceived ideas about what those labels represent, but luckily, I met eleven other diners who were willing to open their minds – and their stomachs – to something new and different. If you’d like to do the same, you can make a reservation through Brown Paper Tickets.
Then, sit back and wait for your Sunday morning e-mail to tell you when and where you’ll meet your (pleasant!) surprise.
Photo | Susan Yee
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