Working in a professional kitchen is all about compromise. Compromising time (yes, I’ll take this shift), compromising space (I’ll just prep over here), and compromising vision (your special ribeye tonight, my crudo tomorrow). It means working long hours, smelling faintly of oil at all times, and flexing your creative culinary muscles — to an extent.
When chefs feel that they need a little more wiggle room to whip up the meals they’re actually craving, their options can be limited — you can’t just open a restaurant or purchase a food truck on a whim. That’s where pop-ups come in. The concept that has been heating up in Charleston allows chefs to experiment with cuisine that the average diner isn’t going to find on Yelp.
“There was no one doing the food I wanted to do,” says Samantha Kramer, sous chef at Semilla. “The only avenue to do that was to do it myself.” Kramer and friend and fellow chef Jullian Abarca (he’s the sous at One Broad) started their pop-up Matzo Y Masa in the Spring, with Kramer serving as the Jewish half and Abarca serving as the Mexican half of the fanciful mashup.
[embed-1] “It’s an easy way to play with these things while also having a full time job,” says Kramer. Abarca, who says the two met while working at Coda del Pesce, notes they were ready to “cook some bad ass food and stop working for other people.”
With three official events under their belts, the two are still feeling out the nuances and difficulties of sojourning around town with equipment, ingredients, and half-formed ideas. Half-formed not in that they haven’t thought their menu through — the two prep their items separately, then come together the day of to meld the Matzo with the Masa. Kramer and Abarca say they’ve been lucky with Semilla and One Broad letting them use prep space for the pop-up, and so far, they’ve only popped up in other restaurants with fully functioning kitchens. [content-4] “It’s been super exciting to be a part of — with people wanting to give you opportunities, to use their kitchen, their spaces,” says Kramer. “People are super excited to bring something new in. It helps the restaurants too, and gives regular customers another reason to come, or brings in new people.”
For their next event, a Jewish Deli Brunch at Semilla this Sun. Nov. 18, menu items include bagels with lox, matzo ball soup (made with boiled peanuts and braised greens to reflect their Southern upbringings), a churro doughnut, chickpea and egg chilaquiles, and a roast beef sandwich. The two say sometimes the pop-up offerings have veered more Masa, sometimes more Matzo, but always are imbued with both.
[content-1] Marrying these two disparate, storied cuisines means staying true to tradition, which means, at least for this next pop-up, attempting to make the meal as Kosher as possible. Kramer notes that the menu is ingredient Kosher, as a full on Kosher kitchen wasn’t really in the cards. Ingredient Kosher means no meat, no dairy, no pork. “We wanted to do chilaquiles and realized we couldn’t use chorizo, so we did roasted chickpeas and mushrooms with chorizo spices, breaded up so it gives it that [chorizo] texture,” says Kramer.
Reinventing a standard dish with ingredients you have on hand is one of the common threads in both cuisines says Kramer. “Both utilize slow cooking and using what you have.” Abarca says they’ve never had an issue mixing the Matzo with the Masa. “With Mexican food, we use the same spices throughout each dish. There are a lot of similarities with Middle Eastern food, they use coriander, oregano, turmeric. It’s a nice complement, they’re both earthy flavors.” [image-4]
After the Semilla pop-up, Matzo Y Masa is going into full holiday mode for two pop-ups in early December. Both Hanukkah themed, the first will take place Dec. 3 at Felix as their industry night. “We’re doing latkes and pupusas and Mexican street corn popcorn, more bar food.” For their Dec. 9 pop-up with Desayuno at Charles Towne Fermentory, the menu will be brunch-centric, and Kramer says she’s excited and nervous to pop up in a non-restaurant for the first time. “It will be interesting, it’s learning how to put things together really quickly and take it apart and figure out your food costs and menu.”
While Matzo Y Masa is still small enough to work out of their individual professional kitchens, Abarca says early next year, if all goes well, they will start looking into the option of operating out of a shared kitchen space or commissary.
“It’s interesting trying to do it in different areas,” says Kramer of popping up in a variety of venues around town.”That’s the most nerve racking — can we draw people to different spaces? Is it just a walking crowd? Our hope is that they build up, this is not something you can get every week, we hope people will look for it.”