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We Hosted Our First Pop-up Dinner…And I (Almost) Wanted Us to Fail

(Note: for pictures and more info on our co-conspirators, check the links below!)

You mind can really fuck with you while washing dishes.  When you’re elbow-deep in soap, your fingers caked in coagulated fat, and your shoes are unrecognizable in a thin coating of rice flour and flecks of slimy basil puree, your mind has no other option but to transcend the cramped dish room in order to escape the combined smell of burnt cookies and leftover shrimp. Once again, I had forgotten to eat anything today save for the occasional taste test and in my hunger-induced dizziness, I glanced over my shoulder to the remaining hardcore friends who formed a dishwashing brigade in the now empty loft. “What the hell are we doing?”  One of us just missed two days of work and a much needed paycheck, another had a flight in a mere few hours, one was a dinner guest conscripted into cleaning duties.  Just a few minutes ago, we were surrounded by supporters praising us for the wonderful dinner but here I was trying to feel the elation I thought I would be experiencing and finding it oddly missing.  Yep…washing dishes can definitely put you in a rather pensive state.

One-man service (c/o Abdul

One-man service (c/o Abdul “DJ Douly” Abdirahman).

But I’ve skipped forward quite a bit.  It all started months ago when the iron grip of my day job slowly loosened and after months of scheming, I was itching to finally throw a dinner that didn’t involve my apartment’s poor lighting and mismatched plates.  And so with a bit of youthful recklessness and some unresolved bitterness to regain my rightful place in the kitchen, I booked a date at Suite ThreeOhSix’s classy loft in Tribeca to host Hidden Apron’s inaugural pop-up dinner.  It took mere days before thoughts of dishes took over the last remaining brain space I had.

Guest chef Yana Gilbuena of the SALO Series.

Guest Chef Yana Gilbuena of the SALO Series.

I dreamed of breads during breakfast, compotes during commutes, offal at the office, jellies at the gym, and sauces in my sleep.  I caught myself staring at blank walls imagining multi-course menus and flavor profiles and soon enough, the scribbles made their way onto life-size post-it notes that covered my bed room wall.  I went to work an hour earlier and slept an hour later agonizing over every last detail: Can a hollow croquette keep its form?  What if people don’t like raw fish?  Will diners eat with their hands?  Every last detail was pored over that I knew nothing could possibly go wrong…


Kitchen crew. S/O to Bertha for the last minute assist!

…and then it all hit the proverbial fan.  Of all the natural laws that govern this universe of ours, Murphy’s is the most certain and frustrating of all.  “Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong,” stated the perpetually pessimistic Murphy and go wrong it did.  Client deadlines at work got pushed to a day before the event, I began to get sick, we lost 2 of our staff, we were now overbudget, undersold, and the kimchi had yet to be pickled. Like a deer caught in the headlights, I numbly headed towards what would have been certain doom, all the while pretending that I was oblivious to it all.

There were beautiful tables (c/o Angel Yang)...

There were beautiful tables (c/o Angel Yang)…

As the day of the event fell upon us, my fears began to come true one by one and while I projected the ever affable host onto my guests…I began to panic.  “What the hell were you thinking hosting a 5 course, 34-person dinner with cocktail pairings and a different type of dish utilized for each course?!”


…gorgeous cocktails (c/o Guest Bartender Tradell Hawkins of Bar Bolonat)…

Though I was too busy for a full meltdown to fully materialize, it was there simmering in quiet desperation: “You’re understaffed…the food’s going to be late…you’ll have to deal with the piteous looks…you’ll finally realize that this should have stayed a hobby”. It was strange but I took an almost perverse pleasure at every setback, laughing with a sense of resignation and telling myself “I TOLD you it would go wrong!”.

...and pretty ingredients (c/o USQ Greenmarket).

…and pretty ingredients (c/o USQ Greenmarket).

Yet somehow we made it to the end and as oxygen began to fill my lungs again, the banana leaves covering the table seemed greener, the air was several degrees cooler, and the genuine warmth from everyone flowed honey-like across the walls.  I didn’t quite know how to feel and as I bid everyone farewell, I remember hearing my voice crack while thanking the crew for pushing through till the very end.

There were friends both old...

There were friends both old…

People’s words of congratulations stayed behind long after they left and I suddenly found myself in a room full of lingering love. Love that I was far too gone in my own head to notice before. Love that only magnified as I watched the crew begin cleaning in silence.  It slowly dawned on me that minutes ago…

…a dream I’ve held for almost 7 years straight finally came true.

And it scared the shit out of me.

...and new.

…and new.

After all, who was I to deserve this kind of happiness? Who was I to deserve people like these in my life?  People who rented a company car and ran around Chinatown 30 minutes before dinner trying to find the perfect bowl for a centerpiece?  Who took 2 days of work off to hand shake almost a hundred separate cocktails in a tiny sink room covered in dirty dishes?  Who was willing to eat crappy food, miss sleep, and spend entire days helping with recipe research?  Who was I to have someone tell me they’ll offer the space to me at a deep discount just because they wanted to “make it work for me”?  Or someone who would spend one full vacation day cooking with us without asking for a single cent or shoutout?  And people who left their office during the busiest times to serve drinks, only to go back to continue working until 1 AM?  What business did I have cooking with these people to feed others?

There were co-workers...

There were co-workers…

With this dinner being a week ago, most people would have already forgotten about it.  They would have eaten over a dozen more meals since then and even we have begun planning our next venture.  But it’s stayed on my mind and it wasn’t until last night that I finally figured it out: I’ve been too afraid to “succeed”.

...and mentors.

…and people I looked up to.

As much as we say we work to achieve our dreams, meeting them face-to-face was actually a scary thing. What then? What happens when you reach the top of the mountain you’ve spent years trying to climb?  And when you’re so used to struggling to find some footing, quietly fighting through the shit life throws at you, it’s so easy to believe that perhaps you’ll never really get “there”.  It’s much easier to resign yourself to life’s whims and come to expect disappointment because at least that, like Murphy’s Law, was a certainty.

The food was fancy...

The food was fancy…

However, such resignation makes success that much harder to recognize and celebrate.  I was so blinded by fear that I had not considered that Murphy may have forgotten the second half to his law: that “Everything that can go right, will go right!”.  With each setback was an even stronger stroke of luck, from somehow overselling our tickets to finding a co-chef whose freestylin’ skills saved the night. I had failed to see that somehow, I let the world convince me that I wouldn’t make it and even though those voices have gone quiet a long time ago, I continued to repeat their poisonous whispers.  I had become my own prison warden.

...but also humble.

…but also humble.

I’m reminded of the story of the glass merchant who wanted to go to Mecca in Paolo Coelho’s “The Alchemist”.  The man slaved away for years selling glassware to save for his pilgrimage but wasn’t making enough.  The story’s protagonist meets this man and attempts to help him increase his sales but finds out the man was actually unwilling to go the distance; that dreaming of the trip to Mecca was more valuable to him than actually achieving the dream.  I was that glass merchant.

It wouldn't have been a dinner without laughter...

It wouldn’t have been a dinner without laughter…

It was so much easier for me to blame my day job, or the fact that I had no experience in cooking, or that people were just being nice when they complimented our work that night, or the various other setbacks we faced.  The problem with acknowledging and internalizing “success” is that all of a sudden, you have no choice: you must now honor the Universe’s gift and use it to the best of your abilities.

...or smiles.

…or smiles.

No longer are you allowed to step back and wash your hands of the responsibility.  You can’t just say: “Well…obviously I’m not good enough since we failed.”  If somehow, you do well…you’ve got to keep going.  The emptiness I was so afraid I’d find at the top of the mountain was only met with the realization that I had only passed the foothills, that the real mountain still lay before me.

At the end of day, all we really needed was hard work...

At the end of day, all we really needed was hard work…

I woke up from my daze with no end in sight to the dishes.  I thought that if it took this long to realize this, what other lies have I been telling myself? What lies do we continue to believe? inexhaustible passion...

…an inexhaustible passion…

What relationships, jobs, and circumstances do we cling to because somehow, we were tricked into believing that we should fear success and that we don’t deserve love and happiness? inspiring teacher...

…a generous and inspiring teacher (space c/o Chef Daphne Cheng of Suite ThreeOhSix)…

Maybe the saying that “when one door closes, another opens” is wrong.  What if instead, there really were no doors to begin with and we’re all just scared to step through the foyer and into the party?

...a good story...

…a good story…

A week has passed but my mind hasn’t really left that sink room so many days ago.  Last night, I finally finished washing the dishes my mind’s eye and as I pray never to forget why I cook with these amazing people again, the mountain before me….us….beckoned.

...and a room full of love.

…and a room full of love.

*Suite ThreeOhSix
*SALO Series

Filed under: All Posts, Break Bread, Savor

About the Author

Posted by

Paolo Española is a wandering diner in search of a good meal and an ever-elusive identity. He started this blog during a soul-crushing stint as an Accountant and later co-founded Hidden Apron, his side project that’s dabbled in everything from private catering, hosting pop-up dinners, podcasting, and everywhere in between. He is a contributing author to the best-selling cookbook, “The New Filipino Kitchen” and believes that food is a universal language that can solve the world's most challenging problems, help people believe in their own potential, create communities to shared stories, and realize that in Breaking Bread, we Break Boundaries.

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