Cooks turned Instagram into the world’s best take-out menu

LOS ANGELES – Working as a cook in Rustic canyon in Santa Monica, Calif., Jihee Kim made tender dimpled malfatti and floating green pozole with mussels and clams. But all this time, she dreamed of opening her own house.

It would be like her favorite banchan stores in Busan, South Korea, where she grew up. Ms. Kim sold starchy Japanese yams braised in soy sauce, delicate omelets rolled into perfect spirals with seaweed and cucumber fermented with sweet Korean pears.

It was only a dream – until last year, when the pandemic forced restaurants to close and a wave of jobless business leaders began to rethink their careers and reshape the scenes of takeaways to their cities with new local food companies.

Ms Kim has joined a wave of restaurant cooks across the country, improvising new pop-ups, advertising their menus on Instagram, and changing the way so many customers order food.

It’s more unpredictable and more chaotic. I have calendar alerts set up for over 50 menus on Instagram and notifications set for new posts on around 100 accounts. Worth it for the smoked cochinita pibil of Alan cruz; three-layer citrus cakes topped with candy prepared by Sasha piligian; and oxtail patties Rashida holmes.

Although I sometimes miss a place, or a special one, I also find my way to others. And a capricious algorithm is directing me to pop-ups all over the country, from Jessica and Trina Quinn plump pelmeni in Brooklyn, for Anwar Herron’s steep fried chicken in Napa.

When Instagram introduced Shop and Reels tabs to its homepage last November, prioritizing popular brands and influencers, I was concerned the platform would become hostile to tiny food pop-ups any longer. But Cooks made it work, relying on direct messages or links to forms, custom shopping pages, or third-party apps.

This type of decentralized ordering process can be confusing for diners. It’s up to you to keep track of each business, remembering each pop-up’s schedule, pickup rules, and payment methods, and some cooks are better organized than others. The information spreads through a mixture of stories that disappear after 24 hours and posts, and they can change from week to week.

Despite this, and the fact that most pop-ups aren’t regulated by health services, Instagram has become one of my favorite take-out menus. Perilla, Ms. Kim’s pickup pop-up, illustrates why.

Ms Kim, 34, started Perilla last May from her apartment in Koreatown, Los Angeles. Like everyone else, I ordered the food online and never been there, but found the experience to be revitalizing and intimate – the same person who bought all the produce at the farmer’s market also prepared and cooked all the food. This same person took my order, carefully packed it and delivered it to me in my car.

Throughout the process, there was a sense of trust and a sense of closeness to Ms. Kim’s cooking.

“Hi, are you eating the bulgogi now or later?” she asked me on the phone, when I arrived – a little late. “Because if you eat it now, I want to warm it up for you!”

As Ms Kim became busier and busier, she moved operations to a friend’s unfinished restaurant space, which functions as a kind of cloud kitchen – a restaurant without a dining room. She brought a few portable butane stoves and induction burners to run the cooking, and her friend and fellow cook Sara Kang started helping out.

The setup can be rambling – no ovens, no dining tables, no investors, no employees – but Ms. Kim’s food isn’t.

Ms. Kim works with anything that looks good at the farmer’s market when she goes, whether it’s a classic Korean pairing of cabbage and kombu, or a less traditional pairing of celery root and mushroom. . It’s delicious, beautifully presented and travels well, and it’s a pleasure to have access to it every week.

This wave of new pop-ups may seem like a bright spot as restaurants struggle or close, but the pandemic hasn’t really created any opportunities for cooks – in many ways, it has made them harder to navigate. find. Hundreds of thousands of people have been made redundant or fired from their jobs, and of those who remained at the front lines, many fell ill from contact with the virus at work.

With no safety nets in place, the cooks emerged from the wreckage to start their own independent makeshift businesses, redirecting their skills as gourmet cooks, or their relationships with suppliers and farmers, to new ventures. It’s exciting, but precarious.

In May, Erik Piedrahita, former executive sous chef of Bon Temps in Los Angeles, built a brick oven and grill in his father’s backyard, a few miles from Griffith Park, the pickup location. Customers who placed orders through Instagram would wait for their orders and picnic, or bring the food home.

“I have no formal barbecue training,” said Mr. Piedrahita, who started the neighborhood barbecue last spring on Instagram, and recently went from taking orders via his direct messages to Tock. “But I took my restaurant knowledge and tried to apply it to the barbecue.”

Mr. Piedrahita, 33, buys meat from the same suppliers as at Bon Temps. He brines and grills about 60 pounds of short ribs and 20 pounds of chicken a week, cooks them over the fire or more slowly over the coals, and sells consistently. Last weekend’s chicken was dark and sticky, smoky and succulent.

Yet at least twice in the past few months he has considered dropping the project altogether.

Although Mr. Piedrahita has visited restaurant auctions over the months to get bids on stainless steel prep tables, a powerful Vitamix and other equipment, he does not have the refrigeration needed for an operation. more important. Most home kitchens don’t.

“I basically have a cloud kitchen in my father’s house,” he says. “And to make it truly financially viable, we will have to grow to sell more days.”

Without more refrigeration this is not possible, but the forces of circumstance have changed his work-life balance and temporarily reshaped his ambitions. “I miss restaurants, but right now I see my dad every day,” said Piedrahita. “I have time to live a life, and not just to be in the kitchen from dawn to dusk.”

On a busy weekend, Kevin Hockin sells about 600 thin-crusted, lightly charred pizzas through a hole in his fence at his home in Altadena, California. Side dish is a small business, but even if there was room to grow, Hockin believes 1,000 pizzas a weekend would probably be the limit, for now.

“This pandemic has opened our eyes to how things must change forever,” he said. “Everyone in the industry was used to working to death and now everyone is thinking about it.”

After closing Collage Coffee in March and putting the construction of his new restaurant in Altadena on hold, Mr. Hockin worked on his pizza technique with Irfan Zaidi, formerly of Roberta.

He posted pictures of pizzas and chihuahuas in cute hats, on Instagram, and quickly developed a small but dedicated fan base for the pies.

Mr. Hockin, 38, has designed tie-dye products for sale. Mrs Piligian, former pastry chef at SqirlSeasonal, baked pies for him to sell for dessert. But after a neighbor repeatedly called the Los Angeles County Public Health Department to complain, the operation was halted – temporarily.

Mr. Hockin has reopened his cafe and is awaiting clearance in his restaurant space, so he can operate Side Pie legally. “It’s a total jam,” he says. “But I have to use this counterfeit pizza operation out of my yard to cover my coffee losses and pay my employees.”

For cooks who don’t have the social media savvy to promote their business on Instagram, or for immigrant cooks who may not be fluent in English, managing editorial, marketing and Unexpected customer service issues via direct messages can be a challenge.

Sophia Parsa, 29, collaborates with her mother, Farah Parsa, 62, and helps package and translate her homemade Persian cuisine on social media. It is an essential part of their business, Golden rice, who is currently doing pickups at the West Hollywood club Bootsy bellows.

The women made their first pop-up in their home kitchen in Los Angeles last July, posting details on Instagram and inverting around 40 Iranian-style rice domes with shiny, crunchy bottoms in delivery boxes.

The tahdigs were crammed with tiny tangy barberries and came with the mast, a thick, creamy herb yogurt. Their food has become so popular since the Parsas added three more cooks and two drivers to their team, and went from four plug-in cooks to more equipment.

The expansion is promising, but for many cooks who are currently successful on the fringes of the restaurant business, it’s hard to sit back and enjoy.

“It’s just weird to feel so excited about it at a time when restaurants are taking on such success,” Ms. Parsa said of the growth of Golden Rice. “They’re all bound by leases and things that they can’t get out of, and it’s a giant mess.”

Ms Parsa previously worked as a community leader for an educational start-up, but most of her new employees are cooks who were laid off from their restaurant jobs during the pandemic. They’re the ones who help the pop-up scene grow.

“We’re not tied to anything right now,” she said. “We are able to stay lean and that’s what makes it possible to do what we do.”

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