The pop-up is one of the most exciting trends in dining right now. While it’s not a new concept, it’s one that is at its best when it gives up-and-coming chefs the freedom to flex their creativity and depart from the expectations placed upon them by their day-jobs in someone else’s kitchen.
Such is the case with Food Party, a dinner pop-up created by Chef David Smith and his wife Michelle who have made it their mission to bring creativity, collaboration and community to the First Coast dining scene–one twenty-person, mixtape-themed dinner party at a time.
Eating dinner at a table with a group of complete strangers is going to be awkward at first but Food Party’s opening track helps to break the ice. After all, there’s nothing like pickled shrimp atop a cube of compressed watermelon soaked in hop-infused water and garnished with immaculate leaves of blood-veined sorrel to break hesitant diners out of their shells and get their tongues wagging.
There’s something undeniably exciting about eating dinner in a novel location. “When I bring out the food, I watch people look around and say things like, ‘I shouldn’t be eating food here. Why am I eating food here? This is awesome!’ and I love that,” David explains.
Michelle, who runs all things “front-of-house,” believes the distinctive environs open people up to try new things and approach what David puts on the plate with a fresh perspective. With beautifully plated dishes like track two’s follow-up of homemade boudin dolloped with fig-bacon jam atop carrot puree, David’s culinary creativity takes center stage but it’s not a solo show to be sure.
Food Party has always been a product of collaboration. The concept began in Birmingham after many late night conversations between David and his roommate at the time. After a few successful events, folks there still beg for another installment of the multi-course dinner party. It then enjoyed a brief stint in Charlotte until finally taking root back in Jacksonville, the result of a fortuitous meeting of the minds that occurred during the couple’s wedding weekend in Atlantic Beach. “That’s where the spark was reignited,” Michelle recalls after meeting Hotel Palm’s Greg Schwartzenberger and Jamie Rice of Show Pigeon Coffee. “There’s this great sort of renaissance happening here that’s being led by people in their 30’s. They’re not waiting for something to come, they’re just building it, and we wanted to be a part of that.”
On the surface, Food Party Vol. 3 involved a collaboration with Atlantic Beach Brewing Company who not only provided both the venue and the beer pairings to accompany each dish. But it also featured the horticultural expertise of GYO Green’s Matt Randall who helped David select the garnishes for each dish like the micro radish greens adorning the crispy-skinned snapper on track three. In addition to the contrast their deep-green-and-purple leaves brought to the visual composition, their peppery bite provided the perfect accompaniment to the fish and the zipper pea risotto beneath.
Matt also just so happened to be in attendance. “It’s so cool to send out food and have the guy who actually grew what’s on the plate right there,” David gushes. When track four arrived, Matt identified the Queen Anne’s Lace and Butterfly Pea Flowers scattered around the dish of beef tenderloin and mustard potato salad drizzled with Mayport Red Ale demi-glace, enhancing the experience with his context and commentary.
It’s about this time in the evening, as you approach a near-perfect level of satisfaction that the value of Food Party becomes readily apparent. While most destination dinner party pop-ups command a ticket price beyond the constraints of the typical Millennial diner’s budget, Food Party is designed to be nothing if not accessible. The ample portion sizes leave you full and the cost of admission rivals that of what you would spend at even a modestly-priced fine dining establishment when you factor in drinks and gratuity. You also don’t need to worry about fussy matters like which fork goes with which course. “Don’t worry about etiquette, just enjoy your food!” I overheard Michelle say to one of the guests with a smile when the topic came up.
That kind of relaxed sophistication and comforting hospitality is all part of the design of Food Party and it’s the area where Michelle’s efforts shine through the most. “She does such a killer job,” David beams. “I can make food that tastes great but she’s able to transform something like a taproom into this beautiful setup. It’s amazing.”
Her seemingly invisible hand in curating the Food Party experience goes well beyond simply setting the table. In fact, it’s her work of fostering the community element that makes Food Party so much more than just eating dinner in a wacky location and ultimately drives its success.
“There are restaurants opening up everyday and some of them are incredible, but I think people are looking for something different,” Michelle explains. “Even when you’re with other people, eating at a restaurant is still sort of an isolating experience.”
David and Michelle both agree that as much as the delicious, Instagrammable food provides the draw for Food Party, it’s the community aspect that sticks with them the most after they leave. “People like that they can be loud and boisterous, tell jokes and be themselves,” Michelle adds.
It is a party after all, and by the time track five draws to an end and you’ve taken your last bite of Summer Sour Ale peach galette with honey whipped mascarpone, marveled at the spherified blueberry “caviar,” and washed it all down with Atlantic Beach Brewing Company’s Udder Bliss Milk Stout, all that awkwardness you felt when you first sat down is a distant memory.
The next Food Party isn’t on the books yet but rest assured that David and Michelle have no intentions of letting this party end anytime soon. Follow them on Instagram @foodpartypopup to find out where the next event is going down. Party on!
This feature originally appeared in Void Magazine Vol. 10, Issue 5 The Jags Issue.