Used in reference to retail opportunities, dining experiences, and flashy ads promising untold sweepstakes riches, pop-ups are the surprise party of modern times. So what does it mean if a restaurant is popping up … permanently? Beats me, so I spoke to two chefs currently doing just that to find out.
Specifically, Chef David Schuttenberg of Kwei Fei and Chef Jeffrey Stoneberger of 2Nixons — The Bergs, as I now think of them — have officially set up shop forever. Well, sort of. Appearing with his magical Sichuan cuisine every Friday and Saturday night from 6 p.m. to 11:59 p.m. at The Daily, Chef David disagrees with the nomenclature. “We’ve never considered ourselves a pop-up per se, always preferring the term ‘residency.’ Much like an artist who sets up shop in a gallery away from home, we may have been the first to use that term for a food-based business here in Charleston. We’re starting to see it a lot more now. Jeffrey at Proof, Shuai at EO Brewing every Tuesday. It makes a lot of sense. We wanted to establish an identity for Kwei Fei — a vibe — and it’s difficult to do in a parking lot under a tent.”
Pop up, shmop up, Chef David credits Chef Jeffrey with abetting the earliest stages of his residency. “I leaned on Jeffrey a bit before starting Kwei Fei. I was a little beaten down after a couple of bad runs upon moving here, and I wanted to pick his brain on how to make it all happen. I spent a weekend with him at [Charles Towne] Fermentory and [Craft] Conundrum when he needed a hand, and that helped me understand the logistics of everything, for sure.”
Chef Jeffrey, residing every Friday from 6 p.m. to 1 a.m. at Proof, has been about the pop up life for a while. The self-described “white dude from Delaware” is finally enjoying some stability with his sensational Japanese fare. “I have to give thanks to (Proof owner) Craig Nelson for this amazing opportunity. It’s worked out so well that I would jump at the right chance to do more. As for the shift from popping up, I am so grateful that I no longer have to receive phone calls from disappointed guests who showed up at the wrong location. Also a major advantage is that I get to make the regulars of my favorite cocktail bar in the country, my regulars as well. There’s nothing cooler than that.”
For his part, Chef David was so impacted by his weekend with the 2Nixons chef, that it did not matter if the pop up life chose him. “Residency was our plan from day one, and a lot of that had to do with my weekend with Jeffrey. I don’t think most people understand how hard that guy hustles. I was hoping for a greater sense of normalcy out of the gate, and I got that, thanks to Michael and Melody (Shemtov) granting me access to the Daily, as well as Workshop for my prep. Residency allows people to understand that we will be there regularly, much like a ‘normal’ restaurant. Knowing the kitchen (and actually having a legit kitchen) gives us freedom to execute our cooking at a higher level and a la minute. We have a feel for service flow, are able to hire a small staff who can rely on the regular hours. It allows us to provide a slightly elevated guest experience from your normal pop up, though we fully recognize our limitations working the way we do.”
At the same time, even a slightly elevated experience allows for plenty of chaos. “I constantly have half a restaurant in my car,” Chef David laments. “It always smells like Chinese food in there. Shall I go on? Loading in, setting up, tearing down, and loading out two days in a row, every single week is a real bitch. Prepping in one place and then moving everything to The Daily, and then dragging my ass back there after the weekend to get my stuff out of their walk-in, while trying my hardest to not disrupt their business … On top of that, I often feel limited in my ability to explore Sichuan food completely because of these issues.”
Similarly, Chef Jeffrey summarizes it neatly, saying “The biggest challenge is managing expectations. People sometimes don’t understand we are juggling metaphorical hula hoops that are lit on fire.”
Nonetheless, these chefs clearly love what they do, and the frustrated, slightly charred, Chinese food-stinking men behind the Powerful Oz is rarely glimpsed. Rather, the two talented chefs make it look easy, and whether it’s that, adrenaline addiction, or a less-expensive way to feel out a concept, pop ups continue to proliferate. Accordingly, both chefs harbor secret culinary fantasies where some of their peers are concerned.
“Without a doubt, Pigeonhole is the most memorable pop up I’ve been to in the last year,” shares Chef David. “I was literally begging Ray England to make that a regular thing. He, Philip Powers, and Katy Keefe nailed it, with house-made everything; Lox, bagels, pastrami, latkes. So, so, so, so, good. RAY! BRING IT BACK!”
For his part, Chef Jeffrey would like to throw Chef Vandy Vanderwarker, recently departed from The Ordinary, under the bus. “I would love to see someone crush a French classics pop-up. Honestly, I want my dear friend Vandy to do one. For the last few years, Vandy put out the most consistently awesome food in Charleston. The fact that he didn’t get at least a James Beard nom should be a crime.”
With all this talk of potential pop-up world domination, it’s hard not to have reveries of my own. Imagining the love child between Kwei Fei’s fiery Szechuan flavors and 2Nixons’ ramen-filled umami bombs, the only real challenge is picking the name. Whether 2Feis, Kwai Nixon, or anagram Fox Weinies, when asked if they’d ever consider colluding, Chef Jeffrey is all about it. “I don’t think either of us have ever said it out loud, but of course we’ve considered this, and I think it would be mobbed. Like ‘free Krispy Kreme’ mobbed. Although I don’t like to speak for anyone, I’m pretty sure this will happen eventually.”
Alas, until Wineskin becomes a reality, pilgrims can plan to spend their Friday nights trudging the three-quarter mile expanse of King in order to dip some sesame wheat noodles into some fried shiitake and charred ginger dashi and glimpse what one can only hope is the future.
Ed note: As of press time, we learned that Schuttenberg and his Kwei Fei concept would be moving on up and out of The Daily into The Lot on James Island. Chef David says of the move, “When we started, the purpose or intent was to always brick and mortar this concept.” Vanessa and Alex Harris of Pour House and The Lot say of the partnership with Chef David and his wife Tina, “We’re super excited to be partnering up with another local business at The Pour House. We’ve been frequenting Kwei Fei regularly over the past year and love what Tina And David do. Excited to embark on another creative endeavor!” Look for Kwei Fei to move into its new space early November.