When the sweatpants-clad, hamper-toting residents of Princeton’s 1903 Hall determined to do their laundry on the evening of February 27, they probably didn’t expect to stumble across a fully functional underground restaurant on their way to the washing machine. It was a strange sight indeed: within the cracking brick walls of the building’s basement sat an open kitchen and buzzing eatery, complete with white tablecloths, faux candles, and smooth jazz emanating from a handheld portable speaker sitting on the floor. Diners—all students—chatted across intimate two-seat tables as they enjoyed a sumptuous three-course meal including cured salmon and sous vide duck leg, conceived of and executed entirely by a small but eminently talented group of peers turned chefs extraordinaire. “What even is this?” inquired one of the baffled laundry-goers, who had taken a seat in the plush reception area while she waited for a dryer to become available. A server, wearing a crisp black button-down, responded eagerly: “This is the opening night of Princeton Pop Up.”
Setting the Table
Princeton Pop Up—“P Pop Up” for short—took shape remarkably quickly. The story begins in mid-January, when junior Allen Park sent out a cryptic one-line email to the residential college mailing lists: “Hello Princeton, if you really enjoy cooking or baking and would like to continue doing so, please fill out this form by 1/22.” Accompanying the note was a link to a Google Form where recipients could sign up for an informal “tryouts” process.
During Park’s first year at Princeton, his sister, who attended Yale University, had told him about Y Pop-Up, a student-run restaurant on Yale’s campus. Park loved to cook—he taught himself in high school so that he could eat what he wanted without having to go out—but the COVID-19 pandemic had stifled any plans to bring the endeavor to Princeton. Now, with loosened restrictions, Park could finally give it a shot. “I thought that this would be the perfect time to do it, since if I don’t now, I’ll never get the chance again,” he said.
Park’s vision was to provide an affordable fine dining experience for his peers. “If you go to New York and try to get a three-course meal, it may run you $100 or more,” he said. “Because we enjoy cooking and want to do it for fun, we’ll do it at a cheaper price.”
A Collective Experience
Park’s tryouts yielded a dedicated team of six undergraduates. All were skilled cooks, but they came from dramatically different culinary backgrounds. Junior Adrian Rogers spent his winter break working full-time as a chef at a local restaurant, an experience that would prove an invaluable asset. “It taught me the differences between, ‘I love to cook in my home,’ which I think is where everyone on the team is—we’re all passionate about food—and then, ‘How do you run a real kitchen?’” he said. “They’re two very separate worlds. I’m fortunate to have learned what those differences are so that we can offer the best service.” For Rogers, P Pop Up presents “a unique opportunity for people at Princeton who are interested in food to engage in a semi-professional sphere.”
Sophomore Matthew Pickering, another of the cooks, hasn’t spent any time in a professional kitchen, but he ran a pop-up bread and pastry bakery last summer. He feels that the team members’ skills complement each other well: “We’re definitely coming from various levels of experience, but it’s nice because some of us have prep experience, some of us have line cook experience, some of us have bakery experience. It comes together because we can compile our collective experience.” Indeed, Park’s concept was decidedly team-oriented. He explained that even if each cook comes in with a certain expertise, the goal was for P Pop Up to be a communal effort through and through, with “everyone there to help out and propose whether we should try something a different way.” “When it comes to the actual service,” he said, “it’ll be a constant rotation so that we can all learn more and constantly improve.”
First, the cooks needed a kitchen. Park got approval from university administration to use the basement of 1903 Hall, which features a stove and oven as well as a seating area, with the requirement that opening night be invitation-only. Given the venue’s lack of ventilation and adequate space for social distancing, the team also decided to solicit negative COVID-19 tests from all guests.
Locale secured, Park arranged a group dinner. On the docket for discussion was the pop-up’s scheduling, business model and, above all, menu. The team settled on a relatively ambitious plan. They would offer a total of four reservation slots, each with a limit of 18 diners, over the course of two weeks. They would then take a week off to regroup and develop a new three-course, prix fixe selection of dishes before repeating the cycle. Their aim, at least in the early stages, would be to earn only enough money to recoup the sizable outlay needed for equipment and ingredients.
Rogers described the menu brainstorming process as “sitting down at a round table and throwing ideas off of each other.” Take the entrée: “Someone suggested a duck dish, and right there, there are so many different directions you can go with that. Just open a French cookbook and there are like 5,000 different ways to do duck. So we’re tossing ideas around and having someone write down everything and then cross-examining what we think would work, what wouldn’t, and eventually coming to something that the whole group agrees would be a good dish holistically in terms of protein, color, flavor, texture, balance.” Rogers characterized menu-building as a “logic game in the sense that there are so many different things you have to weigh out and put into consideration.” Pickering agreed: “What we’re looking for with each individual dish and the menu as a whole is to hit many different flavors and many different textures. Sweet, salty, acidic, fruity. Meaty, fatty, rich, smooth, crispy, tender. We’re trying to play with a lot of different things.”
It was a mad dash to opening night, set just two weeks ahead. There were trips to nearby markets to buy bulk ingredients, extensive coordinating to ensure that everyone was ready to perform their roles come showtime, and hours of testing to perfect each dish. The team was still scrambling to get everything in order when the first guests started trickling in for the 5:30 time slot on the evening of February 27, which spelled a slight delay for me and my dining partner for the occasion, first-year Hannah Mittleman, when we arrived for our 7:00 reservation.
We were too impressed to care. To cross the portal from the courtyard outside of 1903 Hall to the building’s basement—which Pickering referred to as a “speakeasy,” only half-jokingly—was to be transported away from Princeton’s campus. Mittleman and I were immediately greeted by the mingled strains of conversation, laughter, and soft jazz, and as we looked around, we realized that we were underdressed: we had interpreted a confirmation email sent earlier in the day that listed the dress code as “semi-formal highly encouraged” to mean a sweater, but some of our fellow guests sported blazers, chic dresses, and heels. Within minutes, Park came to show us to our table, located near the kitchen. We watched as the staff of P Pop Up rushed back and forth, tossing things onto the stove here, carefully arranging things onto elegant white plates there, spurred all the while by Rogers, who barked orders every few seconds.
Of course, there were some reminders that this was not, in fact, a Michelin-star restaurant. In addition to the occasional student traipsing through the space to do their laundry and the JBL speaker parked on the floor, when Pickering appeared to pour our water, he came bearing paper towels and an apology that the kitchen had run out of cloth napkins. In the eyes of this reviewer, however, these minor breaks in verisimilitude only added to the charm. Improvisation and resourcefulness are inherent in the premise of P Pop Up: the masterminds behind the experience, while truly magnificent cooks, are, after all, students, and we were, after all, in a dormitory building, so I didn’t mind getting a glimpse behind the curtain every now and then.
Perhaps no dish better captured the inventive, offbeat character of the enterprise than the first one, a sesame sourdough bread with garlic-rosemary compound butter. This was Pickering’s contribution to the menu. Because the 1903 basement is a shared venue, Pickering could not reliably “feed” his sourdough starter with water twice daily if he left it there, so he opted for a different approach: he would perform every step but the baking from his dorm room. He nabbed a mug from the Forbes College dining hall and placed the pre-ferment in it, sealing the vessel with a stack of Post-it Notes. As the starter grew, he transferred it to a plastic water bottle. Once the dough was incorporated, it sat in a bowl under his bed before, finally, Pickering’s (disinfected) desk served as the site for kneading. “Many would call it a suboptimal setting, but I consider it more of a creative challenge,” said Pickering, chuckling. “You get to push the limits and see what’s possible under very limited conditions, which is fun, even if it’s logistically annoying.” It would have been impossible to tell the difference: the final product placed on our table in a quaint wicker basket was chewy and delicious.
Next up was the appetizer, probably the most daring culinary feat of the bunch. The “invisible potato chip,” as it was dubbed, was the brainchild of Rogers. “The idea is you distill a potato and use the starch molecules in the potato as a stabilizer,” he explained. “Then you add some other things into it to continue to solidify the starch network, and you end up with this glop. You ever play with slime as a kid? You end up with that substance. You put it on a baking tray and dehydrate it for three hours, and eventually all of the water evaporates. You fry it, and you have a chip.” Rogers said that he had been working on perfecting the process for several months.
The chip lived up to the name. It was essentially transparent: when viewed from beneath, one could make out the dollop of cured salmon and pickled radish that sat atop it. In terms of taste, the chip resembled one of its normal, opaque cousins. But the presentation was spectacular. As Mittleman noted, “it looks like sea foam and tastes like nothing.”
The main course was sous vide duck leg, accompanied by a butternut squash puree, blackberry gastrique, and red cabbage slaw. Here, P Pop Up’s value became apparent. The cost of the entire three-course meal was $28, a price that one might willingly pay for the duck alone: it had been cooked for 24 hours so that it slid off the bone and melted in the mouth. After biting into it, Mittleman commented, “When I picture an exorbitant restaurant way out of my price range, I picture this.” While $28 is by no means cheap, it was hard to imagine paying a cent less. As Pickering put it, “Fine dining is exclusive in the sense that it’s literally price-restricted. We felt that our pricing would allow for a more equitable experience.”
And the best—at least according to this neophyte food critic—was yet to come. Dessert was a scrumptious caramelized poached pear. It was golden-brown and plump, beckoning our eager spoons (the fruit was so tender that a fork seemed excessive). After allowing our taste buds a moment to process, Mittleman and I exchanged looks of disbelief. Then we readily dug into the other delights before us, a brittle rosemary tuile and a honeyed goat cheese mousse topped with “carbonated sugar.” (I later learned that this was a fancy word for Pop Rocks. Considering the simultaneously refined and rough-around-the-edges appeal of the pop-up, it was almost too fitting.)
We had hardly scraped the last bits of pear off our plates when Pickering began ushering us out: the restaurant’s basement reservation was soon to expire. We turned over our minimalist menus to find a QR code for a Venmo account on the back, paid our bill, and exited. There was a surreal element to the whole affair; as a bone-chilling gust of wind whipped us back to reality, it was bizarre to find ourselves once again on campus, surrounded by students going about their nights, oblivious to the feast that had just occurred beneath their feet.
Part of Princeton?
There’s a fundamental iconoclasm to P Pop Up. All underclassmen are required to purchase meal plans that grant them access to Princeton’s dining halls, and only a small minority of juniors and seniors go independent or enlist in a co-op, most opting to join one of 11 private eating clubs where food is prepared by a professional staff. Thus, the mere act of cooking is to an extent subversive. As Pickering put it, “cooking is something that you don’t really get in Princeton, especially because the residential college system and the all-inclusive meal plan disincentivize you from it. I feel like that was a piece of me that was very much missing in college.” The most basic motivator for him, then, was to break away from the institutionalized eating regimen: “Fundamentally, students opening an independent pop-up restaurant out of a basement is just very fun. It’s something people would want to go to.”
In some ways, the tension between P Pop Up and the status quo bled into other arenas. Pickering drew a distinction between the restaurant and most other extracurricular pursuits: “I feel like so many people are in clubs that don’t really do anything. Maybe you get something to put on a resume. But this is cool because it’s super tangible. I can explain what I do. I cook food and I give it to you.” Pickering even decided to drop a class so that he could devote himself fully to the endeavor. “Most Princeton students know that there just isn’t enough time to do everything you want to do,” he said. “Frankly, I see this as a bigger priority and as something less routine. I feel like a seminar called ‘We’re running a restaurant’ would get way better reviews than a seminar on global political theory or whatever.”
Rogers echoed the sentiment: “This is a way to flex a different muscle than you use in, say, your economics classes. Being able to create something that is uniquely your own is super special.” Park, too, mentioned that in the week leading up to opening, he didn’t have time to complete any of his schoolwork, but that it was a worthy tradeoff given “just how motivated and excited the team was.”
In the end, though, P Pop Up can only escape the structures of Princeton so much. The group emphasized that they were not a registered club, but they are nonetheless bound to the university: access to the basement of 1903 Hall cuts down immensely on the restaurant’s time demands and business expenses, allowing the cooks to avoid rent, upkeep, and wages—savings that are then passed onto the customer. In turn, the pop-up can undercut the pricey offerings of nearby Nassau Street, providing a reasonable alternative to the dining halls. Despite their love of cooking, both Pickering and Rogers don’t plan on entering the culinary industry after college because it’s simply too hard. “We’re operating in pretty ideal conditions,” Pickering said. “The real restaurant industry is a much tougher beast that operates on razor-thin margins with backbreaking hours and not much to show for it. We’re entering P Pop Up driven by a pure passion for cooking, and I’m scared I might lose that in a professional setting. I want to be someone who’s baking bread when I’m 80.”
But the restaurant’s reliance on university support leaves it vulnerable, a fact that became abundantly clear when, on March 7, the team received an email from a representative of the Office of Undergraduate Studies (ODUS) ordering them to cease and desist. ODUS cited two provisions of Princeton’s Rights, Rules, and Responsibilities, the general code of conduct for people affiliated with the school. Section 2.1.3 outlines the conditions under which a group can receive recognition as a “campus-based organization,” while section 3.2.1 prohibits the use of “University resources … to support private profit-making enterprises.” Park has appealed the injunction on the grounds that he received approval from administration upfront and that the pop-up does not wish to be a sanctioned, for-profit organization but rather an independent dining arrangement in which guests’ contributions are used only to defray costs. “Our services are basically nicer group dinner parties,” he wrote. “We do not pay ourselves at all even though many of us have sacrificed countless hours for this initiative primarily because we just want to share the joy of great food and fellowship with others.” The fate of P Pop Up rests on the outcome of this appeal.
Even if P Pop Up emerges from its brush with ODUS unscathed, its future remains cloudy. The members of the team agree on a select few goals, such as replacing the invite-only system with a website that will allow open reservations as quickly as possible and streamlining the preparation process ahead of each dinner to reduce the time commitment. Beyond these core principles, however, visions differ. Park hopes to expand operations to include smaller meals during the week, such as outdoor picnics in the spring. Rogers, ever the innovator, wants to try more experimental dishes. “What if I wanted to build an edible terrarium?” he said with a grin. “What would that look like? We could get a sheet of acetate or something and construct this little world at your table that you could eat. I think we can push the envelope harder than a restaurant on Nassau Street can because they are looking at profit margins, at getting in as many people as they possibly can.” Pickering, too, has toyed with ways to improve the pop-up: a favorite idea of his involves live music instead of that conspicuous portable speaker. But his primary concern is keeping the restaurant accessible. He wants to explore bringing the price to participate even lower than it already is, and he’s open to forms of financial aid. He worries that too-rapid expansion or evolution might undermine the restaurant’s affordability. Pickering is also opposed to the suggested dress code.
Then there’s the question of sustainability. Pickering expressed his impression of opening night as “part euphoria, part exhaustion.” “I’m very happy with how it went, and it was gratifying to watch people enjoy the food,” he explained. “But I seriously doubt it can be an every-week thing. It’s just not feasible.” He said he felt that a monthly service would be frequent enough to allow for interesting menu development and a large pool of diners, but infrequent enough to avert burnout.
Leaving the restaurant on February 27, Mittleman remarked that she “had never done anything like that before.” Neither had I, and, I’ll bet, neither have you. No matter what transpires in the coming weeks and months, it seems unlikely that P Pop Up will continue to exist in its current form indefinitely. My best advice? Sign up while you can.