Food Matters: Running a pop-up chef’s table serves hot lessons in patience and persistence
IF YOU GO ...
ONI ASPEN, CHEF’S TABLE POP-UPMonday & Tuesday, 7 p.m.5 courses Asian-Southern fare$100++, RSVP ticket required970-314-6320facebook.com/oniaspenAsian BBQ Brunch pop-upSaturday & Sunday, 12-6 p.m.6-10 dishes, $15-24Scarlett’s rooftop patio515 E. Hopkins Ave.
When an older lady shoots her fist skyward and jokes about calling emergency services because she’s overcome with exhilaration, I know we’re on to something good. It’s Tuesday, July 23, at dusk on Scarlett’s rooftop patio, and my business partner, chef Adam Norwig, is standing at the head of a long community table, having just told a story about culinary heritage translating to art and soul on a plate.
We’ve placed his third course — hickory-smoked pork shoulder with charred Palisade peach tonkatsu, shishito-kimchi relish and horseradish aioli — to 12 guests who are now clapping wildly in applause. Before Norwig can scuttle back to the kitchen, the woman hollers praise, clinched with a twilight fist pump.
I had been so nervous about our pop-up Oni Aspen’s inaugural chef’s table tasting that I suffered a sweat-soaked stress nightmare the night before. In it, nobody showed up because I — manager/promoter of an impromptu passion project with my insanely talented chef bud — forgot to hang telltale signs onto the restaurant door.
In reality, though, Oni’s first dinner unfolds, dreamlike, without a single snafu. I don’t forget to tape signs on the door. The long wooden dining-room tables and sturdy chairs fit beautifully on the outdoor terrace, oriented toward a lush Aspen Mountain. Cocktail hour runs smoothly, with folks from Arkansas, Aspen, San Francisco, New York, Minneapolis, and New Jersey chatting like long-lost friends and marveling at Scarlett’s 5,000-plus-square-foot interior and showpiece kitchen.
Once the blazing sun dips behind neighboring buildings, I seat the group. Seven of 12 diners commit to our five-course curated wine pairing, at $60 apiece. Norwig’s anecdotes of childhood food memories are freewheeling and funny, and he ends up serving a bonus sixth course as a surprise. Everyone leaves buzzed, stuffed, laughing and grinning. Oni Aspen’s opening is a spirited success, and I even got a few photos to prove it.
Ah, beginner’s luck! Compare that scene with a chain of unfortunate events last Tuesday evening. Scarlett’s (normally closed for dinner that night, hence our pop-up) is hosting a charity event that we only learn about around noon that day. I push start time by a half-hour, and inform each of our eight ticketed guests. Norwig suggests we take them to the off-hours Bootsy Bellows nightclub in the basement but, as predicted, the cavernous, semi-dark venue isn’t very stimulating. We move upstairs, tiptoeing through the buyout crowd to an unoccupied patio for a welcome change of scenery.
Meanwhile, because of the party we haven’t been able to move any wooden tables outside; the smaller, rickety patio tables are unset with silverware or water glasses, and I’ve been unable to locate enough wine to curate a coursed pairing, so I scrap it.
I’m tense and silently seething about poor communication. When Norwig barks at me to “chill the f–k out,” I stalk to the bar with a beverage order.
My sour attitude is rewarded with catastrophe. In short order I tip a tray of not one, not two, not three, four, or five, but SIX glasses of sauvignon blanc down the back of a guest, glass shattering on concrete in the most heartbreaking, humiliating racket. At least the seventh glass of wine, in my other hand, survives. For a moment I fantasize about darting away with it and never returning.
Thankfully the guy is cool as a cucumber about my epic faux pas — and, inexplicably, happens to have a backup shirt to change into. Cheeks burning, I sweep up the mess and blurt out a semi-coherent ramble about last-minute changes throwing us all for a loop. The local restaurateur I desperately want to impress looks at me with pity.
I’ve been a restaurant server and bartender inconsistently since I was 15, and that age was the last time I caused such a spectacle. Still, as Norwig tells me later, “Sometimes you have to suck it up and drive on—that’s what they say in the military. And we are a kitchen brigade.”
Norwig and I launched Oni Aspen on a whim, reuniting professionally after working together for two seasons at Burger Bar & Fish in Snowmass Base Village beginning in 2012. Now I’ve thrown my efforts into marketing and promoting Oni: building a Facebook page, hosting an “Experience” on Airbnb, distributing fliers, emailing press releases and chatting up strangers on the street. Managing reservations, editing menus and arranging professional photography are fresh challenges.
Our concept showcases the Asian-Southern elevated street-food fare for which Norwig became popular in winter 2018 at Tanuki To Go, located in the former Bootsy Bellows (Crystal Palace). Then he relocated to Austin, Texas, where he ran House of the Rising Tanuki-San with Tanuki partner Jonathan Leichliter and befriended barbecue masters such as Aaron Franklin. Leichliter remains in Austin; two executive chefs at a startup 150-seat restaurant was unsustainable, and besides, Norwig loathes the hot, muggy weather.
“You never had any warning about this. I just came back to town, like, ‘Hey, Amanda Rae, wanna do this? Yeah!’” he reminds me on Sunday afternoon, after serving a list of nine Asian barbecue brunch items alongside Scarlett’s regular menu. Indeed, Norwig showed up at my door a few days before July Fourth and has been crashing on my couch ever since.
“You and I both have this thing: You have to be really good at it, or else you’re embarrassed by it. Remember what I said? If you don’t have a scene or you don’t like it, change it or make it. We’re generating our own scene.”
It’s a cool process, and Oni is still developing into what we want it to be: Aspen’s ultimate pop-up dinner party experience. Each chef’s table is capped at 20 people, and Norwig’s omnivore menu changes weekly. Six- to 18-hour-smoked meats — pork, lamb, short ribs, brisket, chicken — and seafood such as charred octopus or crispy softshell crab have been stars, accented with handcrafted sauces and garnishes that hark to Norwig’s classical French training. Andrew Sandler and Andy Pappani are graciously allowing us to use Scarlett’s as a venue in exchange for boosting brunch business and liquor sales.
So far I’ve learned that everything needed to fall apart for me to build it back up. Oh, and also to chill the f–k out when the room gets hot.
“It’s always stressful in the beginning, but you’re a performance artist,” Norwig says. “And I think you’re really enjoying yourself. You and I have put a lot of work into this to make it good, so that final product is gonna be WOW. Always remember: You’re never a master, always a student.”
Amanda Rae will host Oni Aspen chef’s table with chef Adam Norwig on Aug. 19 and 20. Join us! firstname.lastname@example.org
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