Talented, adventurous and rearing to go, chef Ben Barton recently returned to his hometown AK after many years working on bling-bling boats and ski resorts. Back in January he decided to have a crack at starting up a regular pop-up dining scene, and four months down the track he has successfully hosted meals that have included a drunken Mexican brunch, a mole night (as in the Mexican sauce, not the lumps on your back), vegan good enough to covert you, and modern Chinese. The latter has partly been inspired by the excellent, MSG-free but flavour packed fare of Mission in San Fran, the city previously Ben called home. Ben has also run a class on butchering a pig, and seeks to introduce diners to the delights of such things as pig’s tongue and crispy pig’s ear.
This was the theme last Saturday night, when Ben and his small team hired Crave cafe in Morningside for a night of modern takes on Chinese favourites – a category sorely lacking in Auckland’s food geography. The menu included bao – buns filled with pulled pork, sriracha and hoisin; tea-smoked eel on buckwheat soba (amazing); Brussels sprouts with Chinese sausage (won this Brussels sprouts naysayer over) and quite a lot more. Punters hear about the events via the facebook page and the meetup.com website, and pay cash on the night. Prices are extremely reasonable, around $40 for a multi-course meal, and the venues are usually BYO. It’s all good fun – you get to meet a bunch of strangers who are all interested in food and eating a bit more adventurously than you can do in restaurants. There’s usually a DJ or some live music going on, and Ben pops out to listen to any feedback on his food.
It can be a bit of a “logistical nightmare”, laughs Ben, but catch him in the kitchen and he looks like he’s pretty high on the adrenaline of it all. “I’ve found there’s a foodie community in Auckland looking for something different”, he says.”And for me, this is a way to make cooking fun, creative and interesting again”.
Get thee to a Pop-up Dining event soon. And watch this space, as Ben looks for a permanent space of his own.