[embed-1]Every week, we attempt to compile a comprehensive list of “What’s Poppin'” around Charleston. This ranges from wine tastings to food truck rodeos to four course dinners — all worthy and worthwhile events. The sweet spot, though — the diamond in the griddle — is the real deal pop-ups.
The concepts that involve a chef or chefs dragging their ovens and cutting boards and blenders and serving utensils and tablecloths all over creation and back, borrowing kitchens or making their own cooking space wherever they end up. From breweries to host restaurants, the landscape doesn’t much matter as long as they have electricity and mouths to feed. It sounds exhausting to the layman, but for kitchen vets Leila and Italo (Tito) Marino, they’re “really digging the nomadic lifestyle.”
The couple met in New York at culinary school, both working in award-winning Michael White restaurants including Ai Fiori, Alto, and Marea. They moved to Charleston in 2011 and served as co-executive chefs of Monza for “five, almost six years.” When they decided they’d finished serving their 80-100 hour work week sentence, the Marinos broke away from the confines of the restaurant world and started their own catering and personal chef company, Embers and Ashes.
Working out of the shared KTCHeN commissary on Rivers Avenue, Leila and Italo prep food for busy catering weekends — gigs which take them from Folly to Sullivan’s and all the way to Atlanta — making some time for their new weekday venture: pop-ups.
“Our focus has been on catering and private chef, but we want to get our name out there,” says Leila. “We want to show more people our wood-fired pizzas — we’ve been to places like Elliotborough Mini Bar, Charles Towne Fermentory, House of Brews. Our focus is being outdoors over the fire cooking, so we try to find places with good outdoor space.”
The couple has only been seriously popping up with their wood-fired oven for several months, and they say the pop-up scene has changed dramatically since their first attempts a few years ago. “It was super hit or miss,” says Italo. “It’s really interesting to see who [venue] is still available, pop-ups have become really popular.”
Pop-ups are not new, but, like most things, the laconic Lowcountry takes her sweet time picking up on hot trends. In 2010, The New York Times wrote about the transformative power of pop-ups in San Francisco: “Lung Shan is an unremarkable Chinese restaurant in the Mission District. But on Thursday and Saturday nights it’s rocked by an invasion of diners and chefs … on those nights, Lung Shan becomes Mission Street Food.” Chefs interviewed for the article note the flexibility of pop-ups, with the long term dream of most being to have their own, permanent place.
Charleston’s pop-up chefs have shared similar sentiments — David Schuttenberg of Sichuan concept Kwei Fei and Jeffrey Stoneberger of ramen pop-up 2Nixons talked with writer Vanessa Wolf this fall about their successful residencies at The Daily and Proof, a step more permanent than a weekly or bi-weekly pop-up schedule. Schuttenberg told us later, “When we started, the purpose or intent was always to brick and mortar this concept.” As of Wed. Nov. 7, Schuttenberg is permanently situated in a fully functioning restaurant adjacent to the Pour House. He got his own place, and after garnering a loyal following, he’s got his own customers, too.[content-5] The Marinos says that popping up on Tuesdays at Charles Towne Fermentory has been very successful, with Avondale residents walking by and stopping in for a beer and a to-go pie. “People don’t want to do that much on a Tuesday,” says Leila. “It’s something different, we get a lot of takeout, people will come in and grab a pizza for someone else or eat it there and take home more for themselves.”
This isn’t the couple’s first rodeo when it comes to collaborating with others in the food and bev world. “At Spero we used to do Red Sauce nights,” explains Italo. “Us and the Spero guys, we’re all from New England or Jersey or New York. A couple of years ago we were all hanging out and talking about how we couldn’t find any good Italian American food, meatballs, lasagna.” So the Southern transplants created the up-north fare they craved, popping up with the event three to four times, says Leila. “They’d [Spero] figure out a time when they weren’t going to be super slammed, and we’d come in for a couple of nights and turn the place into a Red Sauce joint.”
The Red Sauce night was a hit, with people calling and making reservations and asking, fingers crossed, “are you seriously doing this?” “We would just be packed,” says Leila. “We’re staying in touch with the Spero guys, now we’re just looking for a good space — we have to get creative or find an actual kitchen. I know Charles Towne wants to do Red Sauce closer to New Years. They’re always fun, people get really excited.”
For now, don’t call and try to book a Red Sauce seat just yet. “We’re focusing on the wood-fired oven, we’re trying to feel it out at first and see what our clientele is, where the market is.” Leila does know that they’ll be veering off the pizza path in early 2019 when they join up with Short Grain for Ramen with Friends. “They’re awesome, their food is incredible,” says Leila. As they continue to book gigs for 2019, the inevitable comes up — will Embers and Ashes become the next Kwei Fei, moving into a permanent home? Maybe if the home has an open ceiling.
“We really like being mobile,” says Italo. “We know the kitchen life,” adds Leila. “We would be in those kitchens in that one spot … it gets to be a lot. That’s why we love the outdoors. We just set up our kitchen outside, if it rains we work around that. It’s fun because it’s kind of always a challenge, but in a good way.”