Pollen Room:  London Edition

I love London. I love its architecture, its gardens, its pubs, its humour. When I arrived to blue skies in London last week, my cab driver from Heathrow said I must have brought the sunshine with me. So yes, along with the chatty cabbies, I even loved London's weather. The air was crisp and the sun was out - the perfect weekend for a pop-up.

After leaving London almost seven years ago for Hong Kong, I was thrilled (and frankly also a little nervous) about coming back to do a three-day pop-up supper club. I had my co-conspirators florist Emily Baylis of the fab June in March and star bartender Anya Montague, who is soon off to New York to take care of cocktails for none other than Chef Dan Barber at Blue Hill at Stone Barns. We had so much fun with our Hong Kong event last October, when Emily and Anya launched their project Pollen Room, a celebration of wild blooms and botanical cocktails (read about it here!). Since Emily and Anya both went back to the UK, a London edition of the Pollen Room with me as the chef seemed inevitable.

    So here I was back in London, with the poor cabbie unloading my 25kg suitcase filled with Korean pastes and spices, ready to prepare for a three-day, five sitting extravaganza. Like I said, I was excited but the excitement was tinged with a bit of anxiety. We had rented a space in North London in a mews that was totally adorable in the pictures but I was told had minimal kitchen equipment. For the first time, I was cooking for three days alone, without the help of another chef-collaborator or a restaurant's staff or infrastructure. Except, of course, it turned out I wasn't alone at all.

    There are a few things you should know about doing a pop-up in a non-restaurant in a foreign city:

    1. Make sure you have very close and generous friends in that city.  Because you probably will need to borrow all your kitchen equipment from those friends, from pots to knives to peelers. Note that said friends will probably not have a mandoline, so plan to thinly slice the entire pickle assortment that you put on the menu by hand. And said friends definitely won't have a pot big enough to cook short-rib for 120 people. If said friends have a car to help transport the pots that they do have , even better, because even non-industrial-sized pots are heavy.

    2. Make sure you have loyal friends who love to eat. Every time, I looked out at the dining room that weekend, I saw so many familiar faces. There was Beverly, our resident calligrapher who designed the stunning menus, and Jay, two dear friends. There were two of my best friends in Hong Kong who were in London (Sasha and Julian), who just had a baby and I don't think have ever missed a pop-up of mine if they could help it. There was my former colleague from my former life (Lisa), who came to represent my old team. There were two friends who had left Hong Kong for Richmond (Thuy-Tien and Tom), who took dozens of pictures of the pop-up for me while I was busy cooking. There was my little brother's friend from high school (Paul), who I hadn't seen since I was 18 years old and he was 16. He had seen my Pollen Room post by chance on Facebook and brought his fiancee along. My college roommate's father, stepmother and sister, who have been part of my extended family since my first year at uni, came as well. And then there were my best friends in the whole world, Shivani, Kirsten, Petter and Rudy, whose pots were at use in the kitchen and who picked me up in their car when I was stranded on a crowded street with 15kg of short rib and 25kg of vegetables (see point 1 above). 

    3. Make sure your collaborators are the best in the business and have a sense of humour. A few days before our pop-up, Emily and I found ourselves at New Covent Garden Market at 4am hunting down wild asparagus and tree branches. After five hours of being in the market, and on less than two hours of sleep, we waited for our van pick-up while playing with fork lifts. A girl who will pose for your camera while delirious and on a forklift is a good collaborator. Anya and her partner, Leo Owen-Boys, did the washing up and accounting after we closed each night, counting receipts at two in the morning so we could keep track of our expenses in real time. All while pouring me and Emily one last glass of wine. These are good collaborators. Not to mention the gorgeous flowers that filled the room, and the sparkling cocktails infused with wild herbs that filled our guests. Anya and Emily worked their magic again, like forest fairies in floral Polka Pants.

    4. Finally, make sure that the staff that your collaborators recruited to help you has trained and worked with the best chefs in the world - chefs on a whole different plane of existence from ordinary folks. Seriously, insist on that. I was expecting some recent uni grads who had at best peeled some potatoes at a decent pub and maybe someone's cousin. What I got were one Joe Otway, who has worked at Blue Hill at Stone Barns and Benu and will be starting at Relæ in Copenhagen next week, and to whom I owe my sanity during the weekend; one Stella Grant, who last worked with Chef Dan Barber on his WastED pop-up at Selfridges and is opening her own place at the end of the year; and one Amber Francis who is about to knock down all her opponents in the finals for a national young chef's competition this year, oh and who also worked with Dan Barber on WastED.

    Joe, Stella and Amber worked their asses off, with gravitas but also such positive and optimistic energy, and really pushed my menu to a whole new level. These are three serious chefs with serious experience, and I learned so much from them. They had spontaneous, genius ideas when things didn't work according to plan (which happened often - hello pop-ups). They helped me organise the operations and were agile, tireless, team-players and fun to be around. I feel extremely grateful to have had them on my side. Oh and did I mention our sommelier, Bert Blaize (yes it's so awesome that's his real name) also happens to be a sommelier at The Clove Club? The rest of the team (Daniel, Timmy, Maggie, Joel) were all so fabulous to work with as well. Surround yourself with greatness, and maybe some of it will rub off on you, I always say.

    With friends like these, how could I not have had the most fantastic weekend? We didn't sleep or eat very much, and I'm going to crawl into bed for a few days now. But Pollen Room, the London edition, was such a dream thanks to my friends, old and new. Thank you, thank you, merci mille fois. Emily and Anya are off to Paris on 10 June for a pop-up at the coolest cocktail bar, le Mary Celeste. Check it out if you're there! But it's goodbye Europe for me, and hello Hong Kong, at least for now...

    xx Mina

    Bert Blaize giving the thumbs up on the food, hopefully.

    Bert Blaize giving the thumbs up on the food, hopefully.